aimee suzanee kruse-ross | black violin | march 2017
Black Violin represents a split with convention. Jazz. Hip-hop. Classical. What others may see as musical genres, Black Violin sees only as ingredients. Fronted by violinist Kevin Sylvester and violist/vocalist Wilner Baptiste, better known as Kev Marcus and Wil B, they, along with DJ SPS and percussionist Nat Stokes bring their seamless fusion of styles to the Weidner Center on March 12. And if they break a few stereotypes in the process, that's fine with them.
“We're just a couple of African-American dudes who trained in classical music, even though we don't look at all like the type," says Baptiste.
In an unusual twist of fate, Baptiste began playing the viola, somewhat begrudgingly, at age 14 in middle school. He had hoped to take up the saxophone, but when one wasn't made available for him, only the viola was left. Rather than turn away from music, he picked the instrument up.
“At first, it wasn't really something that I wanted to do, but I kept doing it and ended up falling in love with it," says Baptiste.
He met Marcus in high school music class and the two have been playing music together ever since. Ten years ago, their collaborations led to the creation of Black Violin. The group's sound is a musical tapestry that pulls seemingly divergent sources, classical, jazz, hip-hop, rock and even bluegrass, and melds them into something new, yet familiar. The result is original compositions that are distinctly Black Violin.
"About 98 percent of what we do is original," explains Baptiste. "It's something that we came up with, to marry classical and hip-hop in a genuine way. We use mostly acoustic violins, but at the same time, it's something the fans of Kanye or Drake will understand."
After studying classical music at a formal university, the pair's natural progression led them to study some of the legendary jazz greats. The late jazz violinist Hezekiah Leroy Gordon, known commonly as Stuff Smith, ranks high on their list of inspirations.
“When we first heard [Smith] it was something we'd never heard before. The way he played the violin, it had so much soul to it. It opened our minds to the possibilities of performing classical music in different ways," says Baptiste.
He goes on to explain that Smith was very much a musician personified of his own era, comfortable doing things in a way uniquely his own. It is from Smith's 1965 recording that Black Violin takes its name.
“There he was," says Baptiste with admiration, “playing for audiences and being himself even while he played for that audience. We wanted to do the same thing."
Black Violin follows in those footsteps and are able to pick up their instruments, and without losing the formal disciplines of classical music, they instead color them with the modern sounds and rhythms of hip-hop, creating a unique sound that Baptiste describes as “pure sonic bliss."
Audiences around the world seem to agree, as Black Violin's itinerary has grown to include more than 200 shows a year. Individually and as a duo, they have collaborated with the likes of P. Diddy, Kanye West, 50 Cent, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Aretha Franklin and the Eagles. They've also performed at three NFL Super Bowls and last year's U.S. Open with Jordin Sparks.
“I don't really know why audiences are drawn to us," says Baptiste. “It's a bit of a mystery, really. I know, for example, that the audience sits down and sees us for the first time and they're wondering, 'What kind of music am I going to hear?' And I understand that confusion because, on stage, we're just two black guys with violins."
So, what can the audience expect?
“Expect great music," says an enthusiastic Baptiste. “An inspiring, uplifting, high-energy show. You can bring anyone to this show, your grandmother, your grandfather, the grandkids, anyone can come to the show and enjoy it."
As for Black Violin gaining ground in a world that seems saturated with the been-there done-that, they remain humble despite their growing fame.
“I'm still in awe of being able to perform in front of audiences, that people are willing to pay to see us," says Baptiste.
“They love that we bring people together from all walks of life, people that would not necessarily be in the same room together unless you're at a Packer's game, but the music, it's not what people expect. In times such as this, we need to be able to come together and enjoy each other's company, even if it's just for that hour and a half."
Catch Black Violin for their one-night-only show at Green Bay's Weidner Center on March 12, 2017. Tickets start at $33 and are available at ticketstaronline.com. For more information, visit weidnercenter.com or blackviolin.net.