The Reverend Dwayne R. Mason says he was appreciative when Erwin Helfer came up to him after a 9/11 memorial performance last year and complimented his piano playing–he’d accompanied a gospel choir–but didn’t think much about it. Helfer is one of the city’s most knowledgeable and skilled students of prewar piano styles, and a compliment from him is nothing to sneeze at, but Mason didn’t know who Helfer was. A month later Helfer called him at home; again he expressed his admiration and mentioned that he’d told Steven Dolins, who runs the Highland Park label The Sirens, about Mason and that Dolins might want to put out an album by him. “It was totally unexpected,” says Mason, “but I didn’t take it seriously.” Dolins says he had to leave about six messages on Mason’s answering machine over the next few months before they actually spoke.

Mason sees gospel as a calling, not a career. A licensed mortician who preaches regularly at his own church, he says he never spent time listening to other types of music, and though he’s been playing piano all his life he’d never thought about making records. Dolins finally persuaded him to try, however, and this Sunday night Mason celebrates the release of his debut, Glory! Glory!, with a performance at the Old Town School of Folk Music. He’ll play on a solo piano bill with Helfer, ragtime specialist Reginald Robinson, and jazz pianist Earma Thompson; for Mason, who turns 42 Friday, it’ll be his first musical performance that’s not connected with a religious service.

Most contemporary gospel recordings are slick affairs that borrow from current R & B and hip-hop styles. Glory! Glory!, on the other hand, is a delightful throwback to a time when gospel bore a closer likeness to its ancestors blues, ragtime, and early jazz. Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, played raunchy blues under the name Georgia Tom before he applied a similarly rollicking style to religious songs. Mason usually performs on organ or electronic keyboard at church services, but on the album he plays a rich-sounding Baldwin grand piano; he’s accompanied only by drummer Kendrick M. Jackson and Sydne Evans, who adds dynamic vocals on five tracks. He interprets 14 gospel classics, from warhorses like “Down by the Riverside” to traditional hymns like “Walk With Me, Lord” to 20th-century standards penned by the likes of Dorsey and the great singer Clara Ward. There are hints of Ray Charles-style soul on “Angels Keep Watching Over Me,” jazz rhythms pulse through his take on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and a boogie-woogie bass line powers the ebullient “I’ll Fly Away.” Mason says he picked up all these nuances in church. “For me, it’s in my blood,” he says, “totally natural.”

Mason grew up in the apartment of his grandmother, Doris King, in the Dearborn Homes projects near the IIT campus. King had bought a piano for Dwayne’s mother, Roberta Mason, who reluctantly took lessons when she was younger, but it had been sitting idle since long before Dwayne was born. Mason says he messed around on the piano constantly, stopping only when the adults couldn’t stand the racket any longer. A deeply religious woman, King regularly brought him with her to church, and when he could get away with it he’d bang away on the piano there too.

Mason says that when he was six his pastor, Frances Davis, told King that God was using music to come into his life, and she blessed and anointed him. Immediately afterward, he says, he was able to play all the way through a song for the first time. The church paid for his lessons with private teachers and at downtown piano stores like Lyon & Healy and Wurlitzer. Mason learned the basics this way, but he hated the rigidity of formal training. He says he learned more from soaking up the sounds every week in church, and he routinely gospelized the songs his teachers wanted him to play. Finally, as he recounts in the liner notes for Glory! Glory!, an instructor named Daisy Robinson told King that Mason didn’t need any more lessons, but just needed to practice: “The music is already in Dwayne–we can’t teach him–we will only distort what God is doing with him.”

When Mason was ten his grandmother began to preach at various south-side churches, and he accompanied her on the keyboard; he’d provide largely improvised backing for the sermon, responding to the peaks and valleys of King’s delivery and the outbursts of the congregation, and play rousing gospel numbers with the choir and with individual singers. He played like this for the next 20 years behind a number of ministers, primarily Richard D. Henton in the 70s and E.R. Allen in the 80s, with whom he appeared Sunday nights on local television. For much of the decade Allen and Mason also toured regularly in the south and on the west coast. During this time Mason started preaching too from time to time, and Allen encouraged him. She ordained him in the ministry in 1981, but he wasn’t moved to preach regularly until 1990, when he presided over a cousin’s funeral. Afterward, he says, “I heard something that ministers never hear: ‘Why didn’t you preach longer? We were mesmerized by what you were saying.’ That really stuck with me.” He decided to launch Body Soul & Spirit Ministries that year, offering Bible classes in a room he rented from a now defunct church at 63rd and King Drive. By year’s end he was holding services every Monday night.

In 1991 Mason got his own storefront space but couldn’t keep up with rent payments, so the next year he converted the basement of his mother’s Gresham home (where he’d been living since he was 17) into a chapel. Leading his flock–which at this time had roughly 35 to 40 members, about half the current total–left him little time to earn money as a musician. “I really thought that I was going to put music on the back burner and do my ministry full-time,” he says. “I didn’t get as many musical gigs, so I needed to have something to support myself.” So in 1995 he enrolled in a two-year mortuary science program at Malcolm X College.

Mason found the more reliable income he was looking for in freelance funeral work, and he says his unusually broad set of skills has only helped: “My friends tease me, ‘Oh, he’ll do it all. He’ll marry you, he’ll bury you, he’ll embalm you, he’ll play the piano for you, he’ll preach for you, he’ll do the whole shebang.'” By 1998 he was able to rent the space at 9118 S. Ashland that’s the current home of Body Soul & Spirit. His work as a funeral director and biweekly church services have taken precedence over music since then, but making Glory! Glory! has revived his interest in playing, and after years of accompanying others he’s pleased to be getting some recognition as a pianist. “I’ve planted those seeds down through the years,” Mason says, “and God has allowed me to reap the harvest.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.