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Johnaye Kendrick: In The Deepest Way Possible

Paul Rauch By

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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.'

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