Jazz vocalist Kerensa Gray to be featured in MSO Love Notes concert
“My name means peace and love, so anything that has to do with love, I’m all in,” Kerensa Gray said.
How fitting then, that the jazz vocalist, whose name is of Cornish origin, will make her Maryland Symphony Orchestra debut the week of Valentine’s Day at the Love Notes concert. Billed as “Songs, scenes as dances for those who love love,” the Saturday, Feb. 9, and Sunday, Feb. 10, concerts at The Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown will include songs by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff; Gray singing “My Funny Valentine” and her original “Red Fish, Blue Fish;” as well as Italian composer Pietro Mascagni’s “Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana,” featuring a new pas de deux from The City Ballet School of Hagerstown.
Gray, who resides in Waynesboro, Pa., comes from a strings background.
“(The violin) was my first instrument, so I’ve always wanted to perform with an orchestra,” she said. “So this is kind of a bucket list check-off for me.”
Gray, who was born and raised in Cumberland, Md., said that her parents were music lovers who exposed her to a diverse portfolio of song. Her father’s preferred styles ran the gamut from rock and country to American songbook, while her mother listened to the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. Ironically, the jazz songstress said, one of the few genres to which she did not have exposure at home was jazz.
Gray’s high school chorus teacher, Craig Schutz, was instrumental in her development as a vocalist.
“I was in the show choir, doing all this stuff that required movement. I probably really stunk because it required so much breath support and I didn’t have it,” Gray said. “But thankfully I had this wonderful mentor and teacher who said, ‘You know what, come and spend some time. I’m going to show you some breathing techniques.’”
That instruction became the underpinning for the skills she would later develop.
Gray sang in choirs and at church at every opportunity, and went on to study music at Potomac State College of West Virginia University.
“I figured out very early on that even with a performance degree, you are going to teach. Or if you want to be a great performer, you go find performers who are better than you, and you hang out with them,” she said. “That’s what I did.”
She hit jam sessions in the Baltimore area, finding musicians like Jesse Powers who were “far ahead of me, and I tried to keep up.” Sitting, listening and paying attention was her greatest learning experience, she said.
Gray established a career primarily teaching, and performing gospel when she could, when she began to realize that most of the music she was composing was more jazz-oriented.
“The root system is the same. Gospel and jazz are born out of the same soil,” she said. “It depends on which side of the river you were born on.”
During 2009, when she was in her mid-30s, Gray entered the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition in Baltimore.
“I was interested in the form and I thought, ‘I’m going to enter this thing and see where I stand and how much I have to learn.’ When I won, no one was more surprised than me,” she said.
Since that time, her career has “flipped,” with jazz performance at the center along with teaching vocals, beginning to intermediate piano and beginning violin. Gray will never give up teaching, she said, because “it keeps you honest and keeps me learning.” She has released a number of albums and is currently working with Nashville-based producer Jason Webb on her next project.
She looks forward to performing with the MSO under the direction of Elizabeth Schulze.
“Let’s be honest,” Gray said. “Conducting is still a man’s world. To have a female conductor in this private little hamlet in Western Maryland and to have somebody as good as Elizabeth Schulze. ...it’s an honor and I’m excited about that.”
Top photo: Award-winning jazz vocalist Kerensa Gray will perform with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra at the Love Notes concerts at The Maryland Theatre. (Photo by Anderson Photographs)