This year, the UCSB Gospel Choir celebrated their 25th anniversary with a Reunion Concert at the Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall on June 3. All three choir directors – Pastor Jimmy Fisher, Dr. Dr. Diane White-Clayton MA `96, Ph.D. `98 and Pastor Victor Bell – performed popular hymns and original gospel compositions with students and alumni on stage.
In this special eCoastlines feature, we interviewed all three choir directors and one very special alum about faith, music and why the UCSB Gospel Choir continues to be an integral part of campus life.
Pastor Victor Bell is the current and longest-serving director of the UCSB Gospel Choir
Victor Bell got his first look at UC Santa Barbara and its musical community as a guest accompanist for Dr. Diane White-Clayton’s Gospel Choir class. When Pastor Jimmy Fisher, White-Clayton’s successor, decided to step down in 1999, Bell was at the top of the list as the next leader of UCSB’s most popular musical ensemble.
“I am a lover of gospel music and choirs – and I love to teach,” he said. “The opportunity came-- and it was a no-brainer to accept and to be able to teach the diverse group of students that come to this university.”
Like Fisher and White-Clayton, Bell discovered his musical chops at a young age, through worship and song at his church. “My mom said I used to stand at the pews, pretending to direct the choir,” he said. “By age 7, I got to lead the youth choir. Performing is very natural for me.”
Classically-trained and seasoned by decades of choir performances, Bell made a career out of his love of gospel music. As he divides his time teaching at UCSB and leading the congregation at Praise House Worship Center, Bell works to bring gospel music beyond church walls into the film and television industry. An in-demand musician and director, Bell served as a music consultant for television shows like the Steve Harvey Show, Cedric the Entertainer, the Bernie Mac Show and The Soul Man. His praise group Victor Bell & Halel was also featured on the Oxygen Network’s hit show “Fix My Choir.”
“It’s more than music – gospel music is a lifestyle to me,” he said. “It comes alive when I listen to it, and it speaks directly to me as an individual. It transcends culture and time.”
At UCSB, Bell enjoys bringing gospel music to a new generation of performers and audience members. “As a class, we all come together under this one musical genre,” he said. “I encourage my students to study their craft, be a lover of people and to embrace cultural diversity. Musicians should reach a wide audience, to inspire others and to be willing to change as the times change. We have this freedom to express our different styles on this campus – we all have this amazing ability to affect someone with our songs. This is the real gift of music.”
As the longest-serving Gospel Choir director, Bell has led the vocal ensemble through performance tours, a television appearance and an album recording. “I’m looking to expand the choir on campus and putting on more performances outside of church at various venues,” he said. “I am also hoping to do another recording with the choir in the near future.”
Since last school year, the number of students signed up for the UCSB Gospel Choir have held steady at around an average of 49 students enrolled per quarter in the class. This summer, Bell brought the Gospel Choir to another historic milestone at the 25th Anniversary Reunion Concert, featuring all three choir directors on stage together for the first time at Lotte Lehmann Hall.
The program featured the performances in the styles of all three directors – from White-Clayton’s signature anthems and Fisher’s sparkling compositions, to Bell’s own contemporary take on gospel choir performance. Over 100 alumni, in the audience and on stage, sang with hands raised in praise and prayer to the music from all three eras of the UCSB Gospel Choir.