It began on the porch in Orangeburg, and now 40 years later Ulysses, Rogers, Anthony and Donald are still singing spirituals in four-part and five-part harmony. They are the Jarvis Brothers, and their audience today has grown beyond Orangeburg to include the world. The brothers sing a cappella, and the strength of their unaccompanied voice has taken them to the Smithsonian Institute and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts to churches and festivals across the South where Jubilee, the brothers’ singing style, was born. Reginald Jarvis, the second of the five brothers, died on March 25, 2007. The brothers’ nephew, Cornell Jarvis, replaced Reginald in the quintet as the baritone. The brothers credit their late parents, Ulysses and Anna Jarvis, for their success and longevity. They affirmed their talents and encouraged the brothers to take to heart the wisdom of those spirituals that teach faith, patience and persistence.
The Jarvis Brothers style harkens back to the origins of African American music on this continent. According to the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Jubilee dates back to the 1650s. The GMHF acknowledges three distinct styles of Gospel music then: work songs; spirituals; and jubilee. Work songs were performed in the fields, and the timing of the songs is how slaves perfected their timing in the fields. The songs were also code language that allowed slaves to speak to one another while excluding an overseer from the communication. Spirituals, stylistically, were akin to modern Gospel. Slaves would sing spirituals to drums and stringed instruments. Jubilee is performed a cappella. It would be more than 200 years before the three musical forms would have names attached to their identities. Jubilee would take its name from the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group that toured abroad in the 1870s to raise money for the historically black college.
The Jarvis brothers chose Jubilee. Their mother, Anna, was an accomplished pianist, whose musical talents rubbed off on her boys. She taught them to hear and sing four- and five-part harmony. The brothers have been singing, touring and winning awards ever since.