by Giovanni Russonello
When Afro Blue sang its sparkling medley of Janet Jackson covers on last night’s episode of NBC’s The Sing-Off, very few of the show’s 4 million-plus viewers were aware that they were watching a jazz band.
In D.C., Afro Blue is known as Howard University’s premier a capella group. The band has won a slew of awards from DownBeat magazine – most notably the prize for best college jazz group only one year after its founding in 2002 – and has performed with an array of international stars, including Geri Allen and Ron Carter.
This past June, at the DC Jazz Festival, Afro Blue added preeminent vocalist Bobby McFerrin to that list. Just one week after the magnificently received performance to a packed Warner Theatre, already walking on a cloud, the members of the band got word from NBC that they had been selected to compete on The Sing-Off for a prize of $100,000 and an Epic Records/Sony Music recording contract.
Afro Blue member Integriti Reeves, a well-known vocalist on the District’s jazz scene and a graduate student at Howard, called the feeling “surreal.”
“To be singing in Afro Blue at all is just a huge dream. I’d been following Afro Blue since I was in high school,” Reeves said. “And then to actually make it onto a national TV show with this group that I’ve always dreamt of being in has just been amazing.”
Reeves said that this past spring, a member of Take 6, the Grammy-winning a capella gospel troupe, told Afro Blue director Connaitre Miller that The Sing-Off was accepting audition videos for its third season. He suggested the Howard band apply.
In tailoring their application to the show, the members of Afro Blue had to learn a pop song, in addition to their usual jazz repertoire. They elected for an idiosyncratic choice: “Fireflies,” by emo-pop act Owl City. “We learned the music [to ‘Fireflies’] and we videotaped the audition on the same day, so the first half of the day was spent just learning the arrangement,” said Christie Dashiell, an Afro Blue member and familiar face on D.C. jazz club stages.
This proved to be the first of many pop songs that Afro Blue would have to perform. Throughout the show, the group has been imbuing an array of popular tunes with subtle jazz flavorings – extended harmonies, syncopation and ambitious chord changes – while retaining the original songs’ catchiness. (Check out Dashiell’s thrilling, out-of-the-blue scat solo at 1:05 in the video below.) But this blend didn’t come without effort.
“We kind of thought with what we knew as musicians, it would be easy to go into music that may not be as complex as jazz, but that wasn’t it at all. We learned that there are a lot of nuances in pop music that we were completely unaware of,” Dashiell said.
“Some of these writers and producers in pop music are really, really musical. It was hard to figure out how to mesh Afro Blue’s jazzy sound with a pop sound or an R&B sound or a hip-hop sound without losing the integrity of our sound, or that of the original tune.”
Dashiell, who graduated from Howard in 2010, isn’t in the official Afro Blue university band anymore. Neither are a handful of the singers in the group, as it’s seen on The Sing-Off. But instead of using the entire current iteration of the group, Miller decided to assemble a sort of all-star cast featuring past and present members.
Once the singers were informed by NBC that they had made it onto The Sing-Off, they headed to Los Angeles for weeks of taping during July and August. In L.A., Afro Blue worked almost nonstop.
“I expected that being on the show was going to be this really intense competition. Right off the bat, I was not let down,” Reeves said. “As soon as we got there we had a dance rehearsal.”
Almost every day, “we woke up and someone read off to us what our schedule was. We just kind of followed,” Dashiell said. “We didn’t have much downtime to relax or enjoy L.A., but it was fun.”
The workweek would begin when Afro Blue received its weekly “challenge,” or the category within which its performance would have to fall for that particular episode. These ranged from “guilty pleasures” to hip-hop tunes to medleys. From there, the group emailed and phoned back and forth with Miller, who had stayed behind in D.C., and she helped them work out arrangements. In addition to rehearsals, the band met with the five choreographers on The Sing-Off’s staff to plan dance moves, and had sittings with stylists twice a week so that the singers could be outfitted for the show.
“I never knew so much goes into shows like this,” Dashiell said. “Afro Blue before The Sing-Off would stand in a semi-circle and just sing. This was completely new for us. All of us have rhythm and enjoy dancing, but never, like, for real!”
It’s clear by now, though, that Afro Blue is entirely for real – even its dance moves. Seven of the show’s eleven episodes have run, and few contestants are looking stronger than the Howard singing troupe.
Only those closely affiliated with the show know who won or lost – and they’re contractually obligated not to reveal the results. All D.C. can do is watch, and keep its fingers crossed that Afro Blue will be bringing home a recording contract. Who knows, if they win, maybe they’ll flip things and infuse some bebop back into the repertoire of Epic Records, which was originally founded as a jazz label.