Marcus Baylor’s coalescence of various American music styles into his playing has already secured him a spot in the history of post-modern jazz drummers. In the book, The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century
(Chicago Review Press, 2009), authors Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Günther Huesmann cite Baylor as one of an exclusive list of drummers that shaped jazz drumming in the nineties through inventive polyrhythms and genre syncretism in their techniques.
Baylor’s affinity for the drums started early, as a young drummer. At two years old, Baylor begin playing at his dad’s church. Many drummers and musicians point to the black church, known for its special rhythmic principles and Afro-sonic aesthetics, embedded in deep spirituality, as the starting point for their careers. He would go on to become a noteworthy up-and-coming drummer. While many jazz students are thankful to play local gigs, before he received his Bachelor’s degree from The New School, Baylor began touring with Cassandra Wilson and continued to tour and record after college with heavy hitters such as Kenny Garrett, John Scofield and Christian McBride.
By the year 2000, Baylor joined the Grammy Award-winning Yellowjackets, an epochal jazz ensemble, and was featured on several Grammy-nominated albums including Mint Jam(Yellowjack Enterprises, 2001), Time Squared (Heads Up, 2003) and Lifecycle (Heads Up, 2008).
Paul Wells of Modern Drummer Magazine noted this about Marcus—”Marcus has cultivated a style of playing that transcends restrictions such as genre and category. He’s listened to and soaked up every style of music and is able to play whatever fits the song.” And that is why he is already a ground-breaker in music history.
But get this—so is his wife.
The Philadelphia music scene is known for producing some of the greatest artists of R&B, Neo Soul and Hip-Hop. DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince (aka Hollywood actor Will Smith), Boyz II Men, Jill Scott, and The Roots are just a few acts that have significant musical ties to or roots in Philadelphia. In addition, two Temple University students who called themselves Zhané, consisting of Baylor’s then-wife-to-be, Jean Norris and Renée Neufville emerged with new music. Originally at Temple University on a lacrosse scholarship, things quickly began to change for Jean and her classmate.
On February 4, 1994, they released their debut record Pronounced Jah-Nay (Motown, 1994), which would feature a number of hits such as “Hey Mr. DJ” and “Sending My Love.” To date, the album has sold over a million records globally. Lakeia Brown, journalist for The Grammy Awards, cited that the album was an “R&B masterpiece and timeless body of work rooted in jazz, blues, hip-hop, soul and love. Yes, love. A love of music, artistry, words and self.” Jean’s group Zhané, quickly became America’s music sweethearts. They released another groovy album entitled Saturday Night in 1997.
After Zhané, Jean’s career continued to expand and Marcus and she tied the knot. Marcus and Jean married on April 6, 2002.
She continued to sing and write. Journalist L. Michael Gipson noted, “Elegant is a word rarely used to describe music or artists today, but there is something truly elegant about the way Jean Baylor sings.” Jean has written for several top musicians including Grammy Award-winning artist Mary J. Blige, and Grammy-nominated group SWV. You can also hear her work on soundtracks for HBO movie Disappearing Acts starring Sanaa Lathan and Of Boys and Men starring Golden Globe Award- winner Angela Bassett, along with Marcus on production.
Yet it would be 15 years before the two musical influencers and pastor’s kids— with very strong roots in their faith would work together—as a husband and wife musical group. With a new vision, Marcus and Jean started gigging together, and they formed The Baylor Project.
After sharpening their sound at a residency at Smoke Jazz Club in New York City and in other ways and events, they put out an album in 2017. Here is what is noteworthy—The Baylor Project was issuing a new brand to its audience, without a major record label deal and independently releasing this debut album called The Journey on their label Be A Light. Both Baylors were associated with different and very strong music brands: Marcus, with the multiple Grammy-nominated Yellowjackets, and Jean, with Zhané and its global platinum album status. Would audiences receive this change? Would they receive this new sound?
Well, the album was received in an excellent manner. On their first album together—they shocked the music world with two 2018 Grammy nominations in two genres: one for Best Jazz Vocal Album and another for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Laugh And Move On.”
All About Jazz: How has life been since your recent Grammy nomination experience?
Jean Baylor: Getting nominated for two Grammys in two different genres was a huge accomplishment and blessing for us, because it was our first album out together. It was an incredible experience. I suppose how it has changed life for us is that it kind of puts the spotlight on you, and increases your reach in terms of people finding out who you are. We were definitely the newcomers in those genres. So, it caused people to say, “Oh I never heard of them, who’s that?” They may know Marcus from the Yellowjackets, and me from Zhané, or they may not know either one of us. So if it causes people to—Google “The Baylor Project”—that is really a good thing.
Marcus Baylor: The only thing I would add to that—is that— it’s been an amazing blessing to be recognized by your peers in the industry. New doors have been opened. We just played The Capital Jazz Cruise. Festivals are opening up, different gigs, and places we’ve never played before are opening up to us. It’s been a great push in our career and even a catalyst as we move to our next phase in our careers.
And like Jean said, more people are becoming aware of our music. Also, what I love about the Grammy nominations is that they opened up the door for us to be recognized not only in the jazz genre, but also in the R&B genre. Also, the church audience is finding out about us as well.
AAJ: And how long did it take for that album to be completed from start to finish? What was the inspiration behind starting it?
JB: We had two recording sessions. But they were a little ways apart. The first session was at the end of 2013, and then there was a second session. It took us time to figure out what music we wanted to record, what the concept of the album was going to be, and all the other parts of the creative process.
Marcus takes these long showers ever so often, and if he is in there more than 10 minutes—I know that something is coming. Every single time. So he takes this long shower and comes out says, “I got it! I just want to do something where we can do what we really want to do in freedom. We’re going to do an album and it’s going to be called The Baylor Project and it’s going to feature me on drums and you on vocals.” And I was like, “Babe, that doesn’t make any sense.” [laughs]
MB: “She said it was a dumb idea. [laughs]
Jean: But he was convinced. I was like, “Yeah, whatever…a drum/vocal duo album?” And he kept saying, “Don’t worry about, I got it.” Even when we were doing our first gig at Smoke Jazz Club, a real cool jazz spot in New York on the upper West Side, I kept saying, “This makes no sense.” [laughs] Even at the first recording session after the first four songs, I was like “This doesn’t make any sense.” And after a while of doing this gig, I really started to get it. But it took me a minute.
Marcus: I think when we started back then, we planned to set up a strategy in terms of where we wanted to be as it related to our goals. Playing at Smoke Jazz Club, gave us a chance to really cultivate our sound. Before we did our first gig, Jean met the great Buster Williams who was a teacher of mine in college. One thing about Buster, is that he is real honest. We believe in getting the blessings of the elders. So Buster asked Jean to sing and the next thing you know, he grabbed his bass. I told her the difference in the jazz world is this— if someone hears you sing— a week or two later they may take you out on the road on tour.
Well, two weeks later, Buster called and asked Jean to be featured with his band at Smoke Jazz club. So, the door opener for us playing at Smoke Jazz Club for ten months was through Jean. That gig served as a catalyst for doing our first gig at Smoke. Of course, we knew that your talent and gift gets you through the door, but you have to put bodies in seats. We called all our friends and let everyone know we were playing. It ended up turning out to be a great night, and that was the start of The Baylor Project.
AAJ: It is so unique that you are a husband and wife musical team. I’m curious, when you were at Smoke Jazz Club what were some strengths and weaknesses that you noticed in each other?
JB: One of Marcus’ strengths is—being in the moment. He has more faith than I do, in general. [laughs] For example, we’re in this club, and I’m getting ready to sing Afro Blue, a jazz standard that we do. I don’t know what he was feeling, but on stage he starts whispering to me, “Babe, sing “Praise Song.” And the song he suggested was a “Hallelujah” song, one that you typically sing in a church.
And I was on stage, like “No. No.” [laughs]
He then says, “Go ahead and sing it!” with a very encouraging tone. And I’m like, “No we are in a club, a bar and everything— they didn’t come to hear that.” [laughs.] But he was so darn persistent, and said, “Go ahead and sing it.” So I said “fine,” and I sang it off the cuff with the pianist. We hadn’t rehearsed, but it went really well, and everybody loved it.
MB: Smoke Jazz Club has three sets, 7pm, 9pm and 10:30pm and so we had a residency twice a month. And that led to us playing a headliner slot at Smoke over the weekend— which consisted of three sets a night—Friday through Sunday. In that setting, I saw how Jean was able to stay consistent for three sets a night, not slacking off at all, and every night really pushing and reaching.
AAJ: You are masters of all genres, but your faith is a symbol of your music. Your cover of the 1923 hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” has some of the most interesting chords at the beginning and an amazing groove throughout. But where did those chords at the beginning come from?
MB: When touring with the Yellowjackets, I met Masayuki Hirano, also known as Big Yuki. He is really tearing up the scene and touring with everyone. He is from Japan and he has so much soul. One time we were playing at a place called the Firehouse Café. Yuki said, “That is my favorite hymn.” We played it, and next thing you know Yuki played the chords that you now hear on the album.
AAJ: Jean you’re now on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. How is that working out?
JB: It’s a really neat experience. It’s the graduate program for vocals. It’s neat because you never know who is going to apply and get admitted. Teaching is about being able to communicate and translate information. I try to convey whatever I am trying to communicate to the student in a way that they can hopefully understand it and apply it to what they are doing.
AAJ: That is wonderful, it seems like both of you are mentors to a lot of musicians?
JB: We like to share information. We have had such a process of learning, and figuring things out. A process of discovery, and understanding why things work, and don’t work. What we’ve learned is that you have to change through the technological times and seasons. For example, we meet not just younger artists, but artists who have experience. Yet maybe their situation has changed, such as from having been on a label to becoming an independent artist. That change is a paradigm shift. You have to literally learn how to think completely differently because you’re functioning different.
MB: Jean’s group Zhané was formed 25 years ago. To look ahead 25 years to right now, and totally reinvent yourself was tough. It was challenging for us, because that brand was so big. But the blessing of it is when we came into jazz, it is not like she has to say, “I’m Jean formerly of Zhané.” Her name is just Jean Baylor. People sometimes had no idea she was a part of Zhané.” For The Baylor Project, now the audience is able to connect the dots, realizing that Jean is from the group Zhané. And most people say, “I had no idea.” That is the power of re-invention. To re-invent yourself is a blessing from God.
AAJ: Marcus, it seems like you are a big inspiration to a lot of drummers? Do you hang out with a lot of drummers, and give them tips?
MB: We are based outside of New York City. I always enjoy hanging out with them. I enjoy any chance I get to speak to the next generation. It is a learning experience for me too. Some of the musicians and drummers on the scene did the same for me. They imparted information to me when I first moved to New York, and was a student at the New School.
I’ve been blessed to have a lot of mentors in my life. Just like someone passed the information to me, I want to do the same thing in terms of gigs, or recommendations.
AAJ: Are you currently writing and doing production for other artists?
MB: Currently, we’ve been focusing on this new record. But based off of our recent success, artists are starting to reach out. Jean and I have our own studio, and we have always produced music. We started writing together around 2004. Our first independent record came out in 2007 under Jean Baylor as the artist. Jean was really the person that pulled me into writing and production. Her work is featured on Grammy Award-winning artist Mary J. Blige’s record, and she had a few songs for the HBO movie Disappearing Acts with Sanaa Lathan. She has also worked on stuff for Grammy-nominated R&B group SWV and a couple of other notable music artists.
JB: We’re getting into doing work for other artists as well. You know, you have songs and ideas that you think would be better suited for another artists. We did something for Philadelphia singer Carol Riddick’s album. She has been around for some time and is a great singer. We wrote and produced music for the movie Of Boys and Men, produced by Robert Townsend and starring Angela Bassett (Golden Globe-Award winner, Marvel’s Black Panther). We worked in the studio and collaborated with Grammy nominee and one of Philadelphia’s super-producers, Carvin Haggins.
We are able to take those production experiences into what we do for our own group, The Baylor Project. All of those experiences have helped cultivate our sound. We don’t really see music as genres, but we see music that was born out of the African American community. So, I don’t necessarily think R&B, gospel, soul and jazz. It is just music that feels good, and that comes naturally, spiritually and emotionally.
AAJ: Is there a new album coming out soon?
JB: Yes, yes, and yes! I am so excited. We started working on our album. We had our first session. We are three songs in. The last time we had to kind of figure out the concept. This time, we have the concept, and now we are creating the music to go with it. It’s always fun. Doing the music is the most fun part. That’s just who we are and what we do. And then we kind of frame everything around the music.
MB: And you also spend your own money. We did our first album, independently, on our label, Be A Light. We are not signed to a label or anything. We are still doing it ourselves and it’s a blessing.
Photo Credit: Deneka Peniston