Utah's Soulful Secret: Calvary's Gospel Choir | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Utah's Soulful Secret: Calvary's Gospel Choir 

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Calvary Baptist Church has experienced many changes during the 35-year tenure of Pastor France Davis. One of the most notable is the growth of its music program. When Davis took over in 1974, the music consisted of two people—organist Gladys Hesleph and her teenage son Brian.

Today, the Calvary Baptist music program consists of five different choirs and the numerous musicians who accompany them. Overseeing it all is Minister of Music Brian Hesleph— yes, that same Brian Hesleph. “God has always been a big part of my life,” he says, “and I’ve just always loved working with choirs.” Gladys Hesleph continues to be a regular performer at the age of 84. “Music is a big part of what we do here,” Davis says. “The choir is the beginning part of the worship service.

The choir processional is the tonesetter. It’s the prelude leading up to the main event. It gets people moving toward the sermon.”

“Music is as integral to worship as preaching,” says Anthony Bennett, director of the Inspirational Choir. “Music is what brings them here. I’ve seen churches become stagnant when they lose that component of the worship.”

The integral tone-setting that packs the pews is on display any Sunday at Calvary Baptist. The service opens with the choir marching in through the aisles as the congregation stands and repeats various phrases from the opening song while a five-piece band plays.

The choir members march up to take their place behind the pulpit and launch into a song that gets everyone clapping with the music. Just a few minutes into the service, the choir has brought the congregation into the service and has everyone feeling enthusiastic about what’s to come. The Inspirational Choir has performed at the 2002 Olympics, for gatherings held by Robert Redford at Sundance, at the Stadium of Fire, in a Showtime movie, and has also done background work for the likes of Gladys Knight and Christina Aguilera. In February, the choir performed in Ogden and Salt Lake City at an Excellence in the Community showcase. Throughout the years, Calvary’s choir and music program have provided opportunities for singers and musicians growing up in the church. Courtney Smith began playing a keyboard at age 3, started studying under Calvary’s organist at 6 and was playing for services at 8. He has gone on to pursue a degree in music composition at the University of Utah and is known as an accomplished jazz pianist. However, on Sundays, he can still be found at Calvary playing the keyboards for the choir as well as singing.

He’s also a big fan of gospel music in Utah—which has been a well-kept secret to the rest of the world. “It is not a well-known fact that there are several African-American based churches in this valley, and they have very good music,” he says. “Utah’s not known for that—black churches where the musicians know how to play really well. I post some of it on YouTube and people can’t even believe that this is even happening at all in Utah, never mind how good it is.” Smith can thus say, without a trace of irony, “I was blessed by God to be born and raised here in this tradition.”

In terms of the vocals, Anthony Bennett counsels, “In singing gospel music, it’s more important how you feel the words relate to you and your experience. People find a place they’ve been. It deals with the human heart, and agony and triumph.” That’s why, beyond the enjoyment of the performance, Bennett can say, “No matter what’s going on in my life, those are the songs I look back on. They’ve carried me through difficult times and moved me from sorrow to being excited.”

As for the future, Brian Hesleph notes, “People are hungry for gospel music. I hear other churches mimic gospel music.” At the same time, gospel is being influenced by other genres as well, including jazz, Christian rock and world beats. “The choir is growing into a new phase,” he says. “Gospel music’s gotten very contemporary, and we’re going to have to change with the times.”

Then again, given the growth of the Calvary music program over the years, it would seem change is the one constant.

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