Johnaye Kendrick Quartet
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Johnaye Kendrick Quartet

New Orleans, Louisiana, United States | SELF

New Orleans, Louisiana, United States | SELF
Band Jazz


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Johnaye Kendrick is the talented vocalist of the recently graduated 2009 class of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, the first graduating class since the relocation of the program to New Orleans. Her accomplishments as a member of that 7-piece combo of ambassadorial, budding virtuosos have garnered accolades from such jazz veterans with whom she has performed as Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Jesse McBride, Ellis Marsalis, Jr., and Nicholas Payton. I had the privilege of conducting the first interview of Johnaye the soloist as she embarks on her promising career, already becoming a fixture of the local music scene.
Johnaye recalled making up music to accompany riddles with her older sister as a young child. She listened to a great deal of pop music on the radio, and Mariah Carey made an early impression on her. “I could sing every song exactly the way she sang it,” she told me.
Johnaye’s parents provided her with piano lessons, but she didn’t take to the instrument. She later gravitated to the violin, though her parents were skeptical given her indifference to piano. She simply loved the sound of the instrument and felt a kind of connection to it. She spoke to the school orchestra teacher who pleaded with Johnaye’s mother to allow her to pursue the violin.
“That teacher was really important to me,” Johnaye confided. “The encouragement I got from that teacher was really inspiring.”
Halfway through her tenth grade year, Johnaye auditioned for the vocal jazz choir. “I was imitating whatever my teacher would direct me to do,” she said, alluding to her considerable yet raw potential as a vocalist. “My junior year my friend gave me a cassette tape of Sarah Vaughan. Something just clicked, and I spent the next three years of my life imitating and listening to nothing but Sarah Vaughan. I bought all of these box sets. It was all the foundation that I needed.
“But it got to the point where I had to stop listening to her because all I could do is sing what I heard,” she added. “It’s not offensive if someone comes up to you and says ‘You sound exactly like Sarah Vaughan,’ but if a musician says it, it’s like ‘What are you doing?’ You need to get your own thing together. I had to try to stop imitating. It took a long time.”
She began to listen to the current generation of jazz vocalists such as Jane Monheit and Diana Krall. Johnaye also noted the Oscar Peterson trio as an influence. It wasn’t until the end of her undergraduate years that she started listening to trumpet and other horn players.
Johnaye chose to attend the Chicago College of Performing Arts rather than to stay close to her home in San Diego, stating a desire to get away and figure out things on her own. She attended a vocal jazz performance at Western Michigan University, and decided to transfer there on the strength of that experience.
“Their vocal jazz ensemble was amazing,” she recalled. “There were 16 singers and they were all just great soloists, great improvisers – just great musicians – had fantastic stage presence. It was the most amazing group of singing musicians that I had ever seen. I said ‘Oh that’s it. That is it!’ I dropped what I was doing. I said ‘This is great, but I want to get my ass kicked. This is what I need.’”
Johnaye recalled the WMU experience as demanding training that forced her to stretch in terms of her capabilities. “It was like vocal jazz boot camp,” she said. “The teacher, Dr. Stephen Zegree, had such high expectations. It was his concept. He came up with it 29 years ago and it’s been his baby. He’s a great pianist and a great vocal jazz instructor. Amazing. Amazing!” she repeated.
“It was important in my development as a musician.”
The regimented jazz vocal program at WMU undoubtedly prepared Johnaye well for the intense auditions for the Monk Institute. “I was so busy concentrating on the music that I completely forgot the panel. I’m thinking ‘Just breathe,’ and then I look up and it’s Herbie (Hancock) and Wayne (Shorter) and Terence (Blanchard) and Thelonious Monk, Jr. and I said, ‘Oh hi!’ I completely forgot.”
“They had a list of all of these tunes, and they called different songs for each singer. But the one thing that they had every singer do was sing ‘Donna Lee’ (a bebop standard) a capella. I feel like I got lucky with the tunes they called for me. I’d been practicing it, and it was one of the things I had been working on. They (the panel) ended up clapping at the end of it. My girlfriend was waiting at the door and she said, ‘They didn’t clap for anybody else.’”
Johnaye noted composition and educational outreach as primary cornerstones of the Monk Institute program. “I really loved going to the different schools and working with the kids,” she said warmly. “I loved working with them. They would come up and give me a big hug goodbye. It felt good to be giving back to the community. I have a vocal jazz ensemble at McDonough 35. They are amazing musicians.
“That’s the whole reason that we’re here,” she added. “It’s important to perform and to learn and to work on your craft, but the whole reason that the institute came here was to give back to the community. That’s very important to me. I didn’t really realize how unique New Orleans is until I came here,” she said of her experience relative to her expectations of the city. “It’s been this wonderful opportunity the last two years to run around, learn about the city, and to fall in love with it. Obviously, I’m not leaving. It did something to me.”
Johnaye noted that Jesse McBride gave her a steady gig shortly after coming to New Orleans. “He was really encouraging,” she said fondly. “Without him, no one else would have heard me.”
After a difficult week at the institute in which Ellis Marsalis, Jr. put her through the paces to the point that she wasn’t sure if she had won his respect, he offered a bit of praise during a live performance that clarified the issue. “What you don’t realize about Johnaye is that she’s a true musician,” he testified. “She reads music. She writes music. She can sing anything.” A few months later she received a call to sing with him at his weekly gig at Snug Harbor.
“I like to work things out on the bandstand,” she said regarding that growing reputation as a true artist and musician and not just a singer. “I don’t try to have anything contrived. I don’t need a security blanket under me, and I prefer not to have one. I try to come at it like the horn players do. When I first got to the institute, I’m not sure that I really possessed that. Everything that the instrumentalists are thinking about, I should be thinking about it too.”
The institute really honed Johnaye’s skills as a composer, a very introspective experience for her. “Everything that I write is very personal,” she said. “Something is sitting on my heart, and I have to get it off of my heart and onto the page. And I can’t ignore it.
“I journal a lot,” she added. “Journal entries become songs, which makes it difficult. Getting on stage is like reading from my journal. It’s very personal. I’ve been working on getting more comfortable with letting people in like that. You’re totally exposed. With my gig at the Sonesta (Irvin Mayfield’s club), I’ve been trying to play more original music, because it’s really important to me, and it’s my voice. You can’t get any more personal than singing your own music to a roomful of strangers.
“The more that you do it, the easier that it becomes,” she explained. “The things that you learn in a week at the institute it could take years to learn on your own.
“I love N.O. and I love the support of the musicians that exists here. The bass player will be walking down the street and you’ll say, ‘Hey bass man, where you playin’ at tonight?’ I lived in Chicago where I felt like I was so small and insignificant, and then to come here and be performing with the greatest musicians – it only happens here.
“They had considered moving the institute to New York and all of these other places. I feel like I got a lot from the people who came through the institute, but I really got a lot from New Orleans,” she revealed. “Musically it’s so important – the culture here. There’s so much to be learned here. It’s amazing how much music there is here and how much there is for me to learn, how much I have learned, and then how much I will learn being here for another year.
“I’m really excited. I plan to go to New York a little bit too, but I feel really grounded here. And I feel like this is an important part of my musical development right now.” - Where Y'at Magazine, New Orleans


Still working on that hot first release.



A San Diego native, Johnaye Kendrick received a Bachelor of Music from Western Michigan University in 2005. During her time at Western Michigan, she received a Down Beat Student Music Award as an Outstanding Jazz Vocalist, and was featured on an honors recital with pianist Fred Hersch. In the summer of 2005 she was a featured soloist in a piece composed and directed by legendary bassist Rufus Reid for the International Society of Bassists Conference.
In the fall of 2007, Ms. Kendrick was accepted to the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a Graduate program which focuses on jazz performance and composition. While attending the Thelonious Monk Institute, Johnaye worked with many jazz legends, including Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Danilo Perez, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Brian Blade. She received a Masters Degree in Jazz Studies from Loyola University, and an Artist’s Diploma from the Thelonious Monk Institute.
After graduating from the Institute, Johnaye was immediately hired by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who raves “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 about the earth. She's got IT!"
In addition to her many travels with the Nicholas Payton SEXTET, Johnaye is also the featured vocalist with the Ellis Marsalis Quartet and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. The Orchestra won a Grammy® Award in the 2009 “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album” category for their latest release, Book 1 on which Ms. Kendrick is featured.
A newly appointed Assistant Professor of Jazz Voice, Miss Kendrick is excited to be relocating to Seattle in August to begin her residency at the Cornish College of the Arts.