‘We would march into the auditorium and kind of show off a little,” says tenor Howard Crossland of his early singing days at Trenton’s Junior Five.
The choir was under the direction of Wilbur Johnson and students who used to compete to get into it. “It was a nice thing to do,” says Crossland, now 74, about the singing. “Every Christmas we would have a program and we would compete to get into the Christmas concert choir.”
Crossland will be part of another Christmas concert on Saturday, December 8, at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park. And in many ways it is part of a long musical phrase for the lifelong Trenton resident and singer.
Crossland is a Trenton native and well known across the region in many musical genres, including opera, spirituals, and oratorios.
He grew up in the projects of the Lincoln Homes in North Trenton during the late 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s and says, “It has not changed that much, except it seems smaller, and we did not have a fence around our neighborhood.’”
His father was a factory worker and his mother a homemaker who both sang in the choir at their church. Both his brothers and sisters also sang in the choir.
A 1962 Trenton Central High School graduate, Crossland earned a degree in music from Texas Southern University in Houston. “The people were warm and very sincere,” he says about his training there. “They welcomed you with open arms. (And) there everything started opening up about the singing thing: what singers we should know, what singers we should listen to, and what singers we should keep our eye on.”
Yet his choice to sing opera was not without a challenge. “At that particular time there weren’t that many blacks in opera, but the one that really came out was Leontyne Price,” he says. At the time it was difficult for black males to land roles singing opera because it was not feasible for them to sing with white female performers.
But he was undeterred and participated in auditions with the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the Metropolitan Opera. “When we auditioned they would critique us, sometimes good, sometimes bad. It was good to get these kinds of things because it helps you work on things that they thought you should work on.”
Upon graduating from Texas Southern, Crossland enrolled at Indiana University to pursue a master’s degree but left after a year to return to Trenton. He began working for the school district as a music teacher at Junior 3. A short time later he enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent six years in the Army Reserves. Some time after that he began working at the Trenton Public Library, a job he had held as a high school student. It was then that he began studying for a master’s degree in library science, which he obtained in 1976.
Crossland had begun singing as a paid soloist with several area choirs. That included the First Presbyterian Church Choir in Morrisville under the direction of Harry Mulder. He also was a soloist the Old Pine Street Church in Philadelphia, St. Thomas Church in Fort Washington, and the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, all in Pennsylvania. “Very good experiences,” he says.
Crossland was a soloist during the Rowan Chamber Ensemble’s concerts during a United States tour and in France, Germany, Russia, Austria, and Spain. He also toured with the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church Choir visiting Germany and in a 2011 Civil Rights Singing Tour of cities throughout the South.
Locally he also sang with the Princeton Opera Association and the Mercer County Chorus, becoming director when the aforementioned Harry Mulder retired.
Talking about the state of church music in regional churches today, he says, “When I came back to Trenton I wanted to find a church where they were doing the kinds of music we used to do, the spirituals, the anthems, sort of the classical vein, but nobody wants it. I don’t know if they want to but they just don’t do them anymore. They want to do gospel, which is fine, but I think that we should be a well rounded choir or at least have a choir that is doing classical music.” He feels the tide will turn and much of that music will be brought back.
When asked what kind of performances he enjoyed doing the most he answered without hesitation “Recitals! Which cover a gambit of things — German, Italian, spirituals.”
He enjoys connecting with the audience when he performs. He recalls his senior recital at Texas Southern. “Now the senior recital is a big deal and my brother, who lived in Houston at the time, came with his wife. He had never really heard me sing, and when I began to sing a classical selection his expression was one of great surprise and of laughter and his sister-in-law could not get him to calm down. I knew I couldn’t go on if I stayed focused on him.”
Crossland now directs the Echo A Cappella Choir, a choral group of seniors who perform spirituals and other traditional music. The Echo choir honors the courage and legacy of Paul Robeson. The choir performs a program of spirituals and traditional music interspersed with readings of poetry and prose on the theme of world peace. Echo will perform at the Elms in Cranbury on Friday, December 14, and on Wednesday, December 19, at Christ Temple on Parkway Avenue at 11 a.m.
At the December 8 recital at Ellarslie Crossland will perform with Maise M. Daughtry and Conrad L. Purnell. The Christmas concert will be a program of sacred hymns and carols.
Daughtry is a lyric soprano who has sung extensively throughout the tri-state area. She sings the full classical music repertoire and is most noted for her interpretations of sacred songs, spirituals, and hymns. Daughtry has been studying with Jacqueline Smith of Fox Chase, Pennsylvania, for the past 22 years.
Tenor Purnell received a bachelor of science in music education from Alabama A&M University. He taught choral music at MLK Jr. Middle School for 11 years and spent 24 years as a computer teacher. He retired from the Trenton Board of Education in 2015 and began vocal studies to return his voice back to classical condition.
Though Crossland has scaled back on his solo performances, he still lends his voice to many area choirs. Besides his home church of Union Baptist, he’s been invited to sing with the choirs at Shiloh Baptist Church and St. Paul A.M.E Church as well as several others. When he is not singing or directing he says he loves to listen to opera and classical music — both live and recorded.
To a young person who is in interested in pursuing a career as a vocalist Crossland’s advice is to “First get a good vocal coach, for they help you determine if you have the voice. Get good training and sing as often as you can.”
Just the Three of Us Christmas Concert, Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Saturday, December 8, 2 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. www.ellarslie.org.
This article was originally published in the December 2018 Trenton Downtowner.