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.
From long commutes to sold-out concerts: Pastor Jimmy Fisher’s journey from Biola to UCSB
The twelfth child in a family of fourteen children, Pastor Jimmy Fisher learned at a very young age to thrive in musical ensembles.
“My dad is a pastor, so we grew up in the church,” he said. “I started playing the piano for the church when I was about 7 years old. That’s where the love of gospel music came from, our family dynamic. I played the piano for brothers and sisters who were leaders in song.”
Fisher went on to earn his undergraduate degree in computer science at Biola University in southern California. In 1988, during his sophomore year, he took over the Biola Gospel Choir. “I developed my style and started things for the choir in Biola,” he said. “Most importantly, I developed the skill to lead.”
In 1991, he got a call and a job offer from Dr. Diane White-Clayton, the choir director of the UCSB Gospel Choir. “`It’s a once a week class,’ she told me,” recalled Fisher. “It was overwhelming because I was just graduating. My wife was anxious for me to get a `real job’ – a non-musical job. But I just really felt that this was what I was supposed to do.”
Fisher decided on a compromise. “I started directing both choirs,” he said. “I wouldn’t get home until 11 or 11:30 at night. Many nights, I was really sleepy on the road and would have to pull over.”
Besides the long commutes between universities, Fisher also had to adapt to two very different choir environments. “At Biola, we all sat around the piano – it was like being at a campfire,” he said. “At UCSB, we were in an auditorium – that first class, we had about 85 to 90 students. At Biola, I would make tapes for everybody and we did music more traditionally, in the oral tradition. At UCSB, I had to give the music department my music so students could check it out from the department library to rehearse. Also, Biola is on a semester, while I had to do three concerts a year for the UCSB quarter system.”
When he first started at UCSB, Fisher was only a little older than the most senior students in the choir. He soon discovered he not only had to cultivate his students’ musical abilities – he often had to teach them about the musical genre itself. “Biola was a Christian school, so I didn’t really have to explain what gospel music was,” he said. “In Santa Barbara, there were so many different reasons why people wanted to be in the choir – from wanting to meet other young people socially, to earning their ethnomusicology credits.”
He also was surprised by the popularity of the Gospel Choir on campus. “That first concert we performed, it was sold out in two weeks,” he said. “I had no clue! People were so excited to sing the music and to experience the music.”
His predecessor White-Clayton taught the class from a historical perspective, with hymns and anthems. A prolific songwriter, Fisher began to share his own original compositions with his choir class. “It became really cool for me not just to teach the material but to also let them know why I wrote it,” he said. “I started seeing the educational perspective and the potential started ballooning from there.”
During his tenure as choir director from 1991 to 1998, the class grew to about 140 – accommodating even alumni who would return to perform with Fisher and his students.
“It was crazy – I don’t even know how we fit into room 1145,” he said. “For me, coming from a big family, everybody was a brother and sister to me. The choir members became the best of friends. There was even a couple that got engaged while they were in choir – the Bowmans, who now live in Texas. We sang to her when he proposed – and I am proud to say they are still married to this day. We had a family atmosphere that drew so many people, I had to create a cut-off point – we weren’t fitting on the stage anymore!”
After seven years as UCSB Gospel Choir director, Fisher had become a father (his daughter was two years old when he gave his last concert at UCSB) and had grown as a mentor for the many young people who took his class. “When I left, it was bittersweet,” he said. “It was an awesome transition to Victor Bell, who had played for Diane and a couple of times for me. At the last concert, I had him teach the choir one song and introduced him to the audience.”
This June, at the 25th Anniversary Reunion Concert with the UCSB Gospel Choir, Fisher joined Bell, White-Clayton and choir alumni at Lotte Lehmann, the site of so many gospel concerts during his time at UC Santa Barbara. “I had not been on that stage for nearly 18 years,” he said. “To know that something has lasted that long and was still making students feel the same way – it was very impactful for me.”
Now a pastor of worship for the Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, California, Fisher continues to bring his love of music to diverse audiences. His live worship album Jimmy Fisher & Contagious Praise, released in 2008, is a collection of standards and original compositions performed by Fisher and his fellow gospel musicians.
These days, the long commutes from his home in Garden Grove to his church in Inglewood allow Fisher to delve into his creative side. “During those 40 miles, I spend a lot of time listening to music,” he said. “It’s important to turn it all off and really concentrate. I like to get away from the piano. I want my mind to go places that my fingers can’t go.”
As a musician and songwriter, Fisher is inspired by people – that close-knit creative family from his childhood and the ensembles of voices he has nurtured throughout his career. “I like songs that everyone can sing – we call them congregational songs,” he said. “When I have a song idea and a theme I want to talk about and develop, I picture singing this song on stage. I imagine listening to what the congregation is saying. I imagine them singing. And if I can quiet myself just enough to hear what they say, I write it down.”