You’ve probably seen him playing his cello around downtown, you may have noticed his inclusion in an article about buskers in the most recent Mercury. In a town with not so many African-American cello players, he stands out. If you draw close, you’ll realize he isn’t just nibbling around the edges on the instrument. He knows what he’s doing and he’s putting in the hours to get better. You may have heard him playing Bach, Camille Saint Saens or Edward Elgar.
Originally from Knoxville, he attended Vine Middle School and Austin-East. His family didn’t have much to offer in the way of background for college or the classical arts. His grandmother did help him find piano lessons at the Joy of Music School, but she wanted him to study to be an accountant. His mother preferred he play football rather than dance and rarely attended any of his dance recitals. She wanted the best for him, he says, but never understood his devotion to music or dance.
One early influence was a fellow student at the Joy of Music School, Taber Gable. Taber, just a bit older than Jeremiah, is a jazz pianist. Taking lessons at the Joy of Music school starting at age eleven, it was clear he was a prodigy from the beginning, which ultimately led him to a full scholarship to the University of Hartford and he is now pursuing a MA at Juilliard. Fighting bouts of self-doubt and stage-fright, Jeremiah looked to Taber to see the possibilities.
Yet, in each school he found some direction and encouragement for the person he would become. In programs that would later be cut, he enjoyed African Dance and strings at Vine Middle School and continued both dance and strings at Austin East. At Vine Middle he learned African Dance despite the fact that he felt he couldn’t dance as well as the others, saying, “It beat the rhythm into me.”
Under the direction of Jonathan East in high school he performed classical music with a small, intimate group, the Austin East Chamber Players. He also learned holiday music and was exposed to the jazzy sounds of the Turtle String Quartet. While there he was introduced to ballet and modern dance as well as hip hop. He credits the staff at Austin East for seeing his potential saying their level of pedagogy and professionalism was exceptional.
Upon graduation he was accepted to Ohio State University’s dance program and to the University of Tennessee’s Music program. Ohio State wrote him a hand-written note to say how much they wanted him, but his family didn’t seem impressed. He took the most accessible route and enrolled at UT with the understanding he would have access to dance while there. He arrived as he said, “not understanding how to practice.” He’d been playing in the Knoxville Youth Orchestra, but had only played once each week – at rehearsal – and sight-read his way through that.
Dr. Wesley Baldwin, string professor at UT and a person who continues to be very influential in his life made him a CD of Bach and cello concertos. He knew then he wanted to rise to the level of becoming a soloist on his instrument, but reality came crashing in when he also realized he was not one of the better stringed instrumentalists in the program and said, “I didn’t sound the way I wanted to sound.” It would take him the next several years to understand why and to begin to accomplish his goals.
Very prone to crossing metaphors between music and dance, he explains, “With West African dance you can practice a couple of times and get the initial steps fairly quickly. Ballet is more about technique. Learning placement of fingers on the cello is like learning the initial steps in dance, while the magic happens when you take the time to move more slowly, grasping the technique behind the movement in dance and when you play slowly, listening intently to understand and feel the sound in music. Really hearing and feeling the music.
While at UT he majored in music, but the dance minor the school offered was discontinued, so he joined two dance troupes. Strange Fruit was more student-driven. They welcomed all levels of students and the students choreographed the performances. Boss Dance Company on the other hand, was formed by students who had previously been on track to minor in dance. With admission by audition only and choreography by professionals, the ensemble helped him grow in dance while studying cello in his classes.
In fact, during his junior year he considered leaving the music program entirely. He said his emotions got the best of him when he felt he wasn’t making the progress he wanted to make. He realized dance was taking more of his time than cello. He invited his dance friends to his cello recital and they didn’t come. Speaking to his professor he said, “I wish when I played the cello I could feel the way I feel when I dance.” He realized he wasn’t producing on stage what he could produce in practice.
He began to understand that what he expected of himself – to be a soloist on his instrument – was very different than being part of a group production, whether in dance or in music. He dedicated himself to a focus on music his senior year. And then his cello was stolen. It had been a gift upon his graduation from Ildar Khuziakhmetov, cellist with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and his wife Jennifer Bloch, who plays viola for the orchestra.
The Joy of Music School, a constant in his life from the time of the early piano lessons, stepped in and offered to allow him to use theirs. With this encouragement, he recommitted to achieving the goals he set for himself, remembering, once more, why he had begun the pursuit of musical excellence years before. He finished his senior year playing the borrowed instrument and it’s the one you’ll see him playing around town.
During his last two years at UT, Jeremiah began to blend the arts, playing cello, for example, behind spoken word artist Marquez Rhyne. It was Rhyne who suggested he talk to a friend who runs a professional dance company in Washington, D.C., and to investigate studying dance there. The friend was Shawn Short of the Dissonance Dance Theatre, the professional dance company of Ngoma Center for Dance.
He’d been prepared for this leap years before when, as a member of the Knoxville Youth Council, he’d been selected to travel to Washington, DC as a part of the Heroes of Hope program. Allowed to take a hero, he selected Malaika Guthrie, dance teacher and choreographer at Austin East and Vine. As a part of the event, he performed for cabinet members and other members of the government, executing a dance that ended at his cello on which he performed for his hero as she sat on the stage. Cindi Lauper also performed.
That experience allowed him to meet Tony Small, artistic director of the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of DC. This opened up the opportunity for Jeremiah to work teaching cello and dance in the TAPit (Teen Arts Program) camp. He was able, with his student groups, to perform in the Kennedy Center. In another pivotal moment, for him, he saw a female African-American string quartet and got to know the members. Violinist and composer Juliette Jones, violinist Robin Fay Massie-Pighee and cellist Elise Cuffy and were of great inspiration.
So, familiar with DC after all this exposure, he auditioned successfully for Dissonance, and remembers being stunned at an amazing performance by a ballet dancer that day. He joined the group for a two week program called “Summer Intensive,” where he stretched in ways he had never before imagined and watched possibilities open in his body that he had not known were within his capabilities. Again crossing arts, he said the stretches were like scales in music, slowing the technique to the point it can be monitored on a micro level.
Working with other students, apprentices and company members, by the end of the week he had attained what he called a “natural extension,” which he likened to perfect pitch in music. With some pain, he headed into the second week which focused on barre ballet. The dances, performed to professional-level classical music, cemented the two arts in a new way for him.
Which brings us to his current goal and situation and how you can help. He has been accepted to receive professional dance training with the Dissonance Dance Theatre on a long-term basis, with the goal of becoming a member of the company. To move to Washington, DC will require that he be able to support himself and that will require a cello. His current cello, as I said, is borrowed. His current level of play and goals also requires a better instrument.
Dr. Baldwin at UT has helped him identify a proper cello, which he has located at the Cleveland Violin Shop. To purchase the cello, bow, strings, case and insurance, he needs nearly $10,000. A Go Fund Me site has been set up and some donations are coming in there, while others are choosing to send donations directly to Jeremiah in order to have all the money go toward the cello (Go Fund Me takes 7.9%). One donor gave 10% of the goal directly to him and if you’d like to make your gift directly, you may do so:
1716 Merchants Drive
Knoxville, TN 37912
Another way you can support him is by attending one of several concerts (or all three) that he has scheduled in the Black Box Theatre in the Emporium. The shows will predominantly feature his cello playing, but may also include some African Dance. The performances will be each of the first three Thursday nights in November, the 5th, 12th and 19th at 7:30 PM each night. Admission will be by donation. I would suggest a $20 minimum, but less – or a lot more – would be gladly accepted and it will all go toward the goal of purchasing a cello.
Jeremiah is a product of our city and our state. He’s benefited from the Joy of Music School, great teachers and professors at Vine Middle School, Austin East and the University of Tennessee, Governor’s School, the Youth Orchestra through the KSO and numerous others who have brought him to this point in his life. I’d like to think we’ll help him take the next step. And his long-term goal is to bring it back home. He would like to open a performing arts center in Knoxville and I’m thinking he may just do that. You can invest now and I hope you will.