Brian Smith | Daily file photo
The Upstate Harmonizers sing during during the 2013 Barbershop Harmony Parade in the Amp.
George Jarrell thinks Chautauqua Institution and barbershop quartets have a lot in common.
Not only do both include the harmonization of many voices to create products bigger than themselves, but both also elude definition — in order to truly understand them, you need to experience them, Jarrell said.
Chautauquans will get that chance this weekend, when the Barbershop Harmony Parade takes the Amphitheater stage by doo-wop storm at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The performance is put on by the Seneca Land District of the Barbershop Harmony Society — a district that includes 34 barbershop chapters — and follows a 60-year tradition of barbershop quartets harmonizing in Chautauqua Institution.
“There’s four parts in a quartet: tenor, lead, baritone and bass,” said Jarrell, chairman of the district and founder of the Jamestown chapter, the Jamestown Harmony Express. “When one of those parts isn’t there, it’s not balanced. It’s not harmony. But if all four parts are doing their job, it’s a unique experience you can’t quite explain to somebody.”
The distinct vintage spirit of barbershop quartets should feel right at home in Chautauqua, with its slow-paced atmosphere of days past. The Barbershop Harmony Parade is planning to stay true to its old-fashioned Americana roots on Sunday with barbershop classics such as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” But according to Jarrell, the Barbershop Harmony Parade is also looking forward to the concert as a chance to dip its toes into the pool of pop culture. Several of the six performing quartets have included modern songs in their repertoire, tweaking them to fit the barbershop chord construction.
“Basically, barbershop harmony is a stylistic type of music that revolves around the chord structure,” Jarrell said. “That chord structure is from back in the day of vaudeville — back before the days of television. One guy would sing the melody line, and three other guys would tune in with a harmony.”
The various barbershop quartets within the Seneca Land District are all comprised entirely of volunteers and lovers of music, Jarrell said. He said that the quartets are open to everyone: there are male quartets and female quartets, senior citizen quartets and teenage quartets. All will be represented at Sunday’s performance, including one of the district’s youngest barbershop quartets: Shoptimus Prime, a collegiate group which placed 12th at the International Barbershop Convention in Las Vegas this year.
“To join, you have to like to sing, and you have to be able to carry a tune,” Jarrell said. “But you don’t have to carry a degree in music to be a barbershopper.”
Jarrell said that the Barbershop Harmony Parade eagerly anticipates their return to Chautauqua each year, and the reason is two-fold. First, he said, is the tradition of partnering with the Institution. When Chautauqua first began bringing the Barbershop Harmony Parade to the Amphitheater years ago, the district used the payment to further music education in the barbershop style. Jarrell said a portion of the funds the Barbershop Harmony Parade receives from Chautauqua still goes directly toward local music education programs.
The second reason the barbershoppers love coming back, Jarrell said, is a simple love of Chautauqua. They look forward to sharing their art with the Chautauqua audience and infecting the crowd with the same joy, vivacity and entertainment that they feel harmonizing on stage.
“The Amphitheater is the best stage in the world,” Jarrell said. “We have fun on that stage. The most special part to me is not only the music that’s brought us all together, but the fellowship with the other guys. We think — wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could help to create an atmosphere where everybody’s happy? We kind of think that if we could get everybody to sing, the world would be a better place.”