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Experience the Rising Stars of Jazz

by Andy Katell, ArtsWestchester Board Member

Veronica Swift (photo credit: Bill Westmoreland)
Veronica Swift (photo credit: Bill Westmoreland)
Veronica Swift (photo credit: Bill Westmoreland)

While the coronavirus pandemic has been tough on the arts, this year’s JazzFest White Plains offers jazz fans a silver lining, as emerging and veteran musicians perform and discuss their work in an online festival from September 8-11.  Curated by ArtsWestchester’s Director of Folk Arts, Aaron Paige, a lineup of live-streamed programs will be presented by ArtsWestchester, the City of White Plains and the White Plains BID, and sponsored by the Bank of America.  All programs will be broadcast on Zoom and Facebook Live.

On September 11, the festival will focus on “Jazz’s Rising Stars,” during which four of the top young U.S. jazz musicians will perform live. A discussion, moderated by Keanna Faircloth of WBGO, will look at what it’s like to come up through the ranks in the jazz world. Featured will be pianists Connie Han and Matthew Whitaker and vocalists Veronica Swift and Alicia Olatuja.  

Steinway artist Connie Han, 24, says of her new release, Iron Starlet: “The music’s intention is to continue a legacy of tough, primal and raw, but still intellectually engaging, jazz.” In 2015, Han released her debut album, The Richard Rodgers Songbook, followed by Crime Zone. The title track is a Han original that showcases her blend of traditional and modern forms, and her precise execution and creativity,  which produces an intense workout for her and the band.

Matthew Whitaker is the youngest artist to be endorsed by Hammond Organs in the company’s 80+ year history. He was also the youngest musician, when he was 15, to be named a Yamaha artist. Now at 19 years of age, he is studying at Juilliard in New York City, received an “Outstanding Soloist Award” from both Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Charles Mingus High School Competition & Festival and the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival.  Whitaker draws on rich traditions of jazz, blues, funk and soul to produce exciting originals and interpretations of classics. 

Veronica Swift, 26, grew up on the road with her parents – jazz pianist Hod O’Brien and vocalist Stephanie Nakasian. At age nine, she recorded her first album and began professionally touring with them. Her latest release is Confessions. Swift is a dedicated master of tradition, relishing in the roots of jazz, with a breath of fresh air infused in standards. She was awarded second place at the Thelonious Monk 2015 Jazz Vocal Competition, maintained a residency at Birdland and has toured internationally.

Alicia Olatuja entered the national spotlight in 2013, when she performed as a featured soloist with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. She recorded her first solo album, Timeless, in 2014. Five years later, she released Intuition: From the Minds of Women, which focuses on the rich contributions of a diverse set of female composers. Her artistry is pure adventure – a blending of cultures, all with a purposeful, captivating story to tell. 

These four musicians have embraced what they learned at a young age, from their parents and from the veterans of jazz. Now they’re taking their music to new heights. Listen. Join their journeys. Hear their stories. Watch them grow. Watch yourself grow.

Matthew Whitaker (photo courtesy of the artist)

A version of this article first appeared in the August issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNewsis distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.

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