Kendrick Oliver '95: New Life for the Big-Band Idiom
by Ed Hazell
Kendrick Oliver '95 appears as a caricature on the jacket of
his CD. Visit www.sphereentertainment.net
for more on the disc.
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.
Oliver, who graduated from Houston's High School for the Visual and Performing Arts (where pianist Jason Moran was a classmate), never envisioned leading his own band when he came to Berklee in 1994. But in his sophomore year, the arranging and music-business major joined the committee that plans Black History Month events at the college. As the committee decided who the featured artist should be, "We started throwing around names, and I suggested Roy Hargrove," Oliver remembers. "He's from Texas, like me, and he was my idol growing up." Oliver also suggested presenting Hargrove with a student big band, "not thinking they would ask me to lead it, but that's what they did. I sat there kind of stunnedI'd never considered it before; but it was a challenge and a responsibility, so I took it. I put a band together with the help of faculty members including Bill Pierce, Andy McGhee, Ron Savage, Ron Mahdi, and a lot of support, particularly from Dr. Warrick Carter, Berklee's dean of faculty at the time."
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."