Something funky is brewing in Chicago.
Performing music spanning the spectrum of the African-American diaspora, the ensemble consists of about a dozen rotating members, which Woods himself went so far as to call “Snarky Puppy for churches”—albeit with my prodding.
The comparison is nothing to sneeze at, though, as both the Grammy Award-winning instrumental conglomeration and the South Side set of singers both originated as small projects on a university campus, the former forming at the University of North Texas and the latter at Millikin University (a small Presbyterian school in Decatur, Illinois).
“What we learned at Millikin helped us be prepared for MOSAIC,” the two told BCM earlier this month, with Armstrong heaping praise on his experience there studying communications, music, and entrepreneurship.
Woods studied commercial music with a focus on songwriting, and collaborated with Armstrong in a university jazz group and gospel choir before forming a more formal partnership in recent years.
Several members of the group are also Millikin alums, including Armstrong and Woods’ roommate, who helps with audio and tech support.
The other members of the group come from a wide range of backgrounds and vocal styles, with the group making a point to champion “inclusivity” and highlight the uniqueness of each member.
“Being individuals is crucial,” Woods said, noting that the group’s upcoming debut album, “Blessed”, is a live set of solos as well as group numbers. These include a number of originals, as well as covers of a diverse range of artists including Whitney Houston, George Gershwin, Jill Scott, Moses Hogan, and Damon Locks.
The group is also diverse ethnically, spiritually, sexually, and otherwise, with some members identifying as queer and one who is gender-nonconforming. Armstrong himself identifies as “Black, gay, and Christian”, crediting his time at Millikin with helping him understand his tripartite identity.
As such, Woods and Armstrong alike have made a point to show respect to all members of MOSAIC—including using neutral, ungendered language.
“Love leads first in this group,” Woods said, adding that they “have the best singers”.
As the group, made up entirely of working artists, began to get more calls for gigs, MOSAIC became official and the Millikin man-cave became a rehearsal space—until COVID, that is.
But as the world goes, so goes God: the group began rehearsing in Armstrong’s home parish and workplace, St. Benedict the African.
Arguably one of the most stunning parishes architecturally in Chicago (and perhaps the country or world), the Englewood Black Catholic sanctuary quickly became a musical sanctum as well, providing space large enough to allow COVID compliance and earthy enough to match the contemporary vibes of the budding artist collective.
(Woods informed me that the church’s inner decor includes a number of trees and other plants brought in from Africa, the ancestral homeland of the church’s patron saint.)
Armstrong’s own family has a longstanding connection to the parish as well, having worshipped there since the closing of Precious Blood, his childhood parish, in 2005.
“I owe everything to St. Benedict”, Armstrong said, noting that he directed the junior choir the parish even before he became a member. He and his mother serve in the Knights of Peter Claver at St. Ben’s as well.
“I love to remind people how sacred that space is.”
Like with many other musical artists, the pandemic has prevented MOSAIC from performing as before. Other projects, however, remained viable, and the opportunity to record an album was too good to pass up—especially after inspiration struck.
Armstrong being a “music curator” and Woods a pianist, their new record’s title track started out three years ago as a song in the mind of Armstrong, to which Woods added chords. The group’s music comes about organically in this way, with Armstrong also collaborating on lyrics with other members of the group. From this process, “Blessed” (the track) became “Blessed” (the album).
“When you have someone as energetic and passionate as [Phil] is, you harness that,” said Woods of Armstrong, who is also the group’s conductor and CEO.
Woods himself grew up at St Margaret’s in Naperville, and serves as the groups COO and music director. Monique Golding, a third partner who joined during the pandemic, serves as CFO and HR director.
“The partnerships are really what we’re celebrating right now,” the founders told BCM, noting that after the George Floyd protests, the MOSAIC crew also did a livestream in partnership with the Adler Center for the Arts, broadcast from St Benedict.
A former member of the group, Ellen Williams, provided the Adler connection, a relationship which, like that between Mosaic and St. Benedict, has grown into a full-blown artist sponsorship.
“The Center is living proof about God and about our lives,” Armstrong noted,
“When you keep your head down and stick to your calling, it still works.”
Heads down indeed, as the group’s members “came ready” for the album recording, eliciting a Bible reference from Armstrong in his conversation with me about their level of execution. Woods echoed the sentiment.
“When you hire professionals, you get professional work.”
This kind of networking perhaps comes naturally to such a well-connected crew, with Armstrong also serving as a member of Locks’ Black Monument (a local ensemble which shares several members with MOSAIC), and Woods doing work as a solo artist. Armstrong is also on the board for the archdiocese’s new Tolton Center and plans to help start a Tolton Community Choir under its auspices.
In addition to their own projects and the MOSAIC music, the group plans to flesh out their “Preserve. Educate. Promote.” mantra in the coming months, working with local churches to archive rare gospel music recordings and stories that might otherwise never reach the World Wide Web.
“Imagine if [Snarky Puppy] was a band and a business, archiving rare jazz recordings”, said Woods.
“Gospel is regional, so it’s important to archive and interview, alongside creation.”
An educational aspect is also present, as the group also runs a nonprofit, MOSAIC C.A.R.E.S., which will soon operate a number of community service projects, in addition to the current partnership with My Block, My Hood, My City, a local youth empowerment nonprofit that will receive 10% of all “Blessed” album sales.
MOSAIC is also planning instructional camps and virtual lessons for the near future, as well as partnerships with the Chicago Children’s Choir, of which Armstrong is an alum, and the Naperville Chorus, from which Woods hails.
Armstrong noted that the former was founded in the Civil Rights era, and today features a number of legendary collaborators including Josephine Lee, Judy Hanson, and Mark Myers (with whom Armstrong recently did a webinar).
The promotional component of MOSAIC is already in motion, based around performance. The group hosted an album listening party last weekend, and we’re told multiple singles are on the way.
Woods says they will soon start shopping labels, in hopes of recording a full studio album “in the next year or so”.
There are also plans to perform (on a grander scale) the “Mass of St Benedict the African”, which the parish commissioned and debuted in April 2018 with the help of MOSAIC.
In the meantime, unless you’ve given up good music for Lent, be on the lookout for “Blessed” on the Lord’s Day at 2pm CST.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, in priesthood formation with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).