Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Multi-Instrumentalist Kendrah Butler-Waters
Kendrah Butler-Waters’ affinity for Philadelphia’s historic musical roots has served as the muse for her creative output as a skilled and imaginative pianist, composer, violinist, and vocalist. “Philadelphia is one of the premier cities for jazz and a lot of other genres of music as well,” Butler-Waters observed.
Through her classical and jazz training at Settlement Music School and the Mount Airy Cultural Center to studying and touring with nationally and globally recognized performers, Butler-Waters has witnessed the region’s ebb-and-flow, lauded music scene. “It’s an insane hub for musicians,” she notes. “All of the musicians who are considered the greats have either lived here, traveled through here, or performed here. And when you think about that rich history, to be from Philly and be a performer from Philly, it’s a huge city of shoes to fill, if you will. Philadelphia, in my eyes, has that same weight as New York, Chicago, or New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz.”
While she is lauded for her performative works, education is at the forefront of Butler-Water’s professional endeavors. The multi-instrumentalist earned a dual Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Sociology with a minor in Spanish from Temple University and her Master’s degree in Elementary Education from Drexel University. Her students range from the primary grades to masterclasses at multiple universities where she conducts jazz history lessons that explore the popular genre’s influence and connection to today’s music forms.
“People need to see themselves in jazz and to understand that their representation does matter,” explained Butler-Waters. “And not only that, for them to understand how jazz was birthed out of an African American experience of folk songs, shanty tunes, Negro spirituals, plus European traditions of classical music. All of that was smashed and combined to give you what jazz is or what I call Black classical music. Jazz can’t die because of its history. History continues to live—and we just got to keep it going!”
Butler-Waters incorporates her worldview into the music she performs and expresses gratitude for others who are also paying the lessons of music advocacy forward.
“There are so many young artists who are continuing the legacy of jazz and then going back and sharing their artistry,” she added. “The important and integral part is sharing what you’ve learned with the next generation. I think it’s our responsibility to share this amazing art form and its history with the next generation.”
“Philly has all these amazing firsts that I don’t think a lot of people know about,” the artist said as she described Rev. Richard Allen’s founding of Mother Bethel, the nation’s premier African Methodist Episcopal Church. Butler-Waters also shared that she’s uplifted by the iconic LOVE sculpture, the City of Brotherly Love’s aptly titled and best-known piece of public art.
“Although people say Philly is such a tough city, there are pockets of people who share a lot of love, and the experience that I’ve had in the jazz community has been one that’s been full of love and camaraderie,” said Butler-Waters. ‘It’s been a kind of mountaintop experience, and when I think of that, and how important love is at the center of everything that we should do, and it’s a driving force to being in this city.”
“Faith Walk,” the musician and scholar’s recently released first solo album, showcases her artistic maneuverability by addressing the trauma, resilience, and beauty of the African American experience. She began the project several years ago, and was a 2015-2016 Jazz Resident with the Kimmel Center focused on “sacred jazz.” Butler-Waters presents spiritually steeped compositions and arrangements enhanced by musical contributors from longtime collaborators Nimrod Speaks, Jeff Scull, Justin Sekelewski, Darryl Jackson, Gusten Rudolph, and V. Shayne Frederick. Ultimately, she says the 14-song music collection was inspired by her family and community.
“I love being an artist here, and I don’t think I would want to live in a different place. Just the richness of history, the people here, the music: I don’t think there’s a better place to have experiences, be an artist, raise a family in this Philadelphia region. It’s so full of history that you can’t help but be inspired to write the music—and for that, I’m grateful.”