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Ikechi Onyenaka makes music meant to inspire the upward climb

courtesy of the artist

The sweet-tart, imploring tone that Ikechi Onyenaka favors on alto saxophone may remind you of a few predecessors in the realm of contemporary jazz. He was set on his path by one in particular: Grover Washington, Jr., who like him is considered a product of Philadelphia, with a style that alchemizes elements of soul, jazz, pop, and R&B.

Onyenaka, now in his mid-20s, has been tapped for the second year to perform at the Philadelphia Juneteenth Festival, on Saturday, June 17 in Germantown at the Johnson House Historic Site, a former stop on the Underground Railroad. (He’ll also play a more conventional gig on Friday night, at Time.) We recently talked about his roots in the Philly scene, the accessibility of modern jazz, and the specific feelings that his music is designed to inspire. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

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You’re from Upper Darby, and have had access to some Philly-specific resources as a musician. What has it been like to come out of this community?

Upper Darby is basically where I fostered my talent, just coming up in the school music program. It was an amazing hometown for me to come up in. But I’d say I really entered into the Philadelphia music scene in 2018, and it was a bit of a different experience. There were some people from Upper Darby that I did recognize, a lot of different faces that I've seen on Youtube. It was definitely welcoming. There’s a lot of great musicians, a lot of great talent out there, and good people.

There’s another young saxophonist I associate with Upper Darby, and I have to ask: did you come up with Immanuel Wilkins?

We actually went to school together; we’re in the same grade. We went to Highland Park Elementary together, then middle school and high school, too. So yeah, we’ve known each other since we were small.

I’ve spoken a few times with Immanuel about the influence of the church. Has that also been a touchstone for you? 

I wasn’t heavily involved in church for music. But I’ve been going to church, basically, every Sunday since I was a baby. So a huge part of church is the music, and just allowing the Holy Spirit to answer, and to help people feel more liberated and get through hard times. So it’s you channel something, and it lets you connect to the music a bit deeper. I think that followed me regardless of what genre I perform; that connection with God is really important for me.

Ikechi Onyenaka
courtesy of the artist
Ikechi Onyenaka

You just mentioned genre, which is interesting to me because you’re a jazz musician but you also consciously position yourself in R&B and neo-soul. How has that evolved? 

As far as my sound is concerned, I was originally born in Austin, Texas — and in Texas you have soft rock, you have a lot of different artists out there. I was listening to Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. There wasn’t a lot of hardcore jazz influence. It wasn't until moving to Upper Darby and going on to YouTube that I heard John Coltrane. And I was like: “Wow. This is nice.”

Right.

Then once I heard Grover Washington, Jr, there was kind of a shift. I said “OK, so the saxophone can be played in more of a soulful way.” And then when I found out that he was from Philly, I’m like, “Wow, this is amazing. This guy literally grew up in our backyard. Look right here. And he did all of this.” It was just amazing to see how he combined funk and jazz and made it something soulful, and something that a lot of people can kind of understand even if they didn't come from a jazz background. So I guess with me having all these influences, I noticed there’s two categories. There are people that understand jazz, understand the tradition. But then there’s also a lot of people who may have not been introduced to jazz yet, or don’t understand it yet, and I feel like as musicians, we need to cater to both parties. So if we can kind of bridge the two people together and have them understand everything, I think that’d be great. That’s something that Grover did. And that’s definitely something I’d like to do with my music.

Speaking of reaching a general audience: you performed at the Juneteenth Festival last summer, and you’ll be playing there again this year. What are you looking forward to, in terms of the setting and the occasion?

Last year was my first time attending the festival, and that was actually my first Juneteenth celebration average of pardon. So it was a really great first impression. The food was amazing. They had a lot of vendors, but the whole strip is just a lot of different vendors and food trucks. A lot of different bands performed there as well. Everything from an African drum line with hand percussion to R&B, gospel groups. It was an amazing, beautiful time just to celebrate our culture, and Philadelphia.

Do you feel that your music speaks to a social conscience, or carries a certain cultural weight?

That’s a good question. I would say, with my music, I tend to write for people who are on their success story. You know, a lot of people are on their journey to whatever they view success to be, and a lot of times we may not have the connections to go where we need to go, or we may not exactly know how we want to get to where we need to go in life. It can be a challenging journey. There’s a lot of different obstacles that people face in life that prevent them from reaching their goals. And with my music, I try to encourage them to keep going, even if there’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of doubt from others.

Have you received feedback along those lines about the tracks you’ve put out?

Yes. So one of my biggest platforms is YouTube. And I have a lot of people from different parts of the country that view my videos. And when my EP came out, I was actually shocked at the amount of younger musicians and younger artists that may be in school, even in middle school. So they reached out to me and said, “Hey Ikechi, your music inspired me to get better at my instrument and go further. I think I actually want to do music professionally one day.” And there’s other people that have told me that the music has gotten them through tough times. A lot of people have different experiences when they hear the music, but I’m just happy to help people out.

 Now that you’ve got this EP out, are you working on a full-length album? 

One thing with me is, I’m always writing the music. The EP was actually an excerpt of a full album. So there’s a lot more songs that are attached to it, and everything revolves around city dreams, just the idea of people on their journey caught in that middle section where they don’t really have the answers for how to get to where they need to go. So that project is definitely something I’m currently working on right now with the full-length album. But I’m also looking into music production, making beats. And I’ve kind of uncovered a whole new sound that I’m also experimenting with. So we’ll see.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.