He got a nudge in December, when the Utah Cultural Alliance presented him with its 2014 Cultural Achievement Award. Tymas-Jones ended his acceptance speech with an unaccompanied rendition of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" that brought down the house.
"I was deeply touched by that event," said Tymas-Jones, who hadn't given a public recital since 2012. "I really started to think more and more about the whole nature of spirituals and how critical they were to my identity."
He will share that part of his life with listeners on Sunday, March 22, in a free recital, "Songs My Mother Taught Me: A Concert of Negro Spirituals." Paul Dorgan will assist him at the piano.
Growing up as one of six children of a preacher and a church choir director in the Washington, D.C., area, Tymas-Jones said, he had little choice but to sing. "I come from a family of musicians and preachers — a bucketload of both," he said. "My father didn't start as a pastor; he would be a guest speaker at black churches, and he would call on 'Sister Jones and the Jones children' to sing. It was just something we did." Summers spent on his grandparents' farm in South Carolina deepened his musical education. "It was a completely different experience musically," he said. "It was just extraordinary in terms of impact on my life, on my aesthetic."
Young Raymond took up the piano as a child, then directed church choirs from the time he was 14 or 15 until he left Washington for graduate studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He started a small touring gospel group there, stopping when he moved into academia; he held positions in New York, Iowa and Ohio before coming to Utah.
Tymas-Jones said he uses the term "Negro spirituals" to distinguish them from the "white spirituals" sung in regions such as Appalachia. "Negro spirituals really came out of slavery," he said. "Spirituals are the predecessor of gospel music, blues and jazz."
Sunday's program focuses on three composers and arrangers: Harry T. Burleigh, Hall Johnson and Roland Hayes. It will include beloved spirituals such as "Deep River" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," as well as lesser-known numbers such as Johnson's "City Called Heaven."
Tymas-Jones described Burleigh as "the first noted composer who arranged spirituals." Burleigh was an important influence on Antonín Dvorák during the Bohemian composer's stay in the United States.
Johnson is "really my favorite," Tymas-Jones said. "He wrote into his piano accompaniments the real idioms of the black religious experience, such as call and response. The piano took on a role of its own, very much like Schumann."
Hayes, a famed tenor as well as a compose, will be represented on the program by a song cycle of 10 spirituals that "capture the essence of Jesus' ministry while on Earth," Tymas-Jones said.
The singer said he designed the program to give listeners "some sense of the religious fervor of the Negro slave, as well as some of the lightness."