Vocalist Johnaye Kendrick Takes Flight

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Vocalist Johnaye Kendrick performs and teaches in the U.S. Northwest.

(Photo: Courtesy of Artist)

Although Johnaye Kendrick says she’s tired, there’s little sign of it to be found in her bubbly demeanor and highly animated style of speaking.

The jazz vocalist has every reason to be worn out. She and her husband have twin 3-year-old girls to keep them busy, and when she met up with DownBeat at her favorite brewpub in her current hometown of Tacoma, Washington, she had just wrapped up a week leading an intensive camp for young singers run by her employer, Cornish College of the Arts.

Despite her entreaties of exhaustion, Kendrick enjoys a meal of oysters and cider as she recounts her artistic growth—from playing violin in high school in San Diego to her days in New Orleans singing with Ellis Marsalis to her current life in the Northwest, where she teaches and performs.

“The music scene here is open-arms love,” Kendrick says. “They’re so open and loving and excited to connect. It’s charming. I love it here.”

Much of her enthusiasm right now concerns the release of her new, self-released album, Flying. Produced and arranged by Kendrick, it’s a warmly conceived set of tunes that mixes together her original compositions and some renditions of songs from the jazz and pop canons, like “I’ve Got No Strings,” from the Disney classic Pinocchio, and “Fallen,” a tune heard by many in the film Pretty Woman.

“I did ‘Fallen’ for my mom,” said Kendrick. “Growing up, we would watch Pretty Woman every weekend. She was visiting me and my twins recently, and we were talking about the days when we’d do that. And she said, ‘Oh, I love that song.’ So, in my mind, I was, like, ‘Record that one for mom.’”

The tribute is a fitting gesture to a woman who encouraged Kendrick’s musical interests from a young age, from her early piano lessons to her interest in playing violin. It wasn’t until high school, though, that Kendrick decided to take singing seriously. But once she got to college, she realized she still had a lot to learn.

“My freshman year, I went into jazz piano,” Kendrick recalls. “And the teacher goes, ‘You’re going to be swinging your eighth notes,’ and I leaned over and said, ‘What does that mean?’ I didn’t know anything about it. I just knew how it felt.”

After graduating from Western Michigan University, Kendrick earned an artist’s diploma from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and a master’s degree in jazz studies from Loyola University in New Orleans. During her time in the Crescent City, she was hired by Marsalis, as well as trumpeter Nicholas Payton, as a featured vocalist in their respective ensembles. These days, she seems most comfortable leading her own ensemble, which she has done ever since relocating to Washington State.

Kendrick chooses her collaborators carefully, looking for the right mixture of raw talent and an ability to slip between styles with ease. From the sounds of the musicians backing her up on Flying, including pianist Dawn Clement and drummer D’Vonne Lewis, she has perfected the formula.

Clement finds her ongoing work with Kendrick to be deeply satisfying: “I can’t speak highly enough of Johnaye and can honestly say that I enjoy the listening experience as much as I enjoy playing music with her. She is the real deal, so legit, so true-blue, out of another era and yet pushing and propelling the music forward.”

Tired as Kendrick might say she is now, she has a new school year to plan for, as well as gigs in Los Angeles and Mexico City—in addition to her regular performances in the Seattle area. True to the name of her new album, Kendrick is flying. DB




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April 2019
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