Meet the Artist: Kendrick Oliver

By DeBartolo Performing Arts Center

[About a 5 MIN read]

Kendrick Oliver and The New Life Jazz Orchestra
Kendrick Oliver and The New Life Jazz Orchestra

Meet the Artist: Kendrick Oliver

By DeBartolo Performing Arts Center

[About a 5 MIN read]

On February 25, following the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival — the oldest jazz festival in the U.S. — Kendrick Oliver and The New Life Jazz Orchestra make their Presenting Series debut at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Their inventive, fresh arrangements blending gospel and brass band references signify the cohesive intensity of the big band swing era.

Below, tubist Kendrick Oliver sheds light on how the band came to be and why the Count was such an inspiration to him. Read on to learn more!

The event is titled Kendrick Oliver and The New Life Jazz Orchestra. Could you talk a little about how you all met and how long you’ve been performing together?

The core of the band met during early ’93 at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Our first concert was in February of ’95 for a Black History Month concert and featured, then, a very young Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Roy Hargrove. That show launched the New Life Jazz Orchestra.  

This performance is inspired by the music of Count Basie. How has he and his music been an inspiration to you?

For the first few years of the orchestra, we searched for a sound. The more I studied Count Basie, the more his music inspired me.  His music brought such great joy and people always seemed to be bobbing their heads and dancing to his music. I agree with Duke Ellington when he said, “Count Basie was and is the essence of swing.” I hope we’re continuing that legacy.

What’s the most enjoyable part of performing with a group? The most challenging?

The best part is watching the encouragement of the group for one another. Jazz orchestras are truly unique! It’s incredible to hear and see 18+ people come together, willing to sacrifice their own personal sound to deliver one beautiful jubilee. 

The challenge is when the show ends at the end of the night. I never ever want the shows to end because it has been a true blessing in my life to lead this orchestra.

What has been your most memorable performance with the group thus far?

With so many great concerts and collaborations over the years, it is difficult to choose.  If there is one life-changing concert, it would be the one performance in ’98 at Berklee’s Performance Center. We featured Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton the night after they both won their first Grammy Awards. The night was highlighted by a trumpet battle with Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, and then members of the New Life Jazz Orchestra, Jeremy Pelt and Rashawn Ross (now a member of the Dave Matthews Band). It was a special night!

How did you come to play the tuba? Do you play any other instruments? 

This is a funny story. I started playing piano at the age of seven. I was so bad at it that when I turned eight, the piano teacher walked me to the band room and asked the band teacher, “isn’t Kendrick Oliver supposed to be in band?” I saw her wink her eye at him as to say, “please take this kid.” So that’s how I entered the band.

I started on the euphonium and was terrible at that for two months, not being able to hit the high notes. So the band director had the idea to switch me to tuba. I was so small that they had to place the tuba in a special stand for me to hold it. But after two weeks, the band director said, “Kendrick, you have found your instrument.” That piano teacher’s wink changed the course of my life. 

The only other instrument I play is the orchestra. I view the orchestra as one instrument and I’m charged with keeping it in tune.

 Do you have a favorite piece in the current program’s repertoire? 

This is a tough question. It’s like asking which parent I like most.  I would have to say it’s a tie between two arrangements. The first is “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” arranged by Jason Anderson (tenor). The arrangement really highlights the sound of the New Life Jazz Orchestra — groove and hard swing; accompanied by call and response. The second is “Amazing Grace” arranged by Kari Carson (trombone).  It’s the same song we all heard growing up in church but with a grooving essence that says New Life.  

Do you have any pre- or post-show traditions? 

Yes. Our pre-show tradition is always prayer before performance. Our post-show performance is always hugs and encouragement of one another. We all realize how blessed we are to be doing this together. 

What’s your advice to aspiring artists, specifically those pursuing a career in music?

Do it AFRAID. This has to be something that you love. There will be many days where you will feel discouraged and think you should be doing something else, but chase your passion. There is nothing like this music and it’s a gift to have this talent to do it. We are charged to share this with the world. 

We want to thank Kendrick Oliver for taking the time to share more about himself and The New Life Jazz Orchestra. Get your tickets now to enjoy an evening of big-band jazz that’s sure to swing on February 25, 2023.

Categories: Meet The Artist, News + Announcements