One of the two or three most exultant musical moments in this spectator's life occurred at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Mahalia Jackson sang with Duke Ellington's Orchestra. The greatest gospel singer in the land and the greatest band played and sang "Didn't It Rain," "A Closer Walk With Thee" and "The Lord's Prayer." It so quivered the soul that the resonance still tingles.
Some measure of that experience may be sampled at the Longacre Theater, where Queen Esther Marrow opened a musical journey through Jackson's life in "Truly Blessed" last night. It is at once a pleasure and a disappointment - a pleasure because Marrow digs deeply and joyously into the mostly gospel program; a disappointment because memory, however unfairly, places Marrow in Jackson's shadow. Moreover, Marrow's dialogue tracing the events in Jackson's life, though doubtless necessary in some form, are often tiresome with awkward transitions (Jackson sadly tells us of her brother's death, then quickly brightens as she's off to Chicago). It is not very illuminating, either, though one reinforce the image of Jackson as a staunch servant of the Lord. On stage, too, are organist Willard Meeks, pianist Aaron Graves, bassist Konrad (Cheesecake) Aderly and drummer Brian Grice. Together, they lay down some formidable music.
Basically, "Truly Blessed" is a gospel concert tied to the life of a particularly gifted woman. The audience at the preview I attended were with the spirit, giving to the cast enthusiastic support in the form of clapping hands and shouted "all rights!" There is an especially funny scene in which a group of professional musicologists smugly try to get Jackson to analyze her music and then try to analyze it themselves. But as Louis Armstrong (or Fats Waller, take your pick) said, "If you have to ask about it, you'll never know what it is." Carl Hall, Lynette DuPre, Doug Eskew and Gwen Stewart, the ensemble, play the profs with bullseye satiric accuracy.
As did Jackson in Newport, Marrow and Co. swung uninhibitedly into "Didn't It Rain." They also took on "Rusty Bell" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand." Singing like that will take you right out of the grave.
Aside from a couple of cutesy performances, however, the music is something else - joyous, pleading, hopeful, sad, sacred. Fred Kolo's setting - a series of huge organ pipes on the sides and back of the stage - aptly evokes a church atmosphere that envelops the audience within it.
The gospel show - or rather shows impregnated with gospel style music and singing - has been with us on Broadway ever since the success in 1976 of the Vinnette Carroll, Micki Grant, Alex Bradford musical based on the Book of Matthew, "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God."
However, we have never had on Broadway quite such an unadulterated concert of gospel singing as that which boldly opened yesterday afternoon at the Longacre Theater and called "Truly Blessed," with the subtitle of "A Musical Celebration of Mahalia Jackson."
Conceived and written (with some original music and lyrics) by its star, Queen Esther Marrow, this offers us a simplistic run-through of the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson's life and music. But her arms are too short to box with Mahalia.
The bottom line I suspect is that were Mahalia Jackson alive today (and rather younger, let us presume) she would be unlikely to do a show similarly extolling Queen Esther Marrow. And while Marrow has her virtues, she is hardly "truly blessed" in the remarkable vocal fashion of the unique Mahalia.
A member of the Sanctified Church in Mount Vernon has been quoted as saying of Jackson: "Mahalia, she add more flowers and feathers than anybody, and they all is exactly right."
Marrow has a fine, strong, resonant voice, without a great deal of character to it, and I missed the flowers and the feathers. For that matter, I missed the old recordings of Mahalia - who I only saw once in person and then in the cavernous cavities of London's Royal Albert Hall, but was unforgettable.
"Truly Blessed," which has four ensemble singer/actors and four musicians in support of Marrow, takes place on a setting, devised by Fred Kolo, consisting merely of a profusion of organ pipes and steps. The paint by numbers biographical structure - see Mahalia as a child in New Orleans, see Mahalia supporting Mayor Daley in Chicago, see her marrying Sigmond Galloway, see her at the March on Washington, see her by the Sea of Galilee - has been staged in a statuesque, almost diagramatic, fashion, for Marrow is scarcely the most animated of performers, by Robert Kalfin and a few dances have been thrown in by Larry Vickers.
While I would hesitate to call this a Broadway musical - in fairness neither do its producers - for people who love gospel music there is here an awful lot of gospel music to love.
And in addition to the naturally dominant Queen Esther, her four subjects in the featured ensemble - Carl Hall, Lynette G. DuPre, Dough Eskew, Gwen Stewart - form a very lively quartet.
Indeed the show is nearly over when the fat man (a nicely nimble Eskew) starts to dance, for his plump gyrations demonstrate something that "Truly Blessed" tends to lack which, oddly enough the monumental Mahalia, did not. Call it showbiz.
In the liveliest scene of the new gospel musical ''Truly Blessed: A Musical Celebration of Mahalia Jackson,'' Queen Esther Marrow, who portrays the legendary gospel singer, endures interrogation by a team of musicologists at a New England symposium.
When one of them poses a fussy question about her vocal technique, she complains good-naturedly, ''Help me, Lord, I'm beginning to feel like a Mississippi catfish on a plate with Maine lobster.'' After another scholar wonders what might be the relationship between jazz and gospel, she chastises him: ''Baby, darlin', don't you know the Devil stole the beat from the Lord?'' The scene ends as the singer instructs the rhythmically inept academics on how to clap their hands on the offbeat of a gospel song until they finally catch a spirit that brings them to their feet.
This salty, down-home sense of humor is the most distinguishing characteristic of the show, which opened yesterday at the Longacre Theater. ''Truly Blessed'' was written by Ms. Marrow and has the tone, structure and look of an enlarged cabaret act. An earthy pop-gospel contralto whose voice has marked similarities to that of the legend she is remembering, Ms. Marrow does not command anything like the stupendous power and fervency that Jackson wielded. But if her voice is less than roof-raising, Ms. Marrow still projects a towering dignity and strength and musical intelligence.
''Truly Blessed,'' which is four-fifths music and one-fifth connective dialogue, includes two dozen gospel songs, some of them written by Ms. Marrow and Reginald Royal, and the rest consisting of gospel hymns associated with Jackson, like her million-selling record, ''Move On Up a Little Higher.'' The music is stuffed casually into the framework of a sketchy chronology of the singer's life, which began in New Orleans in 1911 and ended in Chicago in 1972. As a girl in New Orleans, Jackson listened to the records of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who were her major influences. But as much as she was impressed by these early blues singers, she was not drawn to sing the blues herself. As Ms. Marrow's version of the singer puts it, ''When you're through with the blues, honey, you've got nothing left to rest on.''
After moving to Chicago as a teen-ager with dreams of becoming a nurse, Jackson eventually found her calling as a church singer, and as her reputation spread, she began touring the United States. The show's other amusing scene portrays Jackson and her fellow musicians in a car driving through the segregated South singing hymns while searching ever more desperately for a rest stop.
As biography, the show glosses over the singer's formative years and her personal life to concentrate on her roles as a public figure and stalwart keeper of the faith. Explicit references to racial politics and civil rights rarely crop up. After receiving a call from Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago asking for her support, she announces, ''Here's my chance to have him in my hip pocket.'' Recalling the 1963 March on Washington, at which she performed, she declares that to be ''a true follower of the Lord'' a philosophy of nonviolence is essential.
The show's handling of Jackson's musical career and development is as generalized as its treatment of her life. Beyond citing the singer's blues influences, it gives no sense of the evolution of gospel music or of Jackson's role in that evolution. Ms. Marrow is accompanied on the stage by a four-member instrumental ensemble and four strong gospel singers - Carl Hall, Lynette G. DuPre, Doug Eskew and Gwen Stewart - who double as actors in the vignettes between musical numbers. Their voices make a bracing contrast to Ms. Marrow's rich contralto. Mr. Hall goes into wild, almost comical falsetto flights, while Ms. DuPre and Ms. Stewart exude the sort of pungent sass associated with singers like Nell Carter.
Although the musicians' exuberant, storefront style of gospel is true to the era in which Jackson's voice was in its full glory, significant details are overlooked. Mildred Falls, the great gospel pianist who provided invaluable musical support for Jackson, is not even mentioned. Nor is there any mention of the implications of the singer's signing with Columbia Records in 1954. The commercially shrewd decision earned her a large white audience but also required that she adulterate the power of her records with choirs and strings.
By presenting Jackson as a myth - someone more angelic than human -the character remains firmly affixed on a sanctified pedestal, notwithstanding the show's flashes of humor. In the final scenes, Jackson seems to merge mystically with the gospel songs she sings and to become an icon of goodness and religious faith.
On a trip to the Holy Land, where she bathes ecstatically in the waters of the River Jordan, she finds her unshakable faith is stronger than ever. ''People go around saying that God is dead; well, He's not dead,'' she declares. ''He brought me from the swamps of Mississippi to the streets of Paris. Who wouldn't believe in a God like that?''