Will Gordon, The Morning Call

The Baylor Project, with Macungie manager, grabs two Grammy nominations

Bad ideas sometimes seem so crazy they just might work. For vocalist Jean Baylor, her husband’s suggestion that they form a group together wasn’t one of them.

“I thought it was a completely stupid idea, but you know, I came around,” she says, calling from the Baylors’ home in South Jersey. Marcus, her husband, also was on the line.

Two Grammy nominations later, it turned out to be a pretty good idea. The Baylor Project’s first album “The Journey” has been nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and “Laugh and Move On,” a song on the album, for Best Traditional R&B Performance.

Nominations in two genres may seem unusual, but it makes sense to anyone who knows where the Baylors come from. Jean and Marcus, the Project’s drummer, grew up 900 miles away from each other as children of pastors, so religious music was an early influence. Marcus got into jazz in middle school; Jean in college.

Although she majored in jazz performance at Temple University, Jean’s breakthrough was with the R&B group Zhane (“Hey Mr. D.J.”), whose 1994 record “Pronounced Jah-Nay” went platinum. Marcus is no stranger to musical success early in life, either. He made a name for himself playing with the acclaimed jazz fusion band the Yellowjackets for a decade, leaving in 2010.

Track by track, “The Journey” hits all the notes of the Baylors’ past.

“When you hear them, you’re hearing the black church,” says The Baylor Project’s manager, Gail Boyd, who lives in Macungie. “When you hear them, you’re hearing R&B. And when you hear them, you’re hearing some of the most sophisticated jazz you can imagine. And none of it is not authentic.”

Boyd first heard the group three years ago at the Apollo Theater in New York City, after urging from her former director of booking, Skip Norris. Later that year, the Baylors came to the Lehigh Valley to discuss the possibility of Boyd managing the group. They hammered out the details, made a deal and grabbed ice cream at Premise Maid to celebrate.

When the Grammy nominations were announced in November, Boyd was on her way to catch the 9 a.m. bus from Allentown to New York City. She got a call from a friend, who told her a singer she manages, Jazzmeia Horn, was nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album for “A Social Call.” Boyd asked about The Baylor Project, but was disappointed to hear they didn’t get anything. Wait — maybe her friend did see something about “The Journey.”

“I’m in the car driving down Hamilton screaming my lungs out when she calls back and says, ‘Girl, they got nominated for two,’” Boyd says. “And I was just screaming my head off in the car. People thought I was crazy.”

Sure, the Baylors have each had hits before. Yet this level of recognition for The Baylor Project’s debut album, funded in part by an Indiegogo campaign and released without backing from a major label, may seem unusual.

“What makes these nominations amazing is that our CDs that we distributed is literally out [of] the studio of our home,” Marcus says. The album was released on the Baylors’ label, Be A Light.

The Yellowjackets got several Grammy nominations while Marcus was in the band, but this project was more personal.

“It definitely feels different, because this was something that we birthed out ourselves,” he says.

Jean and Marcus first met in 2000, when Jean needed a drummer for a gig in New York City. A mutual friend suggested Marcus, who was enrolled at The New School and performing with the Yellowjackets. Jean met him to exchange music, and she says she thought Marcus was “adorable” right away.

“He had a friend of the family with him that day, and so, based on … his observation, I think Marcus kind of liked me a little bit, too,” Jean says.

“Don’t believe that,” Marcus chimes in.

He gave her his email, but it didn’t quite work out. The letters were all wrong. Jean thought Marcus gave her a fake email address. Several weeks later, he called her, and it turned out she just misheard him.

Two years later, they were married.

The Baylors released two independent projects since then, but Marcus mostly worked in production. That’s when Marcus brought up the idea that they start The Baylor Project.

After Jean agreed, Marcus took her to meet one of his professors at The New School, a bassist named Buster Williams. Williams asked Jean to sing while he played bass.

Not being worried about hitting a wrong note with Williams — who has performed with jazz greats such as Sarah Vaughan and Herbie Hancock — in earshot would require nerves of steel. Apparently, Jean did more than OK. Williams asked her to be a guest in his band for a gig at Smoke, a jazz club in New York City. This led to The Baylor Project’s residency there twice a month in 2013, Marcus says.

Playing at Smoke really helped The Baylor Project finds its groove. Even though the Baylors had already recorded half the album before then, Jean says she finally started to understand Marcus’s vision.

The next half of the album was recorded, and it was a success. After its release, it hit No. 8 on the Billboard Jazz Album chart.

Marcus credits much of this success to promotion on social media. That doesn’t mean their Facebook, Twitter or Instagram profiles are dominated by news of their music. Getting to know an artist’s day-to-day is what really attracts fans, Marcus says.

“In a nutshell, you know, we’re more what you call lifestyle artists,” he says. “I mean, we don’t show everything, but … people can take a walk through our life.”

The music heard on “The Journey” is like taking a stroll through the Baylors’ life, too. But the genres heard on the album also put different styles of music from the African-American community into conversation with one another. What started out as a jazz album turned into more — with Grammy nominations in R&B and jazz to prove it.

“It kind of morphed and grew organically into jazz and soul,” Jean says. “Jazz and gospel. Jazz and R&B … Att the end of the day, it’s all black music. So, it all makes sense together.”

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