In 2018, Tyreek McDole, a student at the Osceola County School for the Arts in Kissimmee, FL, was playing classical percussion for a performance of the 1987 Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical, Into the Woods. “During rehearsal,” he recalled, “one of the actors got sick. I had studied all the music, so I sang the part for the wolf. As I started singing, heads started turning in the room. I guess I found out I had a voice then. Little did I know that the Jazz Director (Edwin Imer Santiago) was listening. So, he asked me to join the jazz band and to sing at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition.” At the EE event, McDole was named Outstanding Vocalist. (This past spring, Osceola County School for the Arts took first place at Essentially Ellington for the second year in a row).
On Sunday, November 19, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival, the 23-year-old McDole won this year’s Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, the second male winner in the “Sassy” award’s 12-year history. Said vocalist Jane Monheit, one of the judges: “I was simply astonished by the gorgeous quality of Tyreek’s instrument. He had a beautiful feel and is already a true entertainer at his young age. The music world better get ready.”
Santiago remembered that moment during the performance of Into the Woods. “I just heard something in his voice,” he said. “He sang in pitch, he had confidence, and he showed potential. When we got to Essentially Ellington in New York, he was our secret weapon. In the warmup room, he said, ‘I’d like to try something, call and response.’ I felt there was trust between Tyreek, myself, and the band, so I said yes. It worked, and it fired up the band. He continues to develop. When I hear him sing today, I hear a maturing of his voice.”
At the Sarah Vaughan Competition finals, McDole sang Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “September in the Rain”, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”, and Milton and Pinetop Sparks’ “Every Day I Have the Blues”, a song closely identified with Joe Williams. “I just felt like going with some of my strengths,” he said. “I’ve been singing those songs since I started singing. I think it’s really important to pick material that’s really close to you — not just in the musical sense but in an emotional sense. Each of those songs have stories that I was telling during that competition.
“I also just want to shout out to all the great vocalists in the Sarah Vaughan Competition,” he added. “They’re all incredible, and I’ve been inspired by them.” The other four finalists were: Darynn Dean, second place; Ekep Nkwelle, third place; Bianca Love; and Emma Smith. (McDole received a $5,000 cash award; Dean was awarded $1,500; and Nkwelle received $500).
McDole has been compared to such jazz vocal legends as Williams, Andy Bey, and Johnny Hartman. And, while he is in awe of those giants, he said Louis Armstrong has been a major influence on him. “I’ve been in a band since I was in middle school (in St. Cloud, FL), playing trumpet and classical percussion. I am relearning the trumpet. Being able to sing and play trumpet on that level has always inspired me.” Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Dorham are two other trumpeter/vocalists who have motivated him, as well as female vocalists Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan.
After graduating from Osceola, McDole received a scholarship to the Oberlin College and Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio. “I’m very grateful for my time there,” he said. “There are so many great musicians on the faculty and alumni who went through that program.” Among the current faculty members are 2024 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master saxophonist Gary Bartz, drummer Billy Hart, and trumpeter Eddie Henderson. McDole pointed out that pianist Stanley Cowell graduated from Oberlin, and trumpeter Donald Byrd taught there in the 1990s. And, there is an Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, established with the legendary saxophonist’s support. Two other important mentors have been bassist Rodney Whitaker and his daughter, vocalist Rockelle Fortin, whom he met at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts Jazz Camp in Orlando a few years ago. “If it wasn’t for those two,” he said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Now living in New York, McDole has performed with several veteran jazz musicians including saxophonist Ted Nash and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. In June 2022, he joined Nash’s quartet at Manhattan’s Chelsea Table to recreate John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, the iconic 1963 Impulse! album. “We did all the material from that record,” he recalled. “That was a really fun concert, really challenging, trying to recreate the magic.”
Reviewing the one-night show for The Front Row Center, David Walters praised Nash’s “soul-stirring tribute, bringing together the deeply super-rich vocals of Tyreek McDole, the twinkling keys of pianist Isaiah J. Thompson, the expressive beat of drummer Matt Wilson, and the legato tones of bassist Ben Allison . . . What the live evening with Mr. McDole and Mr. Nash pointed to me,” he continued, “was the light touch of conviviality that Coltrane brought to this partnering. It was like when the setting sun, a cool breeze, and the sweet smell on the wind come together and make the perfect summer eve.”
A few months ago, McDole performed with Payton at New York’s Smoke Jazz & Supper Club. “He let me sit in with his great band that included Vincente Archer on bass, Bill Stewart on drums, and Mino Cinelu on percussion. It was a beautiful moment for me because I’ve been admiring Nicholas Payton’s music for so long. He’s one of our trumpet titans.”
On Thursday, November 30, McDole played at a “Swinging in the Holidays” concert with the Jazz House Kids All-Stars at JHK’s Jazz@the Annex in Montclair. The band was led by tenor saxophonist Birsa Chatterjee and included bassist Liany Mateo, alto saxophonist Ebban Dorsey, trumpeter Andrew Wagner, drummer Ben Schwartz, and pianist Esteban Castro. The concert, McDole said, is “preparation for our maiden voyage on next year’s Jazz Cruise.” (Mateo and Schwartz have previously been featured as Jersey Jazz Rising Stars, Mateo in October 2023 and Schwartz in July/August 2022). This month McDole will be part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Future of Jazz Orchestra that will be collaborating with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at City Center from December 15-17.
As his career continues to move forward, McDole thinks back to the transformative events that occurred just five years ago. “I’m very grateful to Osceola County and Essentially Ellington for creating a platform to celebrate the music we love. Being part of Essentially Ellington radically changed my life. It created a great opportunity to perform in New York at Jazz at Lincoln Center – with Wynton Marsalis and some of my other heroes. I’m very thankful to the folks at Jazz at Lincoln Center – not only for the preservation of the music, but for the innovative ways of growing and spreading the gospel.”-SANFORD JOSEPHSON
PHOTO BY SHAKIRU BOLA OKOYA
The Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition received more than 280 submissions representing 37 countries. In addition to Jane Monheit, judges were vocalists Patti Austin and Lizz Wright, NJPAC Jazz Advisor bassist Christian McBride, and Mack Avenue Music Group producer and A&R consultant Al Pryor.