The It List: Oakland Gospel Choir, pianist Michael Wolff

The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir

In the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the glorious harmonies on stage flow directly from the harmonious vibe off the bandstand.

Maintaining smooth sailing in any creative endeavor involving 55 people is no easy feat.

After a quarter century, however, the ensemble has learned a little something about coexistence and how to gracefully elide fundamental differences. A shared sense of devotion to the spiritually charged African-American art form is the force that seamlessly melds a multi-generational cast representing an array of races, religions and creeds.

A few ground rules help too.


“We agree to disagree on things. It sounds easy, but it’s not,” says the choir’s founding director, Terrance Kelly, who leads the ensemble Sunday at Freight & Salvage in a concert celebrating release of the “Hear My Prayer,” the OIGC’s fifth album.

“When it comes to certain topics, a Jewish person is going to have a different view than an Apostolic Christian, who’s going to have a different view than a Buddhist. If we discuss differences, it’s with the intent to inform and not to change. That’s one of the rules. That’s how we can be totally interfaith. What we all agree on is singing gospel to help heal the world.”

The choir doesn’t only embrace religious pluralism. Over the years the group has become one of the Bay Area’s most beloved vocal institutions by attracting singers from a range of musical backgrounds. For Kelly, the group’s aural personality flows from that diversity.

“We have opera singers and rockers,” says Kelly, the son of esteemed choir director and arranger Faye Kelly and late pianist and organist Ed Kelly, who often accompanied the group. “If you’re willing to work to blend and match tones we don’t really care. It makes the choir sound richer when the voices don’t sound the same.”

Founded in 1986, the OIGC was the brainchild of Stacey Hoffman, the executive director of Jazz Camp West. Seeing the popularity of the camp’s gospel choir, she suggested that Kelly create an ongoing ensemble. While the group’s size makes it economically unfeasible to travel much outside the Bay Area, the choir has attained international recognition via a series of Grammy Award-winning recordings, including Linda Ronstadt’s “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind,” MC Hammer’s “Too Legit to Quit” and Tramaine Hawkins’ “Live.”


In the early years, the group attracted attention as much for its racial composition as its music. Arriving at black Baptist churches with a gospel choir consisting of a majority of white singers meant that the group had to deliver the goods. Tenor Daniel Strauss was there from the beginning.

“The sound when we started was very much a community choir, a bunch of people who loved the music and wanted to sing it,” Strauss says. “We didn’t care if we sounded great, wanted to pay homage to the music with joy and love. That’s remained, but the proficiency has grown by leaps and bounds. Terrance’s standards mean the choir’s level keeps increasing.”

Clave For A Good Cause

Pianist Michael Wolff

Berkeley-raised pianist Michael Wolff, a heavyweight New York jazz player for more than three decades, returns to town Friday to perform at the Jazzschool with his Latin Jazz Sextet featuring guitarist Ray Obiedo, saxophonist Bob Johnson, bassist Peter Barshay, drummer Phil Hawkins, and percussionist Derek Rolando. The concert is a fundraiser for a Sanville Institute scholarship in honor of his mother, Elise Blumenfeld, a PhD social worker who helped found the Berkeley-based Institute, which trains psychotherapists.

Like many aspiring East Bay jazz musicians in the 1960s and 70s, Wolff studied with pianist Martha Young, the niece of tenor sax legend Lester Young. By 17 he was working as the house pianist at San Francisco’s Both/And Club, and at 19 he talked himself into an on-stage audition with Cal Tjader when he ran into the vibraphonist at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley (he got the gig).

Since the mid-70s, he’s toured and recorded with everyone from Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins to Nancy Wilson and Warren Zevon.


He’s maintained a far higher pop culture profile than most of his jazz peers. He served as bandleader and music director for The Arsenio Hall Show, and played a bumbling father to his two sons, who starred in the Nickelodeon mockumentary series “The Naked Brothers Band” (which was written and produced by his wife, the actress Polly Draper).

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, bookmark Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.