Gloria DeNard studied voice at the Juilliard School. She sang on CBS Radio and toured the world as a U.S.O. performer. But it was offstage, as an educator and activist, that Ms. DeNard made her biggest impact.
She created her own Juilliard in East Harlem.
Ms. DeNard opened Manna House Workshops in 1967. She named it after the food that God provided the Israelites in the desert, and her purpose was likewise to bring enrichment to an impoverished community, in the form of jazz and dance education.
“I wanted the people in the community to have a better feeling of self-worth,” Ms. DeNard said in “Manna — Jazz and Survival in East Harlem,” a 2018 documentary about Manna House. “I just said, hey, jazz is something we created as African-Americans. They ought to know it, and then be able to feel good about that and hopefully get an income from having studied it.”
Manna House began as a monthly coffee house at the Church of the Ascension in Harlem. But in 1968, with grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and other sources, Ms. DeNard bought a five-story building on East 106th Street, making the first two floors a school and renting the upper stories.
Over the next 52 years, Ms. DeNard, a diminutive woman shy of five feet tall, carried Manna House — and to some extent, East Harlem — on her back.
In a neighborhood beset by crime and drugs, Manna House was “an oasis of functional activity,” Craig Harris, a jazz trombonist who taught there, said in the 2018 documentary. “People could bring their children and be taught great things, beautiful things.”
Manna House ran on a wonderful chaotic energy. The instructors (including Ms. DeNard, who taught piano with a keen ear for wrong notes) were top-notch musicians, but the cost of a lesson ran as low as $20. If a parent or student couldn’t afford that, Ms. DeNard would offer a “scholarship,” making up the shortfall herself.
In 1997, when the building’s handyman was killed in his upstairs apartment during a robbery, Ms. DeNard took over sweeping the halls, tending the boiler and taking out the garbage. Building maintenance became just one more duty, along with teaching, fund-raising, organizing a yearly concert series, encouraging students and running off anyone who dared use drugs in front of the school.
“Gloria sacrificed anything for Manna House,” Brenda Fair Alexander, the school’s administrator, said in an interview. “Her heart was just so big.”
Kenwood Dennard, Ms. DeNard’s son and a drummer who has played with George Clinton, Sting, Miles Davis, Gil Evans and many others, practically grew up at Manna House.
There was no line between his mother and the school she founded, Mr. Dennard said in an interview: “Manna House was Gloria DeNard and Gloria DeNard was Manna House.”
Ms. DeNard died on May 30 at her home in East Harlem, across the street from Manna House, her son said. She was 93. Her death was not widely reported at the time.
Gloria Isabel Cummings was born on Oct 11, 1926, in Brooklyn. Little is known about her father, Richard Cummings. Her mother, Maude Bascome Cummings Taylor, emigrated to New York from Bermuda. A gifted and disciplined pianist and organist, Maude ran a music school and served for 45 years as choir director of Cornerstone Baptist Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
As a teenager singing in that church, “I sung myself out,” Ms. DeNard said in the documentary. “My vocal cords got in trouble. And I had a whole year of just being quiet.”
Juilliard provided corrective, and Ms. DeNard emerged with classical training. But her true love was jazz — she especially admired Sarah Vaughan — and she and her husband, Frederick Dennard, whom she met at Juilliard, became a vocal duet.
Throughout the 1950s, the couple traveled the world on U.S.O. tours, performing for American troops in Alaska, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. It was after Ms. DeNard returned home that she got the idea to establish a school.
While she performed for decades as a soloist, in both classical and jazz settings throughout Manhattan as well as in the choir of Riverside Church, Ms. DeNard’s own music career took a back seat to encouraging others.
Some of Manna House’s former students, among them Will Calhoun, the drummer for the rock band Living Color, and the actress PaSean Wilson, went on to have careers in the arts. But the point of the school was not to train professionals, as it was at Juilliard; it was to encourage children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to create and be proud of who they were.
“Above all else was this overriding sense of purpose — a sense of the need for that school in that place,” the British filmmaker Peter Urpeth, who directed the 2018 documentary, said in an interview. “Gloria wasn’t just a great singer and musician; she was the epitome of a leader.”
Ms. DeNard’s marriage ended in divorce, after which she changed the spelling of her stage name from Dennard. In addition to her son, she is survived by a daughter, Dale Sims; a brother, Richard Cummings; a granddaughter; and two great-grandchildren.
An advocate of healthy living who didn’t drink alcohol and took a daily shot of wheatgrass, Ms. DeNard was active at Manna House until the last week of her life. She was in talks for someone to buy the building, and hoped a family member would take over the school.
“The neighborhood has gentrified, of course,” Ms. Alexander, the school administrator, said. “But there is always a need for a place like Manna House.”