U.S. Army Field Band member uses gospel music to reach community

By Jesse Yeatman
Southern Maryland Newspapers Online

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Photo credit: Jesse Yeatman
Robert and Pensacola Jefferson stand outside of their Colton's Point home. Robert Jefferson teaches gospel music and conducts the Southern Maryland Community Gospel Choir.
Robert Jefferson sees gospel music as a bridge between cultures, a message he hopes to spread through his teaching and books.

"Music is universal, but it can also separate," he said. "If you use it to bridge cultures, you are successful."

Jefferson, 49, of Colton's Point, said there aren't many books available to learn how to play gospel music. "Piano is kind of the foundation of the style, along with vocals," he said. He has written four books on playing gospel music and is planning to publish a book on gospel vocals as well.

During the course of his studies and teaching he discovered that classical players have a hard time switching over to gospel and vice versa. Jefferson's theory, he said, is that classical playing comes more from a visual culture while gospel comes from a more aural culture.

Jefferson has developed a curriculum on how to teach gospel music in conjunction with bridging cultural gaps. During his seminars, he introduces a song and then later delves into written notation. Because each musical tradition can often be uncomfortable tackling music from the other culture, his lessons often involve getting students to open up and talk to one another.

"They learn to be sympathetic with each other," he said, especially once they discover each others' attitudes and fears. The lessons often turn into a discussion of race or class, he said. By simply having a white and black person sit next to each other and talk and sing together, racial boundaries can begin to break down in and out of the class, he said. "By the end of that [first] rehearsal, there's usually tears," he said.

Although Jefferson describes his family as "people of faith," he teaches and sings gospel music as a professional musician, not just as part of his religion.

Gospel developed outside of the church, where for a time it could not be sung because it was too close to blues music, he said. It has since become the staple of African-American churches across denominations.

Although gospel was not precisely derived from spirituals, which developed during the era of American slavery, some gospel songs were adapted from African-American spirituals, he said.

Growing up in a black Baptist church in Arizona, Jefferson learned to sing and play gospel and classical music using both the aural and visual techniques. With help from his family, he played a circuit of different churches around his hometown and from those roots grew into the musician he is today.

A move, new goals
Jefferson and his wife, Pensacola, have been friends since they were 16 years old and recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. They moved from Fort Meade several years ago to a waterfront home on the Potomac River in Colton's Point.

"We weren't real familiar with Southern Maryland, but we thought it was a beautiful place," he said.

A few years ago Jefferson helped form and is director of the Southern Maryland Community Gospel Choir, which he said is open to everyone of all races, ages and religious denominations.

"Gospel music can cross cultural and racial lines," he said.

"I think he's quite a wonderful addition to our community," Pat McEntee, a member of the choir, said.

Jefferson was a member of an Air Force band until he changed course 16 years ago and enlisted to join the U.S. Army Field Band. He's on the roster of the military band's Soldiers' Chorus.

"You get to do what you love, music. That's all we do, and we travel," he said. He is on the road 120 to 150 days a year performing concerts at venues throughout the country and overseas.

Jefferson said he is planning to retire soon from the Army band and is hoping to focus more on his books and teaching.

"I'm ready to move to the next stage now," he said.

"His visions used to be so big they kind of scared me," Pensacola said. She said she has since learned that it is good to set high goals, and that her husband has a knack for achieving the ones he sets. "He made us all years ago write down things you want to do in life," she said, including their grown son, Oshawn.

Her list of goals, some of which she's already checked off, including starting her own ministry, running a bed and breakfast and living in a log home. She is currently working on her doctorate.

This month the couple published a co-written book called "Seeing Beyond the Visible," which encourages people to pursue their goals and trust in God's revelations.

In addition to the bed and breakfast on the first floor of their home, the couple also hosts pastoral friends as a sabbatical or retreat for up to a week at a time.

"Sometimes people don't realize how tired they are until they get here," she said. Once they arrive, they can kayak, bike, fish, picnic or simply sit on the deck and enjoy a panorama of the Potomac River, complete with a view of the reconstructed Blackistone Lighthouse on St. Clement's Island.

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