Kareem Powell

Kareem Powell

T. Kareem Powell was born in Toledo on a miserably hot day in the summer of *cough*. Well, actually it was 11:48 at night, but I have been assured that it indeed took place during the middle of a terrible heatwave… in an air conditioned hospital room. The regular doctor was on vacation, so his partner was supposed handle the delivery instead. My mother had insisted on a drug-free birth, but the new doctor in question heartily disagreed and sent for an anesthesiologist. The anesthesiologist delivered me. The medical partnership broke up soon after that.

Despite indisputable proof that I was trouble, my parents took me home anyway.

Shortly after we settled near Dayton, Ohio, I started taking piano lessons. Like many children, I was highly analytical and inquisitive child. (Translated: I asked questions all the time and wouldn’t shut up.) My five-year-old mind was constantly looking for patterns and frameworks. The thought of learning at someone else’s schedule and under someone else’s structure was apparently too much for me. I’ll be the first to admit that my piano teachers through the years (there were several) probably thought I was a maddening and frustrating student! The majority of my piano study was self-directed.

So, as you imagine, music was a large part of my life as I grew up. I took clarinet and later saxophone lessons. (God bless Paul Murachanian for putting up with me through school.) I was periodically caught scribbling notes on manuscript paper during reading class. If there was a musical ensemble or event, chances are that I participated in it at some point. I taught myself how to read chord symbols. I participated in workshops and really jumped into everything I could.

After graduating, I enrolled at Florida A&M University on a “full-ride” Life Gets Worse Scholarship program. As many college students do, I went a bit nuts. No, I didn’t skip classes. No, I wasn’t partying and getting drunk all the time. What I mean is that I pretty much took 17-22 credit hours every semester and even snuck in part-time work accompanying in and around the school and for Campus Ministries.

Oh yeah… and I grew an afro. A rather large afro. In fact, it was legendary, though I’m sure everyone else was annoyed by its greatness. Somewhere in the archives of FAMU’s school newspaper, there is a front-page photo of the Florida A&M Concert Choir standing behind then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and my afro is prominently displayed in the upper left hand corner. I even heard rumors of band members honoring it with a nickname, though I never heard what it was…

Anyway, I worked like crazy. I sang in the choir. I was accompanying recitals and concerts all the time. A few times, I was dragged in to accompany a voice lesson or two. People would wave me down, call me, and at times knock on my dorm door at 2:00 AM in the morning, particularly before major tests. And yes, I did practice my pieces and do those horrible, traumatizing, and completely and absolutely necessary composer reports for my piano teacher Dr. Maria Thompson Corley. One day, I was walking down the hall to Counterpoint class and got hauled in and confronted by my academic advisor Charles Bing about my academic progress. The next thing I knew, I was student-teaching at Jean Ribault Sr. High School in Jacksonville. I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a B.S. in Music Education in three years.

During my “year off”, I returned home to the Dayton-area and started doing accompanying work for local musical theatre. It was pretty much seven days a week with pay that left something to be desired, but it was great professional experience. The Muse Machine production of “Damn Yankees” was my first introduction to playing from an orchestral reduction. You do not have enough fingers or hands to play everything in the score exactly as it is at the speed they need it. You learn quickly what to leave out. In contrast, the rehearsal score for “Dreamgirls” (produced by Dayton’s Colonel White High School for the Arts) used primarily chord charts and a bass line.

For some of you nonmusical types scratching your heads, “Damn Yankees” had dots on lines and “Dreamgirls” had letters and numbers. You can theoretically get through a college program as a pianist without ever looking at letters and numbers. Fortunately, I had taught myself what they meant before I went to college. Sitting in with the FAMU jazz band a few times helped me learn how to apply them!

Two weeks after I was hired for “Dreamgirls”, the musical director/magnate coordinator (who hired me) died unexpectedly. I was fresh out of school and adjunct staff. The school had the band director, orchestra director, and the choir director, but I was the one that actually knew the music. Everything went nuts and I pissed off a few people several times, but I stepped up anyway even if I didn’t get the title. The show came together and it was a hit. Somehow during this 7 a day week madness, I managed to schedule time to interview for a graduate program.

That fall, I started the Theory program at Indiana University School of Music. In comparison to my time at FAMU, it was definitely less “crazy.” I still had that deep interest in popular and jazz music and found ways to bring it into my work, often making things more difficult than they had to be. It was a difficult transition period complicated by family matters that wore on my mind more than I cared to admit. I’m pretty sure my IU friends probably considered me the most boring person in the bunch.

Post-Indiana was a difficult time as I returned home. There were a number of challenges between family issues and basically “starting over” as a professional musician in my hometown. In a way, I consider this the start of my true education as a musician. I was faced with trying to earn a living!

In the following years, I approached this challenge from several directions. I became the regular pianist for the Eddie Brookshire Jazz Orchestra, Roderick Wilson and Sun Star, the Todd Mullins Group, and sat in with several other groups from time to time. I kept cutting my chops as music director or accompanist at several of the Dayton-area theatres such as Playhouse South, Dayton Playhouse, and Theatre Under the Stars. Rather than rehash absolutely everything I’ve done, I encourage you to browse through the Curriculum Vitae on my website. Through my work in these different areas, I have developed a specialty for being able to pull vocalists and instrumentalists together. That skill served me well in the music ministry.

As mentioned earlier, I had played piano for Campus Ministries at Florida A&M University. I had not expected it to come around again. Years later, my brother brought a friend Lynette to our house. This was the first time I ever met her and as usual, my family asked me to play something on the piano. She said there was an opening at her church and asked me if I would be interested. After years of declining requests outright, I said yes. (Totally surprised me.) She called the pastor that night and that March, I was making the hour-long trip to Cincinnati to serve as Minister of Music at St. Andrew Catholic Church. This was an African-American church in a poor urban neighborhood and I knew barely more than nothing about Gospel music. Most of the choir did not read music. It was not a situation I was used to at all. They taught ME. (And if they ever ask me, I will deny it through and through. Jesus will forgive me.) I stayed with that church until the Archdiocese consolidated it. I also served briefly at St. Anthony in Madisonville - another great church with an excellent choir and eccentric tastes. There is great music happening in Cincinnati in the churches!

Another unexpected direction I did not foresee was my time in the American Federation of Musicians. Having taken my share of gigs where the employer reneged on the agreed payment, I was naturally drawn to an organization expressly formed to enforce contracts and fight for improved working conditions and the promotion of music as a viable career path. After joining, I started attending the Local 101-473 General Membership meetings. Once again, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and the next thing I knew, I was somehow running for an open delegate position to represent the Local at the 2005 AFM Convention in Las Vegas. In 2007, I was elected as President of Local 101-473.

I won’t lie. I loved being president. I could go to a Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsal or concert, sit out in the house, or hang in the back, and call it a part of my job! (Don’t get TOO excited. I also had to sit through contract negotiations, grievance meetings, executive board meetings, and read 5000 emails. And I had to be ready 24/7 with little pay. The piano concertos and 20th century music made up for it, though.) The Local and the negotiating committee had a meeting of the minds and developed a positive working relationship that was discussed in the August 2007 symphonic issue of the International Musician. Even though I am no longer apart of the Local Board, I am excited that this relationship continues today. The AFM is hands down the most powerful advocate for working musicians of all stripes in the United States and Canada. I encourage any musician - freelance, recording, symphonic, and otherwise - who wants to make a difference (well… and wants a lion ready to maul the employer if he or she doesn’t honor your contract) to check out the American Federation of Musicians and get to know your local and national officers.

All throughout this time, there was a direction I wanted to go and did not make happen until recently. Recording.

My solo piano album “Reflections in Black and White” (2011) is meant to be a starting point. Not only is it my first album, but the first recording project I was involved with from start to finish. I knew virtually nothing about recording going into it and only moderately more than nothing now. The thirteen tracks represent all of these different areas and influences in my life, both people and musical. Ten of them are original compositions and the other three are original arrangements of folk music. I challenged myself to integrate these different areas of my musical background - Gospel, jazz, popular, classical, etc. - into a “gestalt sound” that could fit not only in a solo piano setting, but with more instruments in the future as my skills develop.

Of course, there is much more I have not mentioned or gone into detail about. If you want to learn more, feel free to look through my Curriculum Vitae on my website or email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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