A few months back, we stopped in to the lounge in The Ritz Carlton downtown on a grab some Friday night cocktails after a long work week. They had a live contemporary jazz quartet playing that night that goes by the name of 5th & York. We sat down to take a listen while enjoying our drinks and what we heard was nothing short of incredible! Completely captivated by the arrangements and sheer talent that we were witnessing, one drink turned into 4 and we ended up staying for their entire set. Intoxicated by the cooling vibe of their sound (and maybe the cocktails) we were satisfied but wanted to know more. We decided to reach out to saxman and centerpiece of the band, Derwin Friday to hear about their evolution and journey. 5th & York is on a mission to re-brand smooth jazz into something besides the elevator music that most people associate it with and appeal to a wider demographic. This is their story.
How did the current members of 5th & York come together?
Man, that’s a long story. For brevity lets just say it was a fortunate series of events that brought us all together. This is really the second naissance of 5th and York which is one of the reasons the first album was entitled Nascentum. I knew Tra from my first college smooth jazz ensemble. I met Tate at church and went on the road with him when we worked together on another project. Derric Friday is my first cousin (not my brother as many people think). Gea was the cat we all wanted on keys when it was time to choose a new board player. Jay was just the right guy at the right time when we needed a drummer. Mike Baker, our latest edition, was just a willing participant in the chaos and we are lucky to have him! The circumstances in which everyone came into 5th and York are very different but somehow connected. From the outside looking in, some would call it coincidence. I like to think of it as providence.
We know you are the house band at the lounge at the Ritz Carlton Charlotte, but what are some other venues, shows, or festivals that people can go to in order to hear you play?
A lot of the things we do in town happen to be private functions. We do play occasionally at Sydney’s Martini and Wine Lounge, and at Vapiano during the weekend. The easiest way to catch up with us is to check our schedule at www.5thandyork.com or download the 5th and York app from the Google store (Sorry iPhone users but we don’t have one for you yet). We also have an email list that you can join on our website that allows us to keep in contact with our friends.
Do you think it is more of a challenge, because of the different backgrounds represented in the band, to bring different layers and dynamics to your sound?
We don’t always agree, but everyone has had to learn how to find some common ground. When you have seven very talented, very creative, and very different cats working in tandem it can be a challenge. However, when it works it’s amazing. We can spend four hours working on the same tune or even the same piece of a tune but the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. We often have moments when we finish and look at each other and say did that just happen. Then we do it a few more times just to hear it again. It can be quite magical.
Do you also write and perform original songs?
We Do! We are now on our second album so we have quite a few originals. Covering other people’s music is fun and it’s what helps get the audience involved in a show but playing the stuff we write together is the most amazing part of being on stage. That’s what separates a band from an artist. Being able to announce to the crowd that this next piece is an original is one of my favorite moments at any show. It can be intimidating because you suddenly become vulnerable to the scrutiny of the listener. At the same time, it is amazingly liberating.
Your debut album, Nascentum, came out in 2011. How would you describe the vibe on that album and is it all original songs, covers, or a combination of both?
Nascentum is all originals. It was a defining moment for everyone involved because we all knew it was the beginning of something. It was our introduction to the world. to the industry, so naturally there where some mistakes made and some things we had to learn along the way. However, in the end the album came out great. Funky bass lines, great guitar riffs, some beautiful writing, and a lot of heart and soul went into the project. That is what makes us so proud.
You recently released your sophomore album, All In. How has 5th & York evolved since the first album and how does it differ from Nascentum?
It was a completely different approach to how we wrote and recorded our first album. This go around we were blessed enough to be able to go into a professional studio and stretch our legs a bit. I feel like this one is more mature and shows the time we have put into honing our craft as individuals and as a band. Listening to ALL IN you can hear a band that is much closer to finding its own voice. It feels more like we had something to say as opposed to just trying to introduce ourselves to listeners. You can also find this CD pretty much anywhere online, as well as CD Baby. We also have our own dedicated Pandora Station called 5th and York radio where you can listen to the album.
What are some of your ultimate goals as a band? being that contemporary jazz isn’t typically seen as mainstream on a commercial level, what are some of the challenges you face in an effort to achieve those goals?
Your right. C-Jazz is only 3 percent of the national market and most don’t hit it rich doing it. It’s something you do because you love it and that’s what it boils down to love. If you don’t love the music, or anything you do for that matter, than why do it. We are blessed to be able to say that this year we accomplished one of our primary goals. We released a national single that has been getting airplay in the majority of the smooth jazz markets. Our cover of the David Sanborn classic Maputo was met with rave reviews and continues to get great airplay and response. However, the smooth jazz market is a small pond with a lot of big fish so our goal is to increase the size of the pond by appealing to a wider demographic by rebranding smooth jazz as something besides the elevator music that most people associate it with.
You have opened for some legendary bands like Earth Wind and Fire, Frankie Beverly and Maize, Anthony Hamilton, and the late Gerald Levert to name a few. did you ever imagine that you would get a chance to work alongside such accomplished artists and how have those experiences been?
Every time we get to play with legendary artists we are excited. Just this year we had the opportunity to open up for Legendary Jazz and World music great Hiroshima. We recently had the chance to open up for Brian Culbertson who I have loved for years! I have to say that most have been more than gracious in sharing knowledge and advice. It’s humbling, yet validating, to have these people you have looked up to for so long acknowledge your talent!
Does 5th and York have any other major artists that you will be playing with or opening for in the near future? What projects are you working on right now that you are really excited about?
The most exciting stuff for us is not always the big stages or the big names we get to work with. It’s the charity events that we get to work with that really excite us. We have long standing partnerships with the Red Pump Project, a charity that empowers and educates the community about HIV/Aids. We also work with ìA Better World Foundation that feeds, tutors, mentors and invests in at-risk youth. We are very proud of our own project ìJazz for a Cure that benefits cancer research. Charity outlets that we spend time with keep us grounded as human beings. As musicians it motivates us to reach for higher platforms so we can assist these worthy causes.
Aside from the Ritz lounge, where are some other Charlotte area venues jazz lovers can visit to get their fix?
Right now there is Sydney’s Martini and Wine Bar in Uptown, Sullivan’s hosts jazz on the weekends, and Vapiano hosts Jazz Monthly. There are also some well known international artists that come through Charlotte on a regular basis thanks to some great promoters that have relocated to Charlotte. The Charlotte Jazz Orchestra puts on a show at Club Tempo once a month as well which I think is awesome. I hope that everyone will support their efforts.
It seems that while there used to be a handful venues in Charlotte that featured jazz acts, nowadays they are few and far between. Why do you think that Charlotte, a city with so many jazz enthusiasts, has only a few places where one can enjoy jazz?
It comes down to economics. It’s as simple as that. If a venue can draw more people and make more money by paying a DJ to spin records then why wouldn’t they? When the majority of people say that they would love to hear more jazz but then don’t support Jazz related events when presented with the opportunity, the venue owner has no other option but to reduce his overhead and increase his or her revenue by skipping the live music and hiring a DJ. When it comes to the entertainment choices that promoters and venue owners bring to any city, the public votes with their dollars. Charlotte has a great opportunity to be a major live music hub. The supply is here, we just have to work on the demand part.
For more information or to listen to 5th and York visit them online at www.5thandyork.com