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Twenty-four-year-old Integriti Reeves had already performed a few gigs around Washington as a solo jazz singer when national television came calling. Afro-Blue, the a cappella jazz choir at Howard University, was tapped to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off last fall, finding a large and receptive audience in the process. Reeves has since toured the country with Afro-Blue, but still has ambitions as a soloist. This weekend she performs in Rockville as part of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival. Ahead of that performance, she spoke to Arts Desk about singing with and without Afro-Blue, songwriting, and her nonvocal musical prowess.
Washington City Paper: I just learned for the first time that you’re also a classically trained violinist. What made you decide to concentrate on singing?
Integriti Reeves: Well, in high school I went to Duke Ellington for violin; that was my major. In senior year, you have the opportunity to take an elective, and I took jazz vocal styles—and [Howard University vocal professor] Jessica Boykin-Settles was actually my instructor for that. I took the class, and I just really fell in love with the music even more, especially vocal jazz. She encouraged me to audition for college with voice as a concentration, which I’d never thought was a possibility because I’d never had a lesson.
It seemed like a longshot, but she helped me prepare for the requirements. And then I went to audition for the schools I wanted, and as it turned out I got into all of the ones I auditioned for with voice, and not as many schools with violin! So I went with the majority. [laughs]
WCP: Were you a casual singer before that? Did you know you could sing?
IR: Oh, yeah, I’d always loved to sing. I actually wanted to major in voice at Duke Ellington, and my parents encouraged me to go the instrumental route—which I’m really thankful for, because I’ve learned a great foundation in instrumental music, which is good.
WCP: Tell me a little bit about your solo singing career.
IR: So far Afro-Blue has been a whirlwind, so anything I do outside of that I have to put my whole self into, otherwise I wouldn’t have the time to do it. It’s especially important to me that the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival show go well, because it’s a huge festival; I went to the old East Coast Jazz Festival all through high school, and to have it back as the Mid-Atlantic and to sing solo in it is an amazing kind of full-circle thing for me and I’m very excited about it.
All my solo projects are close to home, so I don’t do a lot of them—just because I want them all to go perfectly. They’re like my little baby, so I don’t want too many of them! [laughs] Hopefully once Afro-Blue gets started I’ll be able to pick and choose more.
WCP: Speaking of Afro-Blue, what’s this about the whirlwind?
IR: Well, let me just sum it up. I’ll tell you about the last few days, which is pretty much how it’s been since we’ve been off the show. We went to Georgia on Monday morning; we left at about 7 a.m., and drove all day and got there about 8:30 that night. The next day we had rehearsal all day, and then the show was that evening; then I caught a plane at 5:40 that morning, so I had to take a shuttle at 2. The flight was at 5:40, I got to Charlotte at 7, and another plane at 9:40, and then I came back and went to class. I had all these crazy things! And life doesn’t stop; Afro-Blue hasn’t taken over everything, it’s been a balancing act.
It’s been a complete mess, but a great mess. We’re so blessed to be able to perform after the show’s ended, and we’ve had a great response so far. It’s been a complete overhaul of my life, but it’s been great. I’m getting to travel and do what I love to do full-time. My mom picked me up from the train station yesterday and said, “I don’t know how you do it, and I don’t know how you’re gonna continue.” But I love it, so I’m going to do it.
WCP: In watching The Sing-Off this year, it seemed to me that you were the only female member of Afro-Blue who didn’t get a solo spotlight. Why was that?
IR: [laughs] You’re not the only person to notice that! My whole family was like, “Hey, all the other people got solo spots!” You know, what I think it was is that Hollywood is very different than the jazz scenes here, or in New York, or anywhere else. Not to say that the people in my group aren’t talented—of course they are. But I think for branding purposes, and for other reasons that were kept from us—we didn’t really get a breakdown of “OK, this is why this person has to take a solo every week” or, “This is why you are not going to have a solo, ever!”—it was never like that. But the way I resolved myself to it is that as a brand, Afro-Blue has to be this, this is why we have to have the most amazing talent in the front, so people have an instant face and an instant sound to connect with. So I think that’s what it was, even though they didn’t explain it.
But also, I’m very thankful for the part I played on the show, because I really didn’t have as much practice with ensemble singing; I didn’t do a lot of that before I got to Howard either. So it was a great opportunity to work on my ear training and learning intricate parts that I hadn’t really gotten to do before. (Note: Reeves has taken solos in Afro-Blue’s concerts subsequent to the TV show.)
WCP: Do you do songwriting or arranging as well as singing?
IR: Yes. I’m lucky in that Howard makes you do those things as assignments, and gives you the tools to then go off and do that on your own. I had done some writing before I got to Howard, but not nearly as much as I did once I got there. I’m doing a lot more of it now, and at the show on Sunday I’m going to do a couple of my arrangements and originals. I’m really excited to see how that will go!
WCP: Who will be your accompanists?
IR: We have Amy Bormet on piano, Eric Wheeler on bass, Warren Wolf on drums, Matvei Sigalov on guitar and violin. I’m very pleased about the band because they’re all friends of mine, and also they’re from every part of my jazz journey so far. Amy went to Ellington; Eric went to Ellington too, but him I met later on in college; Warren was a prodigy at Peabody, and I went to Peabody. So at every developmental stage of my journey so far, I’ve met these amazing players and I’m so glad to have them on stage with me.
WCP: I’m glad you mentioned Matvei, because I was going to ask if you ever thought about combining your violin with your vocal abilities.
IR: Well, you know, that’s the stage of my journey that Matvei represents! I’ve been taking lessons with him for about a year now, and I’ve been kind of under the radar with it, just trying to make sure it’s as good as it can be before I go out and say, “Hey, guys, listen to me play!” But it’s in the plans that I will combine singing and violin at some point. He’s been cracking the whip, as far as getting my technique and jazz chops together with the violin, so hopefully very soon I will come out with a vengeance!
Reeves performs at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, 1750 Rockville Pike, Rockville. A four-show pass is $55. Ticket info here.