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‘There is a place for everybody in this music.’ A conversation with Sassy Award-winning vocalist Tyreek McDole

Tyreek McDole
Steven Sussman
Tyreek McDole

Here's a name I want you to remember because you'll be hearing it a lot in the future. Tyreek McDole is the winner of the 2023 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition, coming out on top in a contest that included a record 280+ submissions representing 37 countries. Take a few minutes to listen in and get to know this talented young man who is a standout in the next generation of great jazz singers. Dig a little deeper and visit his website, tyreekmcdole.com, his Instagram page @tyreek.mcdole or better yet, check him out live at Penny Jo’s, 3898 Broadway, NYC, where he's currently hosting a residency on Tuesday nights.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: This is quite an accomplishment. There were over 280 submissions representing 37 countries and you came out on top. How does that feel?

Tyreek McDole: I am very honored and I'm very thankful and at the same time shocked with the whole ordeal. I'm still not over it.

Let's learn a little bit about you. I understand you grew up in Florida.

That's correct. St. Claude, Florida.

Tell us about that and your introduction to music.

I was born in Suffern, New York, and my whole family is from the Spring Valley area. We moved down in around 2004 or so, and I've been living in Florida since I was younger. I always was interested in music. Like I said at the competition, my mother and my father were always playing music on the radio. So I would listen to hip hop, rap, R&B, reggaeton... The sounds of so many different styles and cultures of music were always around me. From then I saw that my sister had joined the band class a few years prior to me because she was a middle schooler. You didn't get into band until middle school. And I knew that I wanted to play an instrument. And then the movie, The Princess and the Frog just came out. I had a lot of inspiration around me to want to join the band. I was in the band class all the way from sixth grade to graduation.

What were you playing?

I was playing the trumpet, I was playing classical percussion, and then I learned a little bit of bass and piano.

When did you start singing and did you have a love of jazz from the very beginning?

Jazz is really the driving force behind why I chose to do this music. In The Princess and the Frog, one of the lead characters is a trumpet-playing alligator. I was just enamored by that. I really wanted to figure out more about this music and its history. Through that film, because it was based in New Orleans, I decided to do some research when I was in elementary school.

I picked up a couple books and I found out who Louis Armstrong was, and then from there I find out about all my other trumpet heroes like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and then from there the continuum started to expand because they're sharing the bandstand with other geniuses like Thelonious Monk, Betty Carter, Ron Carter… The list is endless. From there, that's how I got exposed to jazz music.

That whole The Princess and the Frog story and how that led you to start to do all that research, I think is a great argument for why we need representation in education. If we don't know about who we are…I just think you might not have been inspired to do what you've done, if you hadn't seen it.

That's definitely true. I can really speak to how representation has really helped me. Growing up at that time, St. Cloud was a predominantly white city. I think it still might be. But even then I didn't really have a lot of opportunities to see myself especially in the arts, because the arts in general weren't as prevalent. Now it's grown a lot more, but it just wasn't really around me, especially jazz music. There's not a lot of folks out here.

When I saw that film and then I learned about who Louis Armstrong was. All these heroes of mine, I could see myself doing what they do. I could see myself being great and being lauded as an excellent human, just like anyone else. I'm very thankful for these folks for being a great role model for not only myself, but other young Black folks.

You have a beautiful baritone voice. It reminds me of some of the great baritones of jazz, certainly Johnny Hartman or Lou Rawls. But more specifically, you're being compared to Joe Williams. When did you first become familiar with his music?

It's funny, to answer your previous question and this question, I actually started singing five years ago. That was in my senior year of high school and I was a classical percussionist in a pit orchestra for a high school play. We were doing a production of Into the Woods at the Osceola County School for the Arts. For one rehearsal, one of the actors was sick or absent or they just weren't there. Someone's asking, “Oh, geez, I really wish that someone could sing these parts.” I volunteered, because I was studying the music and I was listening to the track over and over again, and then I start singing. I see a couple of heads around the room. Little did I know, my jazz director at the time, Edwin Santiago, was in the back of the room and he was just listening to me singing. Then I was asked to join the jazz band as a vocalist.

That year we were selected for the Essentially Ellington Competition at Jazz at Lincoln Center. That is the year that I learned about Joe Williams through the composition, “Every Day I Have the Blues.” That song that I sang at the competition is the same that I sang at this other competition. It's kind of a storybook romantic kind of beginning and ending.

As you were sitting there in the pit playing the drums, certainly you already knew you could sing, right?

I think I had a voice, but I didn't know its impact on people until moments like that.

This Sassy Award is not your first musical honor. At that Essentially Ellington competition you talked about, how'd you make out there?

It is a big band competition. My ensemble didn't place in the top three, but at the same time, I was still awarded Outstanding Vocalist that year among so many other folks. I think Emma Lanford was also a part of that. It was presented by Wynton Marsalis. That really inspired me to keep going and to keep pushing.

How did things change for you after that, once people started to really notice your talent. Tell us about some of the things that have happened that were exciting. I've seen a lot of footage of you online, and I would love for everybody to check you out because there's some really great stuff, not just from you, but from a lot of the young players who are working with you. Did things change very much after you won the Ellington?

I think that definitely gave me the confidence and it gave me a lot of connections and opened my mind and opened my world up to a whole bunch of new opportunities and new ways of thinking about my place in the music. From there, I also applied to another competition, the YoungArts National Foundation Competition, which I think is now just called YoungArts. I was selected as a finalist, one out of three jazz vocalists that year. From there, I met so many folks. When we spoke about college, I started applying to colleges as a jazz voice major after one year of singing, and then I got a full ride to the Oberlin Conservatory.

I collaborated with a whole bunch of folks and met a whole bunch of folks that I've always been inspired by, like Nicholas Payton, Rodney Whitaker, Theo Croker... The list just goes on and on. About a year ago this time, I actually went on my first tour. I did a tour of my home state of Florida, giving back to the music because I saw there was so little when I was there. I wanted to inspire other young folks to pursue this music and know that there is a place for everybody in this music.

It's nice to have the God given talent, but there's really a lot of hard work that's involved in being a musician. What are some of the most important things that you learned at Oberlin?

I learned a lot of lessons, both in and out of the classroom. I think that was probably one of the most spiritually and emotionally challenging places I could ever find myself in. But through those experiences, I think that not only have I grown as a musician, but I've grown as a human being and a person. I think I'm definitely more receptive and more open to new experiences. I'm trying to be more conscious of how I interact with folks.

Musically, I would say some things that I really learned is how to listen. There's often the idea that we all just listen to music, but I feel like for the most part, especially when it comes to jazz music, we listen very passively as if it's musical wallpaper. But to listen intently and to listen to understand and to listen not just to respond, but to enhance the conversation, those are things and points that not only relate to the music that I do, but also to life. That's just a few of the things that I learned.

You are joining an illustrious group of Sassy Award winners, including Jazzmeia Horn and, of course, Samara Joy. I'm sure that you've been told time and again how excited those of us who love jazz are just to see you and the other emerging talents of your generation coming into your own. Do you feel the weight of the responsibility to keep this thing going?

Surely. For one, it’s Sarah Vaughan's name plastered all over the competition. So to have been a winner at the age of 23, I think there's a huge responsibility to live up to that. I'm also carrying on the legacy of everyone else in the continuum, like Ella Fitzgerald. If I'm being compared to Joe Williams, I better start to get my stuff together, like Joe did, or Andy Bey did, or any of my heroes. I'm very driven and inspired to keep pushing and to keep going.

The Sassy Awards are, of course, named for Sarah Vaughan, who would have turned 100 next year. There’s going to be a lot of fanfare around that occasion, especially here in Newark where she was born and raised. Tell me what Sassy's legacy means to you.

I think that she is a great example of excellent musicianship and excellent stagecraft, just a very talented and serious musician. Not only is she a great pianist that we often forget to mention, same with Nat King Cole, but she's an incredible voice and incredible spirit to engage with. When I listen to her, I know that there was so much pain and there was a lot of work and dedication into her art, into her craft. But at the same time, she still found the resilience and she found the empathy to be able to communicate with her audience and to communicate honestly and earnestly through her music. That's the level that I hope to aspire to get to.

Just like you, Sarah Vaughan started her career winning a talent competition and a really tough one at that—the legendary Apollo Amateur Night. What do you expect to happen to you after winning the award and what has happened already?

At this point in time, I expect the same opportunities that were coming to me before the competition to hopefully multiply. That would be great. I would definitely love to lead a life of music and to share music and to create music with other artists, of all creeds and all cultures. I think that's a huge characteristic of this music is that we employ everyone into this space. Louis Armstrong went over to Africa during the State Department tour, and then he learned a lot more about composition. Dave Brubeck went to the Middle East and learned about Turkish music and Turkish folk music and incorporated that into jazz music. Dizzy Gillespie went to South America and though he played a lot of Afro Cuban music, I'm sure he was still inspired. Generally, I would love to lead a life where music is the thing that is helping me connect to other folks. It's a language that's universal.

I met your dad after the competition. He couldn't have been prouder of you as I'm sure your whole family is. Looks like you have great family support. That's important. But how have things changed with the folks since you won the award?

Bringing a lot more phone calls. With the folks, it's always been the same at this point. They always show their love and always show their support. They've always been very proud of the accomplishments that I've done. Being of Haitian blood and Haitian descent on my mom's side and being of New York blood and New York descent on my dad's side, we're very prideful people and we're very happy to see each other uplift and win.

I'm sure they're very excited for you, but I'm also sure you still have to take the trash out. Tell me something that people might not know about Tyreek McDole. What do you want people to know about you?

On the musical side, I'm a musician first, so whatever label that you want to slap before music, that's your discretion. But I love all forms of music, and I love all forms of art. I think what's so interesting about just Black American music in general is finding the through line between all these sounds and different landscapes that we have. And really just coming to what is the rock bottom of it all? What really connects all these forms together? How can we share that same space? I think [one person] that is doing a great job with that would be Jazzmea Horn. She often has a lot of R&B influences in her music. She covers Erykah Badu. I think she's helping continue the tradition of jazz vocalists, which is really just song styling. Ella Fitzgerald herself was covering the Beatles at one point. I think it's really important to open our minds to the other possibilities of what this music can do and the power of that music.

Open our minds, open our ears, open our hearts, as well. What's next for you and how can people follow you and your career?

This week I'll be in Montclair performing with the Jazz House All Stars. We'll be performing in the Jazz Annex as a part of the Montclair Jazz Fest Soundcheck series. That will include myself singing and our musical director and a great friend and a fellow Oberlin alum and Juilliard alum, Birsa Chatterjee on tenor saxophone, Ebban Dorsey on alto saxophone, Andrew Wagner on trumpet, Ben Schwartz on drums, Lainy Mateo on bass, and Esteban Castro on piano. I'm surrounded by so many brilliant young minds to create more music this week. Also, I host a residency on Tuesdays at this venue called Penny Jo’s.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.