Chicago Jazz Vocalist Takes Listeners on Musical Journey in ‘75 Years of Mahalia Jackson’: Review

Tammy McCann performs at the Driehaus Museum on Feb. 27, 2024. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)Tammy McCann performs at the Driehaus Museum on Feb. 27, 2024. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)

In a recent one-night-only show, jazz vocalist and Chicago native Tammy McCann took the audience on a historical journey as she sang about the life of Mahalia Jackson.

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Known as the queen of gospel, Jackson started in the genre at a young age in Chicago with a group known as the Johnson singers. She rose to fame for gospel music, while also serving as a civil rights advocate.

Like Jackson, McCann has been a vocalist since a young age.

In an interview with WTTW News, she said one challenge she always had was finding mentors to help her on her journey.

“There were times I need support, and there was no one there for me,” McCann said. “There was no modern-day Mahalia Jackson at that time. That’s what this youth needs. … So that’s what I’m trying to be for them now. That’s what Jackson has been for me.”

Tuesday night’s performance on the top floor of the Driehaus Museum previewed new work McCann is actively writing, with plans aimed at debuting a one-woman show called “75 years of Mahalia Jackson at Carnegie Hall” in 2025.

Watch: Tammy McCann performs “I Just Found Out About Love” on “Chicago Tonight” in 2013.

“It needed to be less of a history lesson and more of an energy exchange,” McCann said when asked how she felt about her performance after the show. “I wanted them to feel her joy.”

Accompanied by a pianist and violinist, McCann’s voice beautifully captured the gospel heart of Jackson’s words, along with tasteful hints of McCann’s jazz tones.

“This is what God led me to do,” McMann said before she began.

The evening featured unique storytelling, with McCann reading monologues that depicted pivotal moments of Jackson’s life, while coupling them with gospel hymns in between. Jackson’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Elijah Rock” were included, as was “Wade in the Water” by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Much like church, those moments were met with soft “mhms” in agreement or even an “amen” from the audience.

The concert was presented in partnership with the African American Museum of the Performing Arts and is one of many projects McCann has that celebrates Jackson’s work. McCann is also developing a story that explores the life of Jackson and legendary radio broadcaster Studs Terkel. This month, McCann will be heading to New York to sing more about Jackson at Jazz at Lincoln Center

“I’ve been singing music and touring and singing jazz for, gosh, 20 years,” McCann said. “But these works have exploded my reach. To be on the Jazz at Lincoln Center stage for the first time on my own steam, it’s me and the (Wynton Marsalis) band. I just feel like this is Mahalia — this is the wind at my back. I feel like this music is reaching, healing and touching people, and I’m just so happy to be a vessel.”

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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