Jazzmen practicing what they preach
by Chet Williamson : Worchester Magazine
It’s more like a revival meeting than a concert when Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Jazz Orchestra take to the stage. This is a Big Band that makes a joyful noise and swings at the same time.
"We like to call it gospel jazz,” says Oliver, who, besides leading the group, plays tuba and writes some arrangements. “It’s a passion for me. It’s part of the vision that I had. I don’t think I would have had the vision without the gospel combined with the swing. All my life, my struggle was trying to figure out how to combine the two.”
Kendrick Oliver, photo by George Valentine
Texas-born Oliver has figured it out, at least by the response to the band’s debut recording, Welcome to New Life. Former People magazine writer Bill Carpenter commented that the band’s sound is faithful to the form, yet played with a “youthful buoyancy that’s lost on today’s formulaic jazz practitioners. What further sets this jazz apart from today’s and yesterday’s jazz is the fusion of black church emotionalism into the very core of the music.”
The word has spread beyond the critics and into the music community. Some of the best and brightest stars of the day are lining up to work with the group. Stalwarts like Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, Cyrus Chestnut, Nicholas Payton, Jason Moran and Kevin Mahogany, among others, have appeared with New Life. “You would be surprised how many top-flight jazz musicians have told me they would love to do this,” says Oliver. “When we go to festivals, you see guys saying, ‘This is something that I really want to do at some point.’ ”
In addition to the many visiting stars who sit in with the band, the core of New Life also features outstanding young players like trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and saxophonist Jimmy Greene, who are receiving critical attention on the national scene.
Audiences are also responding. It has been a breakout year for New Life, with performances at the Newport and Tanglewood jazz festivals; the launch of a successful touring jazz program called Swingin’ the Blues: Basie and Beyond!; an educational clinic, Sing, Swing, Stomp, Shout! — The Art of Big Band; and the release of the critically acclaimed debut album, Welcome to the New Life. The disc recently made Boston Magazine’s “Hot List.” The group returns to Worcester this weekend as part of the Mass Jazz series presented by Music Worcester and WICN Radio. Monica Link was advertised as the featured singer for the evening; Sylvia Gordon has replaced her.
Gospel music has always been a major source of inspiration to jazz and popular music, but with New Life it is embraced wholeheartedly. “For the first three or four years, it was like a work in progress,” Oliver says. “Once I was able to get a handle on the style I wanted to do with the band, the more we worked at it, the more we knew [it could work].”
Think of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing with The Count Basie Band and you begin to get an idea of Oliver’s vision. “We took old spirituals like “Wade in the Water,” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” he says. “We would put a Basie twinge on it. We are constantly working on it in rehearsal, learning how to interpret Basie’s music and adding it to the New Life spirit.”
New Life Jazz Orchestra
by Mary Chapin Durling : Worchester County
The New Life Jazz Orchestra with jazz vocalist Kevin Mahogany will perform at Fitchburg State on Friday, February 25, at 8:00 p.m. in Weston Auditorium as part of the college's Center Stage program. There will also be a spotlight talk by bandleader Kendrick Oliver at 7:15 p.m.
Oliver and The New Life Jazz Orchestra create a vibrant and energetic 19-piece group of 20-something-year-olds that has been captivating audiences, selling out concerts and turning heads throughout the jazz scene since its inception in 1995. New Life has featured Grammy-Award-Winning trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton; Grammy-Nominated bassist Christian McBride; vocal extraordinaire Kevin Mahogany; saxophonists Walter Beasley, Billy Pierce and Teodross Avery; and pianist Jason Moran.
New Life Jazz Orchestra
by Mike Joyce, Washington Post, 9/13/2005
No one will ever accuse Kendrick Oliver of setting his sights low. The leader of the Boston-bred New Life Jazz Orchestra once summed up his ensemble's mission thusly: "To swing like Count Basie and have the impact of Mahalia Jackson."
At Blues Alley on Sunday night, that aim was particularly apparent. Dubbed "Jazz Goes to Church," the opening set benefited from the presence of two special guests -- pianist Cyrus Chestnut and singer Kevin Mahogany. Chestnut moved from swing to spirituals and back again with great verve and soul, juxtaposing racing sprints with resounding gospel chords, kneaded trills and bluesy pentatonic riffs. Mahogany, who boasts a rich baritone, covered a lot of ground, too, though he never sounded more expressive than when quietly interpreting "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."
What stood out for most of the evening, though, were the arrangements, crafted by Oliver and saxophonist Jason Anderson, plus the ensemble's impressive talent pool. Vocalist Monica Lynk displayed not just finely honed technique and octave-leaping range but the ability to make even a well-worn lyric resonate with deep emotion.
The charts devised by Oliver and Anderson infused old melodies with robust harmonies and vibrant contrasts as the focus abruptly shifted from one ensemble section to another. "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "Wade in the Water" were punctuated by several delightfully evocative original pieces, among them the Basie-inspired "Kid From Nazareth." Energizing the performances were Anderson, trombonist Jeff Bush, bassist Michael Hawkins, drummer Charles Haynes and other gifted band members.
This story ran on page C03 of the Washington Post on 9/13/2005.
Sing! - Swing! - Stomp! - Shout!
The Art of Big Band Performance Clinic
Presented at Bryant College - Smithfield, RI
So far, the program is proving to be a welcomed educational format. On February 27, 2003 at Bryant College in Rhode Island, Kendrick Oliver & The New Life Jazz Orchestra had the opportunity to present the program to a total of 33 high school music students from (2) High Schools in the Rhode Island area: Smithfield High School, under the musical direction of Jim Seabra; and King Phillip Regional High School, under the musical direction of Peter Tileston. Also present, were a host of eager music students from Bryant College and Representatives of the New England Jazz Alliance.
New Life opened up the 1-hour program with a performance of Inghin’ the Ooh/Moten Swing and immediately commanded the attention of the attendees. Oliver began to explain the history of the Band’s formation at Berklee College of Music, his vision for the group, and offered stories, both borrowed and original, to convey his message about the Art of Big Band. Breaking the ice with occasional sprinkles of humor and additional performances of big band arrangements, Oliver invited the audience to ask questions and was presently surprised by the level of questioning he received from various members of the student population. Many members of the New Life Jazz Orchestra also stepped up to the microphone and answered questions from their personal musical perspectives.
There were few spectators as Representatives of the New England Jazz Alliance, members of the Bryant College Jazz Ensemble, and the High School attendees each made a contribution to the communal passion present in the auditorium – whether through laughter, questions, outward praise of the performed big band arrangements – everyone seemed to be having a great time. Guest Vocalist, Kevin Mahogany was also present in the audience and posed a few challenging questions that Oliver admittedly said, “made him sweat”. Nevertheless, Oliver answered the questions with flying colors and both he and the audience expressed a joyous relief!
As Oliver peered out into the crowd, he noticed how the audience was unintentionally segmented by age: High School Students in the front rows, College Students in the middle rows, and Representatives of the New England Jazz Alliance in the rear. Oliver expressed to the audience that “perhaps the most wonderful aspect of presenting this program today is seeing the young and the older folks enjoying and embracing the same musical experience” – a remnant of Oliver’s vision for the New Life Jazz Orchestra.
Following the clinic, many of the attendees purchased tickets to the evening presentation of the group’s self-authored touring jazz program, Swingin’ the Blues, Basie and Beyond: Celebrating the Music of Count Basie and the Kansas City Sound.”, which featured guest vocalist, Kevin Mahogany. This event was said to be the most well-attended concert in the history of Bryant College’s Black History Events.
Jazz Goes to Church : Innovation from the New Life Jazz Orchestra
by Scott McLennan : eWorchester - Entertainment
"It's not just about jazz or just about gospel. It's about playing good music," says Cyrus Chestnut.
The link between church pew and bandstand may not be obvious to most, but band leader Kendrick Oliver saw it, and his latest musical program celebrates a place where gospel music and jazz meet.
"Jazz Goes to Church" is the latest offering from Oliver’s acclaimed New Life Jazz Orchestra. The new program bolsters New Life’s already powerful ranks with guest appearances by piano player Cyrus Chestnut and singer Kevin Mahogany.
Oliver said he had been mulling the gospel-meets-jazz idea for about five years, and the idea finally came to life with the debut of "Jazz Goes to Church" in October in Hartford. The sophomore performance of "Jazz Goes to Church" happens Friday at Mechanics Hall, 321 Main St., Worcester. Music Worcester is presenting "Jazz Goes to Church" as part of the annual Mass Jazz Festival.
Oliver brought New Life to Worcester last year and wowed a crowd at Tuckerman Hall with a program that celebrated Count Basie and the blues. With that show, Oliver said the key was showing how hard a 19-piece big band could swing.
Swing is still the thing with New Life, but there is another important ingredient, Oliver said, for "Jazz Goes to Church."
The New Life Jazz Orchestra has long made the gospel standard "Wade in the Water" a show stopper, and this new show seems to build on that. The young big band based in Boston tapped a collection of hymns and traditional church songs ranging from "Motherless Child" to "His Eye is On the Sparrow" for "Jazz Goes to Church."
The 30-year-old Oliver grew up in Texas where his mother was the pastor of his family’s church. The music Oliver heard at Sunday services made a lasting impression.
"The music heard in church influences most of us. A lot of guys in the band have a shared background," said Oliver, who formed New Life in 1995 and has steadily seen its profile rise in the jazz community.
Cyrus Chestnut, a dynamic younger breed of piano player who launched his solo career 10 years ago after stints with Betty Carter and Wynton Marsalis, also shared the background Oliver described.
"It’s not just about jazz or just about gospel. It’s about playing good music," Chestnut said. "But church boys know certain things about music that can be worked into a performance."
Chestnut’s most recent album is "You Are My Sunshine," and the spirit of gospel courses through most of the 13 songs on the album. Chestnut’s trio delivered all instrumental takes, but there is no mistaking the soul and praise in such tunes as "Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior" or "O Precious Lord."
Oliver and Chestnut had not worked together before "Jazz Goes to Church," but both men recognized their similar paths.
Both artists acknowledged that church music often soars on the strength of large vocal choirs and the messages can be delivered through lyrics. The trick then became one of communicating similar messages and feelings primarily through instrumental arrangements.
Chestnut likened the task to that of a minister who must dutifully deliver a Christmas homily about the birth of Jesus Christ.
And to Chestnut’s thinking, Oliver is not only divining fresh water but also laying some important foundations for the future of music in the church.
"The best thing would be for this to open up the church to more instrumental music," Chestnut said. "I appreciate the sung word. But sometimes an instrumental version of a hymn can be even more powerful. Look at something that everyone knows, like ‘Precious Lord Take My Hand.’ If that gets delivered right in an instrumental setting, it may bring out something that not everyone gets in hearing the words."
Not that New Life will be lacking in the vocal department when it presents "Jazz Goes to Church." Oliver has long featured superb female vocalists in his band, and for this tour adds the firepower provided by Kevin Mahogany.
Mahogany has earned a reputation for ably handling material spanning swing to R&B. But Oliver learned through other projects with Mahogany of the singer’s affinity for gospel.
"It took the right musicians to make this project work," Oliver said, noting how Chestnut and Mahogany complemented the New Life Jazz Orchestra’s sound and vision. "I was a big fan of theirs. I worked with Kevin, and had listened to Cyrus’ CDs, and just thought they were the right fit. Bringing together gospel and jazz is something I have always hinted at, but never had a complete program for. What we have now is the ultimate gospel and swing combination."
Christian McBride guests with Kendrick Oliver & The New Life Jazz Orchestra in Sold-Out Performance to Record Live CD Project
Who would have ever thought that on Friday, September 6 a historic musical event would take place in Boston? Crowds of eager fans scurried in bunches of twos and threes inside the cozy little jazz club overlooking the water - hoping to grab the closest seats to the stage in order to scream the praises of the scheduled performers. Kendrick Oliver & The New Life Jazz Orchestra, featuring guest bassist, Christian McBride, would perform before a sold out Scullers Jazz Club audience [Boston] for the group's live debut CD project, scheduled for release in January 2003. This would be perhaps amongst the most powerful of documented musical experiences in the jazz tradition - and everyone in attendance would be a part of it!
Boston Magazine "Hot List"
by Andrew Rimas : Boston Magazine
Creativity. Inspiration. Art. Call it what you will, this city is dripping with it. From flamenco to fiction, curators to cartoonists, here's our pick of Boston's most sizzling talent.
New Life Jazz Orchestra swings with spirituality
by Steve Greenlee, Globe Staff, 1/10/2003
The New Life Jazz Orchestra's first full recording has been a long time coming. Kendrick Oliver put the band together back in 1995, when he was a 20-year-old student at Berklee College of Music. It wasn't until September 2002 that the 18-member ensemble - with the help of vocalist Monica Lynk and A-list bassist Christian McBride - laid down a full set of tracks, during a concert at Scullers Jazz Club.
Tonight Oliver and his band return to Scullers to celebrate the release of ''Welcome to New Life,'' a warm, inviting, powerful house party of an album that announces that spirited - and spiritual - big-band jazz is alive and kicking.
''The best quote I've heard about it is that it is Mahalia Jackson meets Count Basie,'' says Oliver, who's now 28. ''We like to call it gospel jazz. But we don't just do gospel. We combine the swing with the gospel feel, add a Basie tinge. When you are able to combine the two successfully, I think it makes some great music.''
His elementary school music teacher suggested he try the tuba, and it worked out beautifully. Because of both his skill and his unusual choice of instrument - for jazz, anyway - he was admitted to a magnet school for the performing arts in Texas and then earned a scholarship to Berklee. He's lived in Boston ever since.
Oliver assembled New Life Orchestra for a black history show at Berklee in 1995. ''It was phenomenally successfully,'' he says. ''We decided to keep it together. We played around town, and before you knew it we had a huge following in the Boston area.''
The music's allure has much to do with its infectious combination of spirituality and swing.
''I'm from down South,'' Oliver says. ''I was brought up in the church. It's a permanent part of who I am. I'm a Christian. And I've always loved swing, always loved Count Basie's music. [Gospel and swing] were the two most prominent musics in my life. I've always been fascinated with trying to combine the two. As I got older and developed my writing and arranging skills, it just came together, and I was able to put together the sounds I heard in my head.''
He has long wanted to record an album, but the group's size has made it difficult to get all its members together for a studio session. Meanwhile, some of the group's famous fans - including the young trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton, who have played with New Life - told Oliver his first CD should be a live recording, he says. It finally came together on Sept. 6 at Scullers.
Oliver scored a coup by getting McBride, one of jazz's most prolific bassists, for the show.
''Christian was the right person for the gig,'' Oliver says. ''We're good friends.'' McBride is showcased on several tunes, most prominently on an 11-minute workout of Milt Hilton's ''Pluckin' the Bass.'' The disc includes a few original compositions but mostly features old swing tunes such as ''Moten Swing'' and ''Jumpin' at the Woodside'' as well as a couple of spirituals.
Berklee recently awarded Oliver a $5,000 grant to run clinics that introduce swing to middle and high school students in New York. The program is called ''Sing, Swing, Stomp, Shout!'' and Oliver's reason for organizing it embodies his philosophy of making jazz in the 21st century. It also speaks volumes about New Life's music.
''I envision having a kid who's 12 and a 75-year-old enjoying the same music in the same place,'' he says. ''We're just trying to bridge the gap between the ages.''
Steve Greenlee can be reached at email@example.com. This story ran on page D16 of the Boston Globe on 1/10/2003.
Kendrick Oliver '95: New Life for the Big-Band Idiom
by Ed Hazell : Berklee Today
Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Jazz Orchestra are on a mission. "We're on a mission to bring back big-band swing and then take it where it's never gone before," he says. "My personal vision is to see an audience where a 12-year-old and a 75-year-old are enjoying the same music. And I believe that that can happen. Hip-hop hasn't done that, a lot of music has never done that, but I think big-band swing can do that." With their debut CD just out and a Berklee alumni grant to fund middle- and high-school education programs, the 27-year-old tuba player and his 19-piece band of twenty-somethings are well on the way to fulfilling their mission.
As they worked toward the concert date, Oliver grew to understand that big bands are more than a collection of people merely sitting down to jam. "You have to learn to play in a section, learn how to sacrifice your personal sound to get that one big sound. We had some struggles at first. But before you know it, I had a big band and this show with Roy Hargrove. And it was a slammin' success."
Encouraged by that initial success, Oliver decided to keep a band going after graduation. Six band members from the original show signed on, and the remainder were recent Berklee grads living in the Boston area. Eight years later, Oliver estimates that 85 per cent of the original crew is still together and they have built an enthusiastic following in Boston and New England. Some of the players have migrated to New York, where band members like trumpeter Jeremy Pelt '98, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon '98 are now much in demand. But they always return to Boston when Oliver calls. The orchestra's debut CD, Welcome to New Life (Sphere), illustrates why musicians and audiences alike find Oliver's big band so hard to resist. Recorded live at Scullers Jazz Club, one of the band's favorite Boston haunts, the album captures the group's electrifying dance-floor revival-meeting style. Drawing on swing staples such as Basie's "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and swinging versions of gospel tunes like "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," the style is strictly swing era. But the mood is far from the solemn historicism heard from a lot of jazz repertory orchestras. New Life expresses wild joy with an artistic precision that is authentic to the reckless spirit of the 1930s and uniquely their own. From the gleaming power of the trombones to the vocal warmth of the saxophones to the relentless groove of the rhythm section, there isn't a note out of place or a misjudged riff. The band's sheer visceral pleasure in playing is palpable and soloists like Pelt, Zenon, and tenor saxophonist Jason Anderson '97 (who also pens many of the charts) only add to the celebratory atmosphere.
Go-for-broke swing and orchestral punch only partly account for the band's power and appeal. Oliver manages to instill in the music a heavy dose of spiritual uplift, without a hint of proselytizing. "I grew up in the church, so it's a very big influence personally," he explains. "I love God and I love big-band music, and I was determined in my own mind to put those two together. I've had nothing but good luck with it; people have welcomed it with open arms."
Other than a busy summer schedule of appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival, Tanglewood, and elsewhere, Oliver is also preparing an education program called Sing, Swing, Stomp, Shout!: The Art of Big Band, which is funded by a $5,000 Berklee alumni grant. "We're going into the high schools to reinforce the power and excitement of the swing big bands," Oliver says. "What we're trying to do is not only instill the swing but re-establish the excitement in the music, so that the kids can understand the spirit of it and why it was once so popular."
That spirit is the key to New Life's success. "I always tell an audience the same thing I tell the band," Oliver says. "We don't have a lot of rules here, but you have to have a good time. We want the audience to have as good a time as we're having. And we don't have to compromise our music to do that."
Berklee Awards $50,000 in Grants to Four Alumni
The College Launches into it's new Alumni Grant Program
BOSTON, December 5, 2002 — Berklee College of Music President Lee Eliot Berk announced today that the college has awarded grants to four alumni in support of their efforts to promote music education and community outreach initiatives in the community. The grants, which total $50,000, have been presented to Catherine Goldwyn '78, Kendrick Oliver '95, Hans Schuman '90, and Juri Shigeta '02.
With the awarding of these funds, the college has launched its new alumni grant program, which will provide seed money for initiatives that foster the creativity of the college's alumni, further Berklee's mission of contemporary music education, and help improve society through music. The grants were established by the college's Board of Trustees, with funding from endowment income. A review committee will award new grants annually; all Berklee alumni are eligible to apply.
Juri Shigeta, Lee Eliot Berk, Kendrick Oliver, and Hans Schuman
"I am pleased to recognize and support the good work of these four alumni, whose creativity and compassion make Berklee proud," President Berk said. "So many of our graduates have undertaken work of significant social value. The alumni grant program is just one way the college hopes to reward those who have given so much to their alma mater and their community."
All four of these inaugural grants will help support education projects spearheaded by Berklee alumni. Sound Art, led by Catherine Goldwyn '78, provides music education to students from the South Central district of Los Angeles. Kendrick Oliver '95 leads his New Life Jazz Orchestra in conducting educational clinics in the New York City area. Hans Schuman '90 helps direct JazzReach, a performance-based group educating public school youngsters about jazz. And, Juri Shigeta '02 works with juvenile offenders in the Boston area and Washington state.
Catherine Goldwyn '78, of Santa Monica, California, received a $25,000 grant. Goldwyn is the director of Sound Art, a nonprofit organization that offers musical training and exposure to inner-city youths in Los Angeles. The grant will help provide up to five portable recording studios, to be used by young people in public schools, after-school programs, and community centers in the L.A. area.
Kendrick Oliver '95, of New York City, received a $5,000 grant. Oliver is a tubist, composer, and conductor of the New Life Jazz Orchestra, a 19-member big band that features 15 Berklee alumni. The orchestra presents an educational program called "Sing, Swing, Stomp & Shout" in New York-area public schools. The grant will help offset the expense of these presentations.
Hans Schuman '90, of Brooklyn, N.Y., received a $15,000 grant. Schuman is the founder and artistic director of JazzReach, a nonprofit organization that promotes a greater awareness and appreciation of jazz through performance-based education programs. The grant will help increase the staff of JazzReach, enabling the program to reach a greater number of young people.
Juri Shigeta '02, of Boston, received a $5,000 grant. Shigeta recently founded Genuine Voices, a nonprofit organization that teaches music and sound sequencing to youths at juvenile detention centers. Through focused lessons and increased personal attention, the program aims to build musical skills and encourage young offenders to make positive decisions. The grant will help offset operational costs and provide a catalyst for others to contribute to the program.
Berklee College of Music was founded on the revolutionary principle that the best way to prepare students for careers in music was through the study and practice of contemporary music. For over half a century, the college has evolved constantly to reflect the state of the art of music and the music business. With over a dozen performance and nonperformance majors, a diverse and talented student body representing 70 plus countries, and a music industry "who's who" of alumni, Berklee is the world's premier learning lab for the music of today — and tomorrow.
For more information, please contact:
Sarah Godcher Murphy
Berklee College of Music
(617) 747-2658 or firstname.lastname@example.org