Few things have informed and inspired as much music as humanity’s search for God. Acclaimed baritone, arranger, and conductor Courtney Carey explores the relation between the worldly and the divine on I WANNA BE READY, a set of 12 spirituals arranged for different instrumentations — and each piece packs a punch. Even individually, these spirituals would be remarkable; together, they are a tour de force.
Today, Courtney is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our composers and performers. Read on to learn about his dreams of collaborating with Andre 3000, and his various appearances on today’s popular cooking shows…
What are your other passions besides music?
People might be surprised that I am an avid home cook and baker. I appeared on season 3 of MasterChef (Fox) and season 2 of The Great American Baking Show (ABC), where my cookies literally crumbled. Both were wonderful experiences that prepared me for unexpected future culinary adventures. In 2018, I planned to present a concert of music by Black American composers at Weill Recital Hall (Carnegie Hall). It was quite a financial undertaking, but I raised 90% of the money to license the hall and pay the principal artists through three pop-up bake shops. Every pop-up bake sale was a sold-out event, with people lined up at the doors asking for more cakes, cookies, and other treats long after we had closed shop. I proudly baked my way to Carnegie Hall.
Take us on a walk through your musical library.
I have two music libraries, one in New York NY, and the other in Memphis TN. My New York library is small, but the one in Memphis is quite vast, occupying a temperature-controlled storage unit. You will find an eclectic mix of CDS, DVDs, and scores, ranging from gospel box sets of Mahalia Jackson to Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, SWV, and Jodeci to Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, and Zinka Milanov. Growing up, my grandmother and great-aunt listened to a wide range of music every day starting at 4:30 am. They were early birds. Between 4:30 am and 7:00 am, I heard everything from the latest gospel hits to “downhome” blues to R&B and Pop hits. When I arrived home from school, the music was still pumping while my grandmother cooked and my aunt busied herself with one house project or another. Oddly enough, I still collect CDs and Vinyl records. I own hundreds of CDs and recently added recordings by Bruno Mars & Silk Sonic, and Chris Stapleton to my collection. I will add Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s album Elgar (on vinyl) next week.
What record gets the most plays? Are there any “deep cuts” that you particularly enjoy?
This answer will likely tickle people, but I listen to a 1978 recording of Giuseppe Verdi’s Ernani with Grace Bumbry as Elvira, Carlo Cossutta as Ernani, and Giorgio Zancanaro as Don Carlo every day at the gym. Act 1 is my gym warm up. I live for the rhythm and drive of that brilliant score.
If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?
That is not an easy question to answer because there are so many people I would love to collaborate with. But, two people immediately come to mind — Andre 3000 and Lizzo. I would love to do a Vivaldi album that includes the Vivaldi Flute concerto in G Minor with Lizzo playing. That would be brilliant, and a total dream come true. Andre 3000 has a swagger and temperament well suited to Bach. I absolutely love his style, and I could easily see a reimagined Bach album featuring him. He would totally rock out the Bach Flute Sonata in E minor, in some sort of remixed version.
Where and when are you at your most creative?
I am always observing — watching what is happening around me as I move through the world. My grandmother taught me this as a child, “always look around you, pay attention, and take in every inch of the space you inhabit.” I can feel bursts of creativity while on the NYC subway, sitting in the Barnes and Noble Café at Union Square, or in church. If I am present, creativity can hit me anywhere.
What emotions do you hope listeners will experience after hearing your work?
I do not think I can assign any specific emotions I hope people will experience after hearing my work. That may seem like a non-answer, but I believe what I want is for people to “feel.” Whatever emotions my music elicits at that moment, I want that individual to feel them. We wake up different people every day. Our bodies change, our situations change, and our world view changes. In other words, life happens. A person can listen to a song on Monday and have joyous feelings but can listen to the same song on Thursday night and feel sadness. It all depends on where the individual is in their life’s journey. I can relate such a situation with me. I was listening to Oh, De Blin’ Man Stood on the Road an’ Cried one day on the train ride home and got to the last measure of the song, and a slight smile crossed my face. About three weeks later, I was listening to it again, while riding the train home. As I got off the train, I realized a tear was streaming down my face. I cannot tell you why the effect was different that day, but something in the music moved me to tears.
What musical mentor had the greatest impact on your artistic journey? Is there any wisdom they’ve imparted onto you that still resonates today?
I would not say I have had a mentor in the traditional sense, i.e., someone who has taken me by the hand and guided me along. I can say, however, that I have had some fantastic role models. Aside from family members, the two who influenced me the most, certainly in my youth, were Uzee Brown, Jr. and David Morrow. Both were my professors at Morehouse College in Atlanta GA, and I cannot think of any greater influences during those years. They are the embodiment of what it means to be a Renaissance man — knowledgeable in many areas and one who uses all his skills to their maximum potential. While under their tutelage, I was inspired to learn multiple languages, travel the world, use my talents wisely, and develop those talents that might be dormant or undernourished. In one of my first rehearsals in my Freshman year of college, Dr. Morrow quoted the late Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mayes, and that single quote has become a mantra by which I live.
“It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is a sin.”