To God’s Ears
The Students of Nathan Carter—The Man who Revolutionized the Morgan State University Choir—Remember Him for What he Achieved Offstage, as Well as On
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On this hot Tuesday afternoon, the day before the funeral for her cherished mentor on July 21, Joy Dobson sits on a seat in the alto section of the Morgan State University choir room. She has come to tell a tale of fond admiration framed by deep loss. On July 15, Nathan M. Carter Jr., the director the Morgan State University Choir and chairman of Morgan’s Fine Arts Department to whom Dobson was the student assistant from 1998 until 2002, died from pancreatic cancer after a long illness, at the age of 68. With her short dark brown hair outlining her 28-year-old caramel face, she pours out her nostalgic heart. Her voice is rapt with clarity, sensing the importance of carefully choosing words that are good enough to describe the full measure that one musical man had on her life.
“I lost both of my parents within a month and two days [in 2000],” Dobson says calmly, eyes brimming with tears. “And Dr. Carter was right there for me, when no one else was. He was like a father to me.”
As she remembers Dr. Carter—the visionary director of the Morgan Choir for 34 years who transformed it from a little-heard glee club to a first-class, world-renowned choral institution—the warm light from surrounding globe lights reflects off of the shiny concert piano in the center of the room, echoing the brightness contained in one of Carter’s wide-eyed, tooth-baring smiles bestowed on students for a job well done. His presence is so entrenched in the room that it feels as if any minute the short man who was tall in energy will walk in briskly and flick his all-knowing directorly hands again.
Dobson is joined by six other students—from the incoming 2004 first-year students who will not have the longed-for opportunity to study under Carter to the choir veteran who joined Carter’s choir in 1984 and found a lifelong friend of 20 years. And their message is the same: Yes, Carter was a trailblazer who launched the careers of A-list musical talent and took inner-city kids to faraway places such as Africa, Russia, both Eastern and Western Europe. He was the man whose choir had performed under a host of prestigious auspices, including under Robert Shaw and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with Jessye Norman at Carnegie Hall’s 100th birthday tribute to Marian Anderson in 1997. He was the guest conductor, lecturer, and clinician of teaching institutions across the United States, including Harvard University, and as guest conductor he led the choir to sing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, Knoxville Symphony, Czech Philharmonic, Westchester Philharmonic, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Ensemble. He was the man under whose leadership the Morgan State University Choir was named one of “America’s 100 Best New Discoveries,” in the April 2004 issue of Reader’s Digest. And yes, Carter gained critical acclaim for his brilliant arrangements of classical music and Negro spirituals that could convert the most hardened sinners into saints.
But throughout his revolutionary 34 years with Morgan State’s music program, Carter was more than a world-class musician; he touched the lives of the students who crossed his path. He was the voice of the university from which everyone sought inspiration. He was the man revered for his unyielding fastidiousness, even in the midst of late-night rehearsals, during which Carter refused to settle for anything less than perfect pitch and exemplary diction.
“‘I don’t want Pop-Pop getting on me,’” Dobson remembers students saying while they furiously scurried to refine their parts before a performance.
The students learned well, and some of them felt like there was even more to learn from Carter after years under his tutelage. “Dr. Carter heard and saw more out of me,” says Stephen Jones by phone. Now 37, Jones joined the choir in 1984 with only gospel experience. His emotions soar as he’s flooded with memories, of Carter being best man at his wedding, the godfather to his son, and his best friend.
Dr. Carter relied on Jones, too, such as when the choir director would give him “the nod.” That was the spontaneous honor Carter bestowed on choir members when he requested an impromptu solo from one of them. And when Carter nodded at him, Jones knew he had to come correct. “I would look at him like, I don’t know how to lead classical, spiritual, Broadway, and opera pieces,” Jones says about the spotlight; he sang lead in Porgy and Bess early this year during Carter’s last Morgan choir trip, to the Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg, Russia. “It’s really going to be hard to imagine life without him.”
Many students share this sentiment, partly because life with Dr. Carter meant achieving things they never thought possible. Through the Morgan choir, they were exposed to places and experiences of which they had only dreamed. Dobson remembers going to the Czech Republic, where she says the choir “basically ministered” to thousands upon thousands of people.
“You could not see the end of the people,” she says. “People were standing in trees, and children were standing on their parents’ shoulders. It was a spiritual experience, and we’ll never know the impact of the lives that were touched through Dr. Carter and his leadership.”
Stacie Harris remembers a different yet equally powerful side of Carter. As a girl she always wanted to sing, and when she was 14 she heard the Morgan choir at her church, the Christian Community Church of God in Baltimore. She marched right up to the front of the church to tell the maestro she wanted to join the choir some day.
“We’ll be waiting for you,” Harris, now 28, remembers Carter telling her. Perhaps that was all the hope she needed. Harris endured a long road to Morgan, eventually transferring there from Essex Community College as a single mother after being out of school for three years.
And when she got to Morgan, Dr. Carter made her feel that he had been waiting for her. “‘I knew you would make it,’” Harris, through tears, remembers Carter greeting her once she arrived.
Carter also inspired a celestial connection. Students feel that the choir director ushered them into a divine presence through his arrangements of sacred songs such as “The Lord Be Praised,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” His spiritual example was reinforced by the faith he applied to life.
Dobson says Carter chose spiritual songs for a reason. “I was told that God’s word never comes back void,” she says. “So when you sing spiritual songs again and again, and see how other people are affected, it changes your life. And it binds a group like a choir closer. We’re a family.”
Tears flowed as they remembered how Carter cried through his last concert, April 18, at Washington, D.C.’s People’s Congregational United Church of Christ. Students speculated the tears were a catharsis, a sign that Carter was at peace.
“I think he knew that he had done his work,” Harris says. “Or as much as God would allow. And in some small way, he knew it was near the end.”
And the choir members respected him more for being a leader who was not afraid to show his heart. “Dr. Carter was sick before, and almost died, a couple of years ago,” Dobson says. After being hospitalized during his bout with cancer, on Carter’s second or third day back, she remembers him telling her: “‘I got up to heaven’s door, but I couldn’t leave yet, because there are some things I wanted to get straight at Morgan. And I’m not going to leave, until everything is straight. And then I’m going to go on home.’”