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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.
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