LOS ANGELES - It is Wednesday night in Inglewood, just
a block from the Hollywood Park racetrack, its card casino and other earthly
temptations. Overhead, jetliners roar on their descent into Los Angeles
But none of that seems to register with Margaret Pleasant Douroux as she
sits at the keyboard in the sanctuary of Greater New Bethel Baptist Church and
starts to rehearse the congregation's choir. The 16 women and two men are
practicing one of Douroux's many songs. After work and dinner, the choristers
look tired. Their harmonies aren't meshing, their pronunciations aren't crisp.
But excuses aren't good enough for the 65- year-old Douroux, a nationally
revered - and feared - teacher and composer of the gospel art.
"Come on, altos . . . come on, tell us!" she shouts, acting like a sergeant
with exasperating recruits and then like the encouraging grandmother she is.
Suddenly, the harmonies meld. Choir members, swaying and waving, sing from
the heart, and Douroux seems pleased yet unapologetic about working them hard.
After all, she stresses, singing gospel is a form of prayer. "The music
ministry is so crucial to the black church. I'm kind of protective of it,"
Douroux, the daughter and sister of pastors, says later. "I want it to be as
special as I think God would want it to be."
Her catalog of more than 200 songs - including "Give Me a Clean Heart,"
"Trees" and "Mercy That Suits" - has landed her in the Detroit-based
International Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Six of her pieces appear in the
interdenominational African American Heritage Hymnal. At a recent gospel
convention in Dallas, more than 300 musicians lapped up her humorous, stern and
deeply religious lectures like freshmen before a storied professor. Music
experts on university campuses have included her and her traditional style of
gospel in their research.
"Every Sunday morning, some church somewhere in the United States is
singing a Margaret Douroux song. She is that prominent," said Jacqueline
Cogdell DjeDje, chairwoman of the ethnomusicology department at the University
of California at Los Angeles.
But one goal still eludes Douroux. For more than 20 years, she has tried to
establish what she calls Gospel House, a museum and concert hall in the Los
Angeles area that would celebrate music that has nourished black churches and
deeply influenced the secular world, from Motown to Broadway, since the 1920s.
"It's a rich heritage," she explained. "It has been a strong foothold for black
America for its entire history, and it is one of the truest art forms of
Douroux, who looks a decade younger than her age, composes mainly away from
the piano, often hooking onto an idea while driving or doing chores in her
suburban ranch-style home.
In 1983, Douroux formed her foundation. Such a museum, she said, would
showcase the sound that marries blues and jazz with traditional hymns and
spirituals as it speaks to God and celebrates him.
Its improvisational forms, passionate overriding solos and hand-clapping
beats at first shocked conservatives in the 1920s. But gospel pioneers such as
Chicago composer and pianist Thomas Dorsey became very popular as the music
took hold in many black churches.
Over time, gospel powerfully influenced mainstream music, too, through the
the Edwin Hawkins Singers. More recently, it has absorbed rock and rap.
To preserve all of that, Douroux sought at various times a facility with a
concert hall, classrooms for singing lessons, a library of sheet music and deep
archives of recordings.
But she acknowledges her business inexperience may have hampered matters as
real estate prices kept rising. No big-bucks patron pledged what Douroux now
estimates needs to be
$12 million. And, some city officials were leery of the religious
overtones and her group's ability to run a center.
Finally, two years ago, some good news. About $38,000 in grants, mainly
from UCLA's Center for Community Partnerships, funded a project called Gospel
Archiving in Los Angeles. It linked the school's ethnomusicology archive and
Douroux is pleased the university has the collection of 400 LPs and
cassettes, including many rarities donated to her foundation, but she still
holds out hope for her museum. She calls the efforts to found Gospel House a
"test of commitment, because once you have a vision, it's always in your heart."