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Johnaye Kendrick: In The Deepest Way Possible


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Since arriving in Seattle, Johnaye Kendrick has enriched the Seattle jazz community with her performances, recordings, and as Associate Professor of Jazz Voice at the prestigious Cornish College of the Arts, as a mentor to her many students. Her vocal style is centered in the jazz and blues tradition, but embellished by her own interpretation based on her diverse and unique musical and life experiences.

After receiving a Bachelor of Music from Western Michigan University, Ms. Kendrick attended the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. While attending the Monk Institute, she worked with such outstanding artists as Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Danilo Perez, and Brian Blade. She received an Artist's Diploma from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and a Masters Degree in Jazz Studies from Loyola University in 2009.

After graduating, Ms. Kendrick began performing with Nicholas Payton, and engaged in weekly performances with Ellis Marsalis. Of Ms. Kendrick, Payton stated, "Johnaye has the potential to be a vocalist of the highest order, the likes of which we have seen seldom since the grande dames of the golden era of jazz roamed the earth. She's got it!"

Johnaye Kendrick is a musician, and that dedication to her craft guides her approach as a singer. Her original compositions are a very personal glimpse into her life, and as with her interpretations of jazz classics, possess amazing range, accurate intonation, and a feel that swings and reflects the deep soul of the blues tradition. In 2014, she recorded, produced and released here debut album, Here (Johnygirl, 2014). The album featuring pianist Dawn Clement, bassist Chris Symer, and drummers Byron Vannoy and D'Vonne Lewis, is a reflection of her very personal approach to her music and her life. My conversation with her reveals a woman, mother, and musician who deeply understands the impact of her work in her community, and in the timeline that is the American musical heritage.

All About Jazz: What were your musical influences at an early age?

Johnaye Kendrick: You want to know the truth that I've never told anyone who was recording me speaking? My parents listened to good soul music. When I was little I remember sitting on the floor playing Lionel Richie records, and I had the biggest crush on him. I was five, and I would just stare at the cover, which is just his face, with that big afro, and dreaming after him. Once I started finding my own musical taste as I got older, I got into oldies, like the Beach Boys, the old version of "I Think We're Alone Now," that's the type of stuff I was listening to.

AAJ: What was the first record you ever bought using your own money?

JK: This weird girl group that did not make it, called The Voices. They were young, and they released one record, it was four kids. I was maybe twelve, and it's not worth going to find and listen to. The first artist I ever became obsessed with honestly, was Mariah Carey. I transcribed all of her stuff. I could sing along with every one of her records, from Emotions (Columbia, 1991) straight on. I was really into that kind of stuff, I was really into pop music, and R&B. I wasn't into jazz, but somehow I got into college. I was singing in a vocal jazz ensemble, but I was musical. I starting playing when I was five, and started violin when I was eleven. I really loved playing violin. At the end of high school, I joined the vocal jazz ensemble, singing the alto part. I wasn't really learning tunes.

AAJ: But you ended up choosing to study music at the university level.

JK: When I auditioned for college, I didn't know tunes, and I was singing the soprano part of all these vocal jazz arrangements. I had no idea what I was doing, and magically I got into a couple of schools, and ended up going to The Chicago School For Performing Arts for a couple of years. I transfered, because when I got in there, I didn't even know what swung eighth notes were. One of my piano teachers one day said, 'Ok, now we're going to swing the eighth notes,' and I didn't know what that meant. I had to ask my neighbor what that meant. So I just started listening to as much jazz as I could, I was totally obsessed with Sarah Vaughan. By the end of my first year, I sounded exactly like Sarah Vaughn, like I was imitating her. I had no originality, but if you're going to sound like somebody, that's not a bad one to imitate! So I was really into Sarah, and I was listening to music all the time. I got obsessed with the Oscar Peterson Trio, We Get Requests (Verve, 1964), just transcribing as much as I could. I had the advantage of having taken piano and violin lessons, so I just had to figure out how to connect the things that I did know about music, with singing, which I didn't know anything about.

So by my sophomore year, I went from being the slow one at the back of the class, to singing in the big band, to singing in the honors ensemble, and leading the vocal jazz ensemble. I just worked really hard and still wanted to learn a lot, so by that point, I thought this doesn't make sense, I'm only a sophomore, I need to be somewhere I'm actually getting my ass kicked. I ended up transferring to Western Michigan University. The director there, Steve Zegree was just a legend. He passed away a few years ago unfortunately. The first time I heard his vocal ensemble, I thought it was pre recorded, that they weren't singing, it sounded that perfect to me. It was incredible. So I transferred to Western, which is in Kalamazoo, Michigan, middle of nowhere, all you have to do is practice. I got my ass kicked, loved it there. For Steve Zegree, his approach was, you're a musician, you're not just a singer. You need to sit down and play these 2-5-1's, you need to learn how to transcribe.

AAJ: It seems as though singers tend to feel they are ready to perform very often, without the extent of education and experience instrumentalists dedicate themselves to in the jazz world.

JK: I think it's because the voice is everybody's first instrument. When you think about it, a lot of instrumentalists do that too.

AAJ: Vocalists are instrumentalists as well, certainly the approach should resemble the same.

JK: I'm at Cornish and I'm very much known to be an ass kicker. It's really important, it's just like anything else, you approach it with the same amount of focus.

AAJ: You hold a Masters Degree in Jazz Studies from Loyola University, and an Artist Diploma from the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. You now hold a professorship from Cornish Institute in Seattle. The jazz tradition of mentorship apart from educational institutions seems to be occurring at a lesser rate than in the past, replaced by jazz education at the university level. How do you see the balance between jazz studies at such institutions, and the need to gain experience on the bandstand in the development of the modern jazz student?

AAJ: I think we do a decent job of trying to maintain that mentorship, private instruction is an important thing you get throughout, I can't think of an institution where you'd be a music major and not receive that one on one. What the instructor/mentor does with that time, and how they use that time ends up being what it is. In my experience, as far as being at Cornish, or outside of Cornish, wherever I am when I have an opportunity, I try to make the most of that time, and give a lot to the students, it just comes with the job. Even in academia, the days of a bunch of people being in a room playing together for fun, something is happening in terms of their thoughts on time, or practice, or focus, I think we're getting to this place of being focused only on ourselves, and we're losing that fellowship with other musicians. That's the thing that kicks your ass, that's the thing that allows you to grow.

When I was in the Monk Institute, you had to rehearse four hours a day, four days a week, and on that fifth day of the week we'd go into schools for performances, and teach kids. There's not really a lot of that anymore. My students they come into Cornish when they are eighteen, and they are just in their own little bubbles, and I try to encourage them to connect with instrumentalists. Of course there's that singer, instrumentalist thing that is probably at every institution, I don't know how we're ever going to figure that stuff out. Besides, they eventually realize that hooking up with those singers will actually provide them with some gigs as well. They come in when they're eighteen, and can't get into any venue until they're twenty one. So if I ask if they're going to the Owl (weekly jam session), they'll tell me they can't go for two or three years. There is nowhere for them to go.

AAJ:Jazz musicians are predominantly male, and a very high percentage of female performers are strictly vocalists. In the symphony world, this sort of gender imbalance has been successfully resolved through blind auditions. How do you explain this imbalance, and how do we, going forward, provide more opportunity for women instrumentalists in jazz?

JK: I think the first step is not associating instruments with gender. When you refer to a trumpet player, you're not asking, 'What's he like?' There are a lot of woman kicking ass on their instruments. I think when they're younger, it's really important for them to have something to look up to. If you don't see a lot of successful female saxophone players, when you're in fifth grade, sixth grade, and you are asked, "What instrument do you want to play?" That's when we need to be able to show young women this one, that one, introducing them to this, whatever you want to pick up, that's yours if you want it. There are a lot of women laying the groundwork now.

AAJ,: Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra has had one female instrumentalist in their history, saxophonist Tobi Stone.

JK: What about Lincoln Center?

AAJ: I can tell you currently, they have fifteen musicians, all of whom are men.

JK: The response always is that none of them can play. I'd bet if Lincoln Center had blind auditions, things would look a lot different.

AAJ: This seems to be such a contradiction for a musical genre that is viewed as socially progressive.

JK: I think it's coming around. I'm supposed to go on a state department tour to Nicaragua in April, and they requested an all female band. It was so easy, but the problem was I needed some of them to be Spanish speaking. There is this really great pianist who I worked with when I went to Russia over the summer with this trumpet player Vitaly Golovnev and his wife is a pianist, and she's out in New York. It was only tricky because I needed a Spanish speaking bassist and drummer. There's some bad asses out there. It's all changing. The fact there is an Esperanza Spalding out there. If there was ever a man's instrument, it's that big bass, and she makes that bass her bitch. The fact that she won best new artist, not that a Grammy matters, just that visibility, that's what we actually need for all women to look at and say, 'This is what I want to do.'

AAJ: You play violin, viola, and harmonium. How did the harmonium come into your life?

JK: While I was in the Monk Institute, we went on two big trips. The first one we went to Panama, and did Danilo Perez' jazz festival. We did some teaching and performing at that. Then the next year we went to India, a trip commemorating Martin Luther King's travels there to study Gandhi's non violent principles. Here's the kicker. It was my ensemble, which was piano, bass, drums, guitar, sax, trumpet, and myself, we were the band. In addition to us, on the trip was Herbie Hancock, Terri Lyne Carrington, James Genus, Chaka Khan, and George Duke. It was the weirdest thing to be hanging out in the bar with George drinking wine, he loved and knew wine. We're all hanging out, Terri Lyne was reading my chakras, I'm laying on the floor in this bar in India! Just a really cool thing. My tradition is wherever I go in my travels, I try to pick up instruments from there. I got introduced to the harmonium, but I couldn't buy it and bring it home. So I ordered one when I got home. I was kind of troubled about it because I loved it so much, I loved the sound, it's kind of piercing, you have to mic it right. I also felt it was cultural appropriation, and a little inappropriate in that it's a spiritual instrument, and I'm using it. I had a little hesitation, but I love the function that it serves. I'm getting better at it every day, it's not something I think I'll ever master. Lots of times I make jokes, because I pull out the box and say, 'I'm also a magician, my first trick for the day is.'

AAJ: I'm going to turn this box into an organ!

JK: People have a lot of questions, it's cool though because they're usually pretty into it.

AAJ: You have performed with two New Orleans legends, Ellis Marsalis and Nicholas Payton. How has performing with these jazz masters impacted your personal approach both compositionally and in terms of your vocal style?

JK: The way it all came to be, the Monk Institute, the whole situation is, you're there for two years, you're the only class for those two years. Every month, the artistic director, who was Terence Blanchard at the time, would be with us for one week. He's the reason I moved to New Orleans, because they were trying to give back after Katrina. There were bids from Columbia, New York, and another school in Chicago as well, because the institute moves around. It will be in one place for awhile, and then move to another university. They were receiving several bids, and they decided on Loyola because they were actually kind of ready the fastest. Columbia needed an extra year, Loyola wasn't really quite ready. Katrina happened in 2005, and they were just starting to offer the Masters program again in 2007-2009, that was the first new class. One week out of the month, Terence would be there. Another week out of the month, a different jazz legend would come through, so I got to meet a lot of people. They would be with us for a week, and in that time they would rehearse with us, and we would each get individual private instruction with them. During that time you could play music. My lesson with Buster Williams, we were just playing the whole time. Whatever you did with your lesson, you could sit and talk the whole time, you could play, whatever. So when Nicholas Payton came through, we really just talked mostly, that's what our lesson was about. We also performed for him, sometimes there would be performances at the end of it, that included the master that was visiting. In hearing me, he said that he had been waiting for me to graduate, to get me in his band. With Mr. Marsalis it was the opposite. He asked me, ' Do you even read music?' I kind of thought he was being mean to me. He was really tough. Throughout the week he would ask me different stuff, and so by the end of the week we were doing a full on performance at the university, a lot of the students came, and people from the community came. After the performance, there was a Q&A, and all this time I was thinking he was so mean to me. At the end of the performance, he told the audience, '

What you'all don't realize about Johnaye is that she is a musician, she is not a singer.' I thought he hated me! A week or two later, I went to see him play, he had a weekly gig at Snug Harbor, which is THE place to play in New Orleans, and I sat in. A week later I got a call, not from Mr. Marsalis, but from the owner of Snug. He told me Ellis wanted me to play his gig every friday night, and of course I said yes. So that's how that whole thing started, and now every time I go through town, I try to go and see him and sit in. So sweet, love that experience! Working with Nicholas, he does a lot of works incorporating different instruments, working with a percussionist, he plays, he sings, he plays trumpet, it's incredible, and with John Ellis out of New York, and singing this music I never would have thought of, sticks with me, and I can see how it stretches me a little bit, and it stretches my compositional approach, and style, and adds on to the foundation of who I am. Being handed this amazing music and internalizing it, it becomes a part of you and informs the choices you make, as you're writing in the future. My thing for myself and my students is, I'm trying to write beyond what I hear, and improvise beyond what I hear as well, because that's the thing that allows you to grow, if that makes sense.

If you are always writing the things you are comfortable with, if you are always singing the things you are comfortable with, you're going to get stuck, so I try to push beyond that. Lots of times it does not end well. That's ok too, and I try to impress that upon my students as well. Sometimes it's not going to work out, but it's still going to be good for you. You have to stretch to be able to reach.

AAJ: When choosing a song to perform, aside from your original compositions, how important is the lyrics as opposed to the melody? In opera for example, even without translation, visuals, energy, emotion and passion can describe effectively, the narrative.

JK: The thing that gets me first is the melody, and the harmony. I'm really sensitive to certain sounds and they pull at my heart before a lyric will. Chris Symer was over, and I was talking to him about the song that Sting wrote, " I Hung My Head" that Johnny Cash covered. I did not really know what that song was really about until I heard Johnny Cash sing it. The thing is, with Sting, it was over arranged, there's all this stuff going on, it's in nine, it's tricky, but in Johnny Cash's version there is just simple harmony, space and that melody. And then it all sunk in, what this was about, and I could really feel it.

AAJ: He's a very narrative singer as well.

JK: It was the very same, exact lyric, but it was the way it was delivered that totally changed the meaning and allowed for an understanding. The simplification was what really grabbed me. If it's something that I'm going to be performing, it's the melody, I have to be in love with the melody. There's some songs that I love that I just hate the lyrics to. Want to know one? "Old Folks." That melody is beautiful, have you looked at those lyrics?

AAJ: No, what I'm most tuned in to is the Miles version.

JK: Nobody sings it. It's such a beautiful song though. That's the stuff that gets me. Sometimes the lyrics lift it to an even higher level especially if I connect with whatever the story is. But at the same time, I also think a lot of times you sing stuff that you might not be so connected with initially. I'll find a way to dedicate whatever it is I'm singing to someone or some things that I can connect with it in the deepest way possible. I mean, I can sing about oatmeal if I have to.

AAJ: I like oatmeal!

JK: My babies love oatmeal! I can connect with anything, but it's initially the melody and harmony that pulls me in.

AAJ: Take us through your writing process. How does a composition evolve per your process?

JK: It changes. Sometimes I'll have a melody in my head. I have songs that have been journal entries, that I went through and picked out, and found things that I found especially poetic. I have one song that's on my record that was literally an email that I had written to somebody I was in love with. "I Am Not Afraid" was literally an email that I had written that I needed to put a melody to. And then on "Here," the title track, I wrote that sitting at the harmonium. Sometimes I'll be sitting at an instrument, sometimes I'll be walking down the street and I have an idea and just start singing and I'll have to work it out. Sometimes it happens melody and lyrics at the same time. I'm really concerned in that I don't want anything to sound the same, and I feel like when you're open to how you create, your music will sound open as well. Sometimes I'm playing the violin, or the piano, or sitting at the harmonium, sometimes I'm walking down the street, sometimes I'm in the grocery store, or just playing chords. It changes.

AAJ: Do you like to write around people and energy, or in a quiet space?

JK: I don't know! I went through this phase when I was living in Chicago. After undergrad, I moved to Chicago and I was managing a Walgreens, and going to jam sessions. I lived in the northern part of Chicago, and worked right in the loop, so I would take an hour train into work every day, and I went through this thing where I wrote a song every day, going down and coming back up. It worked for me. I was in a weird phase where I wasn't writing any straight ahead stuff. I was trying to find myself, I think. I was just cranking out songs and I wasn't influenced by the environment at all. As long as I can be focused.

AAJ: We live in turbulent times here in America, and for that matter, on planet earth. How do you see the artist's role as an activist in today's social and political dynamic?

JK: I have so much pressure on myself right now, because I feel this huge responsibility to create art that will represent our times, and speak to my feelings about our times. I'm just so tired, I'm just so exhausted, I have so much to say, but I just need to take a nap, that's me personally. The problem is, like a lot of artists, I'm really emotional, and I'm really sensitive, and I feel everything so deeply. It just takes a lot of work. It's like there's this wall, there's so much stuff between me , and coming through this wall and letting everything out. This is the weirdest space that I've ever been in, where I wake up and I read the news everyday, and am so heartbroken. There's this helpless feeling, and I know that the solution is creating art, is writing music, and releasing. It's really important. And it's a form of documentation, that is really important. I'm teaching a class on the history of Black American music, I wrote the course, well, I'm writing it as I'm going. One of the best things that the slaves ever did was they started incorporating their music, our music, into popular music, which was the way it was able to be documented, and saved, and recorded.

AAJ: We wouldn't be sitting here if they hadn't.

JK: Exactly. I can only imagine that in the moment, it was just their songs, it's not a big deal. But it was so important, it was the foundation of all American music. So I feel that responsibility to create this music. At the same time it's just so sensitive.

AAJ: One of the challenges for the resistance movement is not to get burned out, to be persistent, it takes time. You have to have that joy button pushed every day, you have to maintain your personal humanity if you're going to fight for humanity. Music speaks to that on a real level.

JK: As an artist, I want to say what I want to say, but I also want to create music that will give people strength, and to make them happy. The other thing is to also encourage my students, to create, they give me hope.

AAJ: What does Seattle mean to you as an artist, and what artists on the scene have inspired you most?

JK: I'm really inspired by my colleagues at Cornish, like Jim Knapp and Randy Halberstadt. There are some great musicians at Cornish that have been around for a long time and done a lot of stuff. As far as my contemporaries, my partnership making music with Dawn Clement is really important to me, it's like getting fresh air. Working with Chris Symerr as well is really special, it's just wonderful and easy. I'm really inspired by Thomas Marriott, I think he is really remarkable. I see all these musicians and I wonder how does everybody do all this stuff? I love Seattle, to be honest, Seattle is tough to come to from New Orleans. New Orleans is a different kind of vibe. New Orleans is like going to grandma's house. It's like, 'Come on over, come get yourself something to eat.' Seattle is a little different. I had an advantage because there was a little bit of press when I moved here for the position at Cornish. That opened a lot of doors, and allowed for me to perform at Tula's, and doing different things around the community. It's a little tougher to penetrate the trust circles. You just have to hang, you have to hang at the Owl (legendary jam session), I love that place. You never know who's going to be in there, and it's always a gift to be on that stage.

AAJ: I was there one night and Wynton Marsalis walked in.

JK: Yeah, everybody knows about it! The cool thing about Seattle is, when I moved here from New Orleans, I had been there for three years, I saw more amazing live music in the first six months of living here than in the three years I lived in New Orleans, excluding Jazzfest. New Orleans isn't really on the tour circuit, it's kind of out of the way. Everybody comes through Seattle. That's one thing I love about Seattle, there's so much good music happening all the time. The Earshot Jazz Festival is a gift, it's so good. Jazz Alley, Tula's.

AAJ: As an artist, we are part of human consciousness and creativity reaching back into the past, are given a short space of time to work in the present, which leaves an impact that reaches forward into the future. How do you see your musical lineage, your creative family tree as part of the flow of musical history.

JK: Going forward, I can only dream that my music is actually something that is present, and considered to be something important, that's just a dream. I can't visualize that though, because I'm constantly searching and trying to create something that will stand the test of time. I can't pretend to assume that it will. Coming from the past, I'm influenced by, and inspired by, and affected by everything that I listen to, even the things that I don't really appreciate. I'm constantly learning from my students, I'm open, I just receive what I can, I process it, and do what I can with it. I find myself being a really honest, genuine and good person, and I hope those kind of things come across in my music. When I think about all of the things that have influenced me up to this point, I think of them as gifts that have made me who I am, musically speaking.

I just try to take all of that and do my best with it, and create the best representation of myself, my people, the times, it's just a little gift I put down, and hope someone picks up and appreciates.

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