The meeting of Hans Rookmaaker, a Dutch art critic, and Mahalia Jackson, a Black American gospel singer seems, at first impression, unlikely. Yet, archives are full of such improbable pairings.
Born February 27th, 1922, in the Netherlands, Hans Rookmaaker came to adulthood under the storm of Nazism and war. As the Dutch Nazi Party organized, teenaged Hans pursued a growing interest in art and music, developing an abiding passion for jazz. Spending his pocket money on albums and phonograph needles; some of his favorites included Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. Under the Nazi occupation, Hans joined the Underground Press and agreed to distribute anti-Nazi leaflets. Arrested after his first night, he was eventually freed through his father’s political connections. However, in 1943, thousands of Dutch reservists, including Hans, were “officially” enlisted for service at a collecting center where they were herded into trains and transported to concentration camps.
After the war, Rookmaker pursued a degree in art history and authored many books pertaining to art theory, art history, and music, including Modern Art and the Death of Culture (1970) and Art Needs No Justification (1978). His extensive lecture tours eventually brought him to Chicago and his first meeting with Mahalia Jackson.
Born in 1911 in New Orleans, Mahalia resided on the south side of Chicago and attended Greater Salem Baptist Church. A civil rights activist, she was invited by Dr. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy to sing at a bus rally in Montgomery, Alabama.
Like all blues singers, Mahalia Jackson knew too well the despair of the valley; but like all gospel singers, she anticipated with joy the promise and glory of Christ’s resurrection. Fusing torment and triumph, she whispered, thundered and cooed into the microphone, driving her passion directly into the hearts of adoring audiences, attracting fans of all colors, all ages, from everywhere. “The Queen of Gospel” preferred singing classic hymns and gospel songs, but she achieved international fame with powerful, deeply felt renditions of blues and jazz. “Faith and prayer,” she remarked, “are the vitamins of the soul; man cannot live in health without them.”
In 1961, while lecturing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Dr. Hans Rookmaaker and his friend, Calvin Seerveld, attended Greater Salem Baptist Church in Chicago. Seerveld relates the incident in his essay collection, Biblical Studies & Wisdom for Living (2014), “During the service one middle-aged woman in the congregation went rigid with praise. Two big ushers carried her out, stiff as a board, their hands under her neck and ankles. A half hour later she returned under her own power, calm and glad, and walked back to the front seat. “That wasn’t fake,” Mahalia Jackson told us after the service, “People come here to shuck their troubles, and get hope for a new week.”
After the service, Mahalia met Rookmaaker and Seerveld, inviting them to her home on South Indiana Avenue in Chicago. They discussed the bands that accompany her music. Mahalia preferred simple piano or organ accompaniment and disclosed that the jazzy orchestration on her records was there at the insistence of her record company. She also clarified that she was not a disciple of Bessie Smith, the great jazz and blues singer, during Mahalia’s youth in New Orleans. Rookmaaker summarizes the experience in an article titled, “Mahalia Jackson: A Personal Testimony,”
There is no doubt that Mahalia was a true Christian, who really believed what she sang, who loved the Lord, and even dreamed of being an evangelist. Without that faith she would certainly have succumbed to the pressures and have become a jazz singer, a blues singer or another pop singer. Instead, the music she chose came out of the tradition of the jubilee songs (the more joyful type of spiritual), the hymns from the Baptist Hymnal, and the newer compositions by people like Thomas A. Dorsey or Lucy E. Campbell.
Rookmaaker observed, “Mahalia Jackson and the many other female vocalists, along with larger and smaller choirs represent a living church music tradition that is still unfolding. It has nothing to do with evangelism – it is simply church art in the form of music, just like that of Schütz and Bach and so many others. It is music to the glory of God, to sing his praise and testify to what he has done for his people.”
Mahalia also performed at least once on the campus of Wheaton College. The Chicago Defender, April 14, 1956, describes the event:
The Socialites Civics Club sponsored Mahalia Jackson in a recital at the Wheaton College chapel on the 7th of April and brought many surrounding villages together. The Socialites are proud to announce that the recital was quite a success and wish to express their thanks to those who helped to make it a big affair. Mrs. Robert A. Robinson (Ollie) president of the club is very happy over the way the entire program was carried out. Members of the Mt. Pleasant Church on Geneva Rd. participated with filling in with their wonderful voices mixed with a group of the younger people of the Second Baptist Church of which Rev. James is the pastor.
Mahalia’s repertoire for the Pierce Chapel event is not reported, but she probably sang the music dearest to her, the traditional, beloved songs familiar to church people, including, perhaps, one of Mahalia’s signature songs, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” composed by Dr. Thomas A. Dorsey.
Suffering longstanding ill health, Mahalia died on January 27, 1972, at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, Illinois. Her pastor, Rev. Leon Jenkins, Sr., preached her eulogy, with additional remembrances from Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald, while Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” delivered her own rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Mahalia Jackson is buried at Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, Louisiana. She was inducted into the Louisiana Hall of Fame in 2008.
Read more about Mahalia and Greater Salem Missionary Baptist Church at: https://www.greatersalemmbchurch.org/. Special thanks to Mrs. Linda Jenkins, First Lady of Greater Salem Missionary Baptist Church, for providing biographical information.
Hans Rookmaaker’s papers (SC-18), including essays and articles discussing Black spirituals and gospel songs, is maintained in Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections at Wheaton College.