Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Lunch with jazz king of the North Coast: Anthony Jefferson

anthony jeffersonOn a summer day, we find ourselves driving uphill on a tiny road in the sunny beach town of Sosua, located on the cherished north shore of the Dominican Republic.

Green leafy trees turn into natural arches while a beautiful and colorful house, somewhat off the main road, appears to view. Behind it you can clearly see the bay down below and it's small white boats float tranquil in relaxing shades of blue water. To the left side of the entrance, what would normally be considered the house parking lot has been turned into a bird sanctuary, home to 30 lovebirds happily singing. It’s Anthony Jefferson’s Sosua Beach House.

Walking in, various puppies come to greet. A big beautiful black piano sits to the right and to the left is Anthony inside a wide kitchen swaying his way around pans and pots, the smell of fresh ingredients fills the summer air.  “I’m cooking up some finger food! Make yourself at home!” he says with a nonchalant tone while carrying on his chef duties. Bowls and plates filled with food are placed at the table, a small feast with a mixture of world cultures upon each plate. 

The door bell rings. A tall dark skinned man stands in the entrance with a smile as his presentation card. Junior Severe has been Anthony’s handler for several years now. “This man here is my backbone, I trust him very much. Junior gets everything set and ready before showtime! Don’t know what I’d do without him!”. 

anthony jefferson

Lately Anthony has been very excited, ever since he began his plans of recording a new album in October with the Santo domingo Philharmonic String and Santo Domingo Big Band. It's a big deal! After setting up the table, we sit down and a question flies in the air: Who is Anthony Jefferson?. He pauses, looks up as if about to read from an invisible script, a series of life images get caught up in his big shiny eyes while a captivating life story unravels.

“I’m the middle child, I was born into a very religious family in New Orleans. Always interested in the arts. My mom was a school teacher and my dad worked as an assistant police officer, he made history in the state of Louisiana by being the fist african american to ever get appointed in that position”. Dad being baptist and mom a catholic, Anthony was expected to participate in both religions.

At the age of five he began singing in church and catholic school, making the church an intricate element in his upbringing and routines. It went a little like this: “I had to teach sunday church school, go to elementary school then wear my altar uniform (I was an altar boy), afterwards I’d sing with ‘Spirit Movers’ a group which would pack the church whenever we came on. We’d wear our traditional dashikis... my mom made mine” he recalls. 

Jefferson would soon get caught up in the sounds and music since he’d sing for his kindergarden PTA’s (parent/teacher meetings), school christmas seminars and religious events, in which during most he would hear his mom cheer in the background “That’s my baby!”. 

anthony jefferson mom

She always believed in him and will hold a special place as catalyst for his music career. His mom had him learn and play piano for 8 years. “I studied under J. W. Williams, even though I didn’t like it at all... I hated playing the piano. But I had to do as Mama said”. And what was initially an annoying practice for Anthony, would in the long run give him an almost  perfect pitch on everything he sang. 

A valley boy in Los Angeles: Next stop CalArts! 

“I studied in Los Angeles Valley College. One day working at UPS my buddy heard me sing while I worked, said I had to check out the California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Next thing I know, I’m heading to an audition!”

After already taking Musical Theatre and Repertoire, Anthony was to do an audition with classical music but he didn’t know much about it. His knowledge was around Broadway music and he performed “Everything must change” by George Benson. The judges were Paul Vorwek, a musical conductor and writer for musical scores, and Susan Allen, the Associate Dean of CalArts. When finished they asked him an honest question: “Well, with a voice like that... Why do you want to go to school?”

Anthony didn’t think twice and expressed his firm desires for growth and greatness in his passion, it was what his heart wanted. Two weeks passed before a letter in the mail congratulated him on his acceptance and offered a full scholarship in the art school. Once there Anthony mingled with contemporary artists disciplines like dance, film, photography, animation, and such. The interaction was exhilarating for a young man in his mid twenties.

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“I’d see cool people in my classes, people like Robbie Coltrane, Willie Jones III (#1 jazz drummer in the world), Mark Shelby, Jessy Diamond and some more heavy headers.” 

After his freshman year, he and his band took 2nd place in Battle of the Bands and was the first band to get selected to play at the graduation party that year which was listed in Hit Playboy’s top 10 parties of the year. The band included Greg Kirsten (Chaka Khan’s pianist), Dustin Boyer in guitar, Willie on the drums and Carlos in bass. “It was crazy but true! By the time we finished the show we were showered with cards, maybe cus most of the songs we played were originals!”.

Being the first vocalist in history of CalArts to go from Classical Music over to the Jazz Department, he’s still not sure why or how they accepted into trying out the transition. Anthony also played around latin and cuban beats with songs like Rubén Blades ‘Camaleón’. “I easily managed this style and after a while people actually thought I really was a dark cuban.” 

While in school he was getting straight A’s and was top in his department. The Dean from the school pulled him aside and said: “Anthony, we need to talk. After giving it some thought we consider you’d be better suited at this other school...”

Berklee College of Music

A big transition had been put into motion, it was his fist year in Boston and Anthony did not know a single soul. Other Berklee students were as good as he was in vocals and in most cases they mastered several instruments as well. Jefferson’s bubbly and loud personality was set off. He couldn’t help feel like he still had lots to learn so he focused on being the best he could. 

For his second year, it was a whole other story. “I came out swinger! Had to fight hard to prove I deserved to be there, as well as joining an ensemble. It was a great opportunity to make your own band with the help and tutoring of important staff members.”

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Having studied classical music and vocal training in the classical method, Anthony got around to studying R&B as well, thanks to his love for 70’s and 80’s classical R&B. A taste he acquired thanks to his grandmother, owner of a bar and restaurant which had a  vintage jukebox. This gave young Anthony access to a wide range of records he’d listen to on endless occasions by putting his head against the stereo, unconsciously turning him into an authority on the subject.

Amongst his influences he cites songs like Dead or Alive’s I’d Do Anything, Staple Singer’s Let’s do it Again and Isaac Hayes’s I Stand Accused, as well as some of Betty Wright’s. “My mom would say I was a 40 year old on the inside, and I didn’t understand at the time. I just knew I was deeply intrigued with old R&B melodies and the powerful stories behind them. The cases between Shirley Brown’s Woman to Woman and Barbara Mason’s From his Woman to You, I love that kind of stuff, it was like listening to soap operas in the music.” These influences were complimentary to the making of what we know today as Anthony Jefferson.

On occasion, Anthony did a phenomenal showcase landing him in the school’s Top 20 vocals. “Still don’t know how that happened. Things at Berklee were cut-throat in the sense that all students battled their way to a certain position. The East Coast had a hard hitting heavy swing, and I loved it.” 

Back home again: University of New Orleans

Once done with his two years at Berklee, Anthony attended the University of New Orleans and all that jazz went slurring back in. His life changed for sure. Pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. (Wynton Marsali’s dad, a famous jazz trumpeter), Harold Battiste (sax and piano player and musical arranger) and Ed Peterson (music director) were his main mentors, as well as vocal trainer Leah Chase Camata (renowned singer). Anthony became the living representation of the Jazz Department. 

“Jazz music was born in New Orleans!”

anthony jefferson home

A debate arose from within classical and jazz schools, both departments wanted him for his rich baritone voice filled with feeling and emotion, also his knack for improvisation. I take a pause in our conversation and wonder: But, which one did you pick?

“Well, both naturally! Jazz would be my main, and I’d join the classical choir as well. I shined very well in each to the point that I became THE Jazz person ‘till I finished school.”

After selling out the christmas show every year, Anthony got in touch with trumpeter Mark Rapp, one of the top 10 best jazz trumpeters in the world according to NY Times. Mark and him made an ensemble with musicians like Charlie Denard and Mark Di Florio. With a suave voice and silky tunes, Anthony was a new specie, somewhere between Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. 

Flying away to new lands

Somewhere along the road, Anthony and Jim, a family attorney and neighbor, would visit Venezuela, however, with a swift change of plans they ended up arriving to the Dominican Republic. That was ten years ago and hasn’t left much ever since. This is home.

Anthony jefferson home lovebirds

“After I settled in, I began taking a few piano lessons with Robert Cruz from Santiago, and once he heard me sing little did I know he would trick into singing at the “Lunes de Jazz” (monday jazz nights) in the bar-lounge section inside the Cibao Theatre. I was to sing a song, but they kept cheering me on to sing some more and I had to sing 4 or 5 songs. I just couldn’t say no, musicians live for applause!”

The Santiago audience went wild with his style and Jefferson saw an opportunity to start out a local band with talented dominican musicians.

The Jefferson Faculty and “But Beautiful”

After assisting on several occasions to jazz nights, Anthony hand picked those that were up to the task. The band included awarded sax player Jonathan Piña, drummer Emil Garcia, bass guitarist Kelvin Piña and pianist Manuel Tejada. Each of them a pro in their instrument.

His album “But Beautiful” was a hit and it got them concerts at the Dominican Fiesta Hotel and articles in all the Santo Domingo magazines. Having worked with multi grammy winner Corey Allen, they recorded an album which later got reviews in several publications across the United States. 

“I was awarded Best Male Vocalist for the GHP Awards in Oklahoma, did live TV and radio, as well as a huge party after accepting the award, of course! I was ecstatic!”

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But that wasn’t all. Jefferson got picked up by the Great American Songbook which featured him as artist of the month and designed him his own website page. By 2014 he was featured in The Jazz in M.E.E. Magazine along with big names like Robert Glasper, David Sanborn, Gerard Albright and Dennis Kahn. Other media like Jazz Weekly and Jazz Time Magazine also did wide spreads on his work. But not everything has been handed out on a silver platter...

“The album is still reaching heights but it wasn’t nominated for the Grammy’s, mainly because I missed it shy for a point. My other CD didn’t have the USB code (for US Registry), that would’ve made some noise. But it is what it is” he says with a sigh.

In a good place now

“Listen, I can’t go backwards, only forward! I understand my style represents elegance and that’s what I aim for. When people hear my music they want to dress up and have a nice night out and you know, listen to something special. That’s what I offer them, I offer luxury.”

We can imagine the CD release party was fancy, to say the least, considering it took place at Sosua Ocean Village. “The place was laid out like a dream”. 

anthony jefferson

They also did a concert in Puerto Plata with several other dominican artists in which a thousand people attended. Anthony sung ‘New York New York’ with Sandy Gabriel and the Santo Domingo Big Jazz Band and, needless to say, the man stole the show! 

“It was a wonderful experience, I’ve been very happy and blessed in this country. I was born in New Orleans but I’m dominican by choice.” he tells me before he taking a sip from his cup. 

On to the next things

anthony jefferson

Having been selected and appointed as official music ambassador for the American Charitable Veterans Foundation, Anthony will do a special show and wrote a new song with Corey Allen named ‘For the Honor’: “It’s specially for the military. I made it with a strong message gives out a powerful punch. I’m also happy to announce that this summer I’m becoming the latest addition for the Lifestyle Resorts family in Cofresí. I’ll be performing every sunday later this summer.” 

It isn’t his first time. For their Christmas party this last year they had 4 thousand guests attend the event and Anthony was included amongst in the 11 acts that performed. After his part, he received a note from Eduardo Melo (head of the resort) saying he did a tremendous performance. Cut to the next day, and Anthony was getting a spot for their New Years Eve party as well. 

“Lifestyles Resort is a wonderful establishment, dynamite food, excellent staff and I am proud to call it home base. The special event team are dynamite and well as their sound engineers, production and design technicians and video team. To me it's a wonderful marriage.” says Anthony with pride.

The life of an artist

“There are things within us as artists, you could call it an energy or a force, but you have to know how to direct it and what you do with it because sometimes we’re not fully aware...  Screwing up has never been a part of my plans. I try to keep my brain in sync with my body and voice, but I let my heart tell it’s own story. That’s what happens when I’m on stage, and I the audience catches on.” 

With shows lined up for Europe now, specially in Norway, Anthony says he might do a show before his travels.

“Right now I’m just focusing on writing new material, I’m also working on my first bilingual song and it’s got a lot of good ingredients. I think if you have those you are bound to have a great final product and that’s that!”. 

Cheers to a life of music and soul!

anthony jefferson HOME



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