- Julio Poletti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
There’s an award-winning chorale in West Palm Beach that’s keeping awareness of African-American heritage alive through performances of Negro Spirituals, not just locally, but around the world.
Negro Spirituals are considered a genre of music. And it’s not the same as Gospel music, according to the chorale’s founder Dr. Orville Lawton. That’s a common misconception that he hears all the time. But it has influenced music today.
“Gospel grew out of the Negro Spiritual, and the difference is that Gospel uses a lot of drums, guitar and piano and the Negro Spirituals don’t, because the slaves didn’t have instruments. The Negro Spirituals are mainly a capella,” said Dr. Lawton.
It was in 1993 that Dr. Lawton was inspired to found the Ebony Chorale of The Palm Beaches, Inc. He wanted to share his love of music, not only with other singers, but with audiences across Palm Beach County.
Little did he know that 25 years later the chorale would be performing in places like Austria, Ghana and Italy, where they picked up a silver award at the Days of International Choral Music folk-song competition.
That’s just one of their many local and international accomplishments and achievements.
Their mission is simple:
To keep alive an awareness of the African-American heritage through the preservation and performance of the Negro Spiritual, a song that grew out of the slavery experience.
The Ebony Chorale of The Palm Beaches hopes to raise awareness of the great tradition and contribution made to American music by African-Americans, which is why they always incorporate Negro Spirituals in their performances.
“That is our focus,” says Dr. Allen Hooks, the president of the chorale. “It grew out of the negro slave songs. The slaves were able to relay messages of their feelings to one another without being disciplined by their masters.”
The chorale is currently made up of 45 singers, both professional and self-taught vocalists, between the ages of 26 to over 70. They get together once a week at BAK Middle School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, where they rehearse for three hours with a pianist, and Dr. Lawton at the helm.
“He [Dr. Lawton] asks for perfection, and as a result, we try to give him what he’s asking for,” said Flora Jackson, vocalist. “When I was able to hear the choir for the first time, it was just a beautiful sound. I am extremely proud of us, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I talk about the chorale all the time.”
It is without a doubt that Dr. Lawton’s impressive credentials and teaching abilities have shaped the chorale from just a musical group to a big family of singers that regularly contend in national and international competitions.
Dr. Lawton is currently the director of the Ebony Chorale and the organist at St. Ann Catholic Church in West Palm Beach. A music teacher since 1971, he served as Dean of Music and Director of Keyboard Studies at the Alexander W. Dreyfoos, Jr. School of the Arts until 2009 when he retired, and was a former tenor soloist with The Clarion Singers.
“I taught for 38 years, and my last 25 years was at Dreyfoos. I was part of the team who helped develop that school. I just love teaching,” he said.
Dr. Lawton graduated from Bethune Cookman University with a piano performance undergraduate before receiving his masters in vocal music performance from the University of South Florida. He says he knew he would always be involved in music since his first piano solo performance in elementary school.
“I was always into music. I came from a pretty musical family. Mom and Dad were wonderful singers, but I’m the only one who could also play the piano,” recalls Dr. Lawton.
As part of Black History Month this February, the Ebony Chorale of The Palm Beaches will be performing live at The Palm Beach Post, streaming on the Post’s Facebook page at 2 p.m.
Check out past live musical performances at The Palm Beach Post: