Chicago Gospel Festival: Meet Dr. Ollie Watts Davis and The University of Illinois Black Chorus

Dr. Ollie Watts Davis
Dr. Ollie Watts Davis

Editor’s note: ahead of the upcoming Chicago Gospel Music Festival on June 2nd and 3rd, Picture This Post interviewed some of the groups to get to know the singers and choirs performing (you can check out our preview of the 32nd Annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival). The University of Illinois Black Chorus, Conducted by Dr. Ollie Watts Davis will be performing at 6:00pm June 2nd at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion. This interview has been slightly condensed.

Check out our preview for the 32nd Annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival June 2nd and 3rd at the Randolph Square Cultural Center and Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion.

You can read our day one coverage of the Chicago Gospel Festival, and our day two coverage of the festival.


PTP: “When did you start singing Gospel Music? How old were you? How did it come about? What were your first musical experiences? Was your first exposure at Church? If so, which one?”

OWD: “I have sung all of my life. Hymns, anthems, and spirituals were my introduction to the sacred music of Black Americans. I was later exposed to gospel music and sang in a youth gospel choir at my church, First Baptist Church in Mount Hope, Virginia. I also participated in the youth music program singing gospel music at our Baptist youth convention.

“I am the fifth of seven children.  All of my family members love and enjoy music. I am the one who is uniquely gifted and pursued music professionally. My first experience with gospel music was probably hearing our hometown brilliant gospel singer, Ethel Caffie-Austin perform at a church service. When growing up, Ethel was my idea of a gospel music artist.”


PTP: Where were you born/where did you grow up?

OWD: “I was born in Oak Hill, West Virginia.  I grew up in Mount Hope, West Virginia. Music figured prominently in my upbringing. I sang in my home, in school, and at church.  I sang along with the radio, television, and with the stereo playing 45s and 331/3s. My eldest sister, Linda, introduced me to live concerts and musicals when I visited her in Washington, DC. As a teenager.”

PTP: Why is Gospel Music important to you?

OWD: “Gospel music is important to me primarily because it is the authentic expression of Black Americans in a specific context that joins the continuum of faith and hope presented in earlier forms of Black Sacred music. Gospel music was inspired to gift the world. To handle this gift is a tremendous responsibility. It soothes the soul, inspires the spirit, and nurtures the mind. It is "great news" in musical expression that clearly arrests the attention with the truth of God's great love for us and His commitment to us.  It is an accessible form for feeling God's embrace. Those who compose, teach, and present gospel music carry a great responsibility of presenting this truth through song with joy and with excellence.”


Dr. Olie Watts Davis and The University of Illinois Black Choir
Dr. Ollie Watts Davis and The University of Illinois Black Chorus

PTP: “What have been the major Gospel competitions you have won or other milestones in your career?”

OWD: “I, as an individual artist, have never participated in a Gospel competition.
My choir, the University of Illinois Black Chorus was recognized with awards from the Wrigley Corporation, and from the National Black Gospel College Choir Workshop.”

PTP: “When did you decide to become a professional musician and Gospel Singer? Or is this a sideline for you?”

OWD: “I studied music at the college and university levels, and earned the Bachelor of Science in Music Education; The Master of Arts in Secondary Education; and the Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts in Vocal Performance and Literature.

I am a professional singer, and primarily perform as a soloist in classical music (opera, oratorio, recitals, and orchestral concerts). My professional activity in gospel music is primarily as a choral conductor and music director,
consultant, lecturer, writer, guest conductor, and conference developer of the biennial Black Sacred Music Symposium held biennially at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”


PTP: “When you are not rehearsing or performing or doing other things related to your music how do you spend time? Any hobbies? Besides Gospel music, what are your main interests?”

OWD: “When I am not performing, teaching, or rehearsing music, I enjoy reading the Bible, Black authors, biographies, and Christian authors; teaching Christian discipleship classes; listening to sermons; traveling; shopping; and spending time with my husband, children, grandchildren, other family members, and friends.”

Dr. Olie Watts Davis
Dr. Ollie Watts Davis

PTP: “How have you seen the Gospel Music world changing in recent years? Are any of these changes influencing your musical style?”

OWD: “The evolution of Black music genres developed concurrently. Historically, there has been a network of musical borrowings--in form, harmonic language, rhythmic organization, etc. This "crossing over" has played a unique role in Black musical expression. The secular and popular forms have generally outdistanced the sacred expression with regards to risk and innovation. However, in recent decades, the organization and musical and aesthetic preferences have been running parallel. Other than texts, gospel music of the late 20th and 21st century is less dissimilar to popular genres than before.  Because I teach people the music of Black Americans, I include the music of the time in my curriculum and offerings, along with a steady diet of the foundational music upon which the new is built.”


PTP: “Please tell me about each piece in your program- why did you choose this piece? Are there particular challenges in performing this piece? This work or composer you think the audience would be especially interested in? What do you hope the audience will hear in this piece?”

OWD: “On Friday, June 2 at the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, I will conduct the University of Illinois Black Chorus in a program of choral music that chronicles the evolution of the sacred music of Black Americans.  Our offering will open with a Capella arrangements of two spirituals, 'I opened my mouth to the Lord,' and 'Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel?'. The Negro National Hymn, 'Lift Every Voice and Sing" in a concert arrangement with classical piano will follow. Next, we will present 4 gospel selections: a choir classic, 'Gain the world,' (James Hall); a signature composition, ‘Seek Ye the Lord,' (K. Edward Copeland); gospel anthem, 'Rest' (V. Michael McKay); and a modern version of James Cleveland's 'Jesus Will' as performed by Anita Wilson.

“I believe the audience will receive much from our offering.  It has been deliberately prepared to serve those who hear us in multiple ways. Hearers will be encouraged to persevere, have faith, and rejoice in this day. And with most African American traditions, the divide between presenter and audience will be removed, and all are invited to join the chorus.”


PTP: “Many of our readers know little about Gospel Music. What do you think is the most important thing for people to know about Gospel Music and this Festival?”

OWD: “Gospel Music is a vehicle, a tool for reconciliation--that encourages its hearers and producers to respond to the invitation for a relationship with God, the Father, through the Son, Jesus. When the music is gospel, it should present truth--that God loves and provides a wonderful life for His creation. The gospel in musical expression allows for several dimensions to be accessed. All music is spiritual, and gospel music is poised to positively affect the spirit.  Gospel music provides the opportunity to respond and join the song with joy and rejoicing.

“The Chicago Gospel Music Festival is a beautiful platform for celebrating the gift of this genre of music and a choice opportunity for acknowledging trailblazers and encouraging current artists.  I, along with the University of Illinois Black Chorus appreciate this invitation to share the good work that we are charged to do with our Chicago community.”

All photos provided by Dr. Watts Davis.

MORE: read other profiles of gospel performers, including God's Posse, Glenn Johnson and the Voices of Innerpeace, Isaiah Freeman, R&RNeicy Robertson, and the Selah St. Sabina Youth Choir.

Dr. Ollie Watts Davis
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2 thoughts on “Chicago Gospel Festival: Meet Dr. Ollie Watts Davis and The University of Illinois Black Chorus

  1. This is by-far, one of the best college choirs in the country form its divers repertoire to its diverse constituency. They have a long history and legacy of excellence in artistry and performance. Dr. Davis is a a national treasure for her leadership, grace, and musicianship. Only eternity will tell the countless lives changed and affected because she was unwavering in her faith and her commitment to the arts, most specifically, the Black Sacred Music tradition.

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