“The last year of my life has been phenomenal,” Quiana Lynell says. It stands to reason. In the past 12 months, she’s scratched more items off her musical bucket list than most of us have ever written down. And unlike most of us, she actually does write them down. “I’m a planner, so I had this ten-year plan on my wall,” she says. “But this last year—my little ten-year plan is out the window. It accelerated expotentially!”
Lynell may be stretching the English language slightly, but jazz is what she does for a living, after all. Lynell’s only been consciously pursuing a career as a jazz vocalist for about five years, but already, she’s won one of the genre’s most prestigious awards, signed to one of its most storied labels and collaborated with some of its most legendary artists, so her excitement and figurative language are more than warranted.
Music has always been Lynell’s calling, but her path to jazz was far from standard. “I grew up in a very religious home,” she says. “My parents loathed secular music, so there was not a lot of push to do anything outside of gospel.” Still, Lynell’s talent was apparent from the start. “In Abilene, [Texas], we’d have all the holiday programs and we’d vie for the solo, and it came to the point where ‘We know Quiana’s gonna get the solo,’” she says. She made the all-state choir in high school and won a scholarship to LSU. But even in college, jazz was never on her musical horizon. “I’m pre–the [Popular and Commercial Music] and pre–the Jazz Studies programs that are at a lot of schools now,” she explains. “For vocal majors, it was strictly classical voice.”
Lynell’s parents weren’t thrilled to see their daughter dabbling in secular music, but they were willing to do whatever it took to put her through school. “I’m a first-generation college graduate, so it was whatever I had to do to get in school because there wasn’t a lot of money,” she says. “So wherever the scholarship can come from, let’s get it.” They came around on her singing too, eventually. “My mom always tells the story of when I had to submit audition tapes to different schools,” she says. “She heard the tapes and she was like ‘Whoa, Quiana can really sing!’ This is my senior year, and she’s finally realizing this might be something!” Since then, Lynell’s mom has become her biggest fan. “Whenever she’s at a show, she’s like ‘The band’s just too loud. They need to turn your voice up!’ And I’m like ‘Okay, mom.’ It’s a mom thing,” she reasons.
Despite her mother’s mom-ish support, Lynell decided to set her musical aspirations aside after college. “The classical world is very competitive, and to progress in that career, you have to audition for all these schools and residencies and companies,” she says. “And you’re competing against perfection. Like ‘Who can do this piece exactly like it’s written?’ And I just wasn’t very good, at that time, at accepting a ‘no.’ The thought of not being right was scary to me. Not being the best was scary to me. So I retreated from that world and went into sales and decided to become a mom. I was like ‘If I’m gonna be a singer, somebody’s gonna find me. I’m gonna be discovered if that’s my path.’”
Lynell kept singing, even as she started a job at AT&T and moved up in the ranks from customer service to sales. She returned to her roots, singing in the choir at St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge. Still, she hip-pocketed her hopes and dreams for 15 years, leaning into her corporate career and family life.
Things changed when she met Janelle Brown, a fellow AT&T sales rep and the lead singer of Baton Rouge zydeco group 2 Da T. “I was at a call center, and unbeknownst to the rest of the world, when we put you on hold, we’re having conversations and playing around,” Lynell confesses. “You have no idea—‘Can you hold while I pull up your account?’ That just means ‘I wanna talk to my neighbor.’ As soon as you call, your information is on our screen, but we just say that stuff because we’re supposed to keep you on the phone.”
While customers held patiently, Lynell become the queen of office karaoke and Brown took notice. “She was like ‘Quiana, you need to come sing with my band,’ and I was like ‘This lady doesn’t have a band,’” Lynell recalls. “I had no reference of wedding bands, bands in clubs. My whole world was about choral music, opera. I wasn’t versed in the barrooms, the live music vibe. But then I went one night and sat in with her band and it was the most fun I’d ever, ever had.
“That was my first time ever singing with a live band, doing zydeco, R&B. It was so fun,” Lynell continues. “But I was pregnant with my second child and I was doing really well in my career… and then all of a sudden, [Brown] died. And the band was like ‘We need a singer.’ And I was like ‘okay.’ Because every day, [Brown would say] ‘You need to be singing. Your kids are gonna be okay. You’re supposed to be singing.’ So I was like ‘All right. I guess I’m supposed to be singing.’”
Lynell was still pulling 50-hour weeks at AT&T and raising a family, but she began to devote more and more of her time and energy to performing. “We had a weekly gig at this little club called Raggs in Baton Rouge, and it was the highlight of my week,” she remembers. “And I got in that world and started meeting more musicians who had that as a career and were able to make a good living being musicians. So I was like ‘Okay. Let me figure out how I can be a musician all the time.’”
At the same time, she felt herself lifting off from the other worlds she occupied. “I started having trouble at work, trouble in my marriage,” she says. “It was this transitional period.” She quit her job and found a much less lucrative one as a 5th and 6th grade band director in Donaldsonville, south of Baton Rouge. “It’s actually where my ex-husband is from. It’s his hometown and it’s where all my kids’ family is,” she says. “So it was weird, but it was cool. And then I got divorced.”
Two years later, the elementary school where Lynell was teaching was turned into a middle school, and without warning, she was thrust into a middle school bandleader position. “I was like ‘Oh, crap,’” she recalls. “The plan was not to be going to parades and football games. I had left 2 Da T by that time and started my own band. I was coming to New Orleans and performing with a lot of New Orleans traveling musicians and bands, and it was taxing to think about all the after-school band rehearsals and my family and my kids—I was a single mom—so I was like ‘Okay, gotta figure something else out.’”
Lynell only lasted a year as a middle school band director before returning to elementary school to be a general music teacher, but she says her time leading the band was crucial to her development as a songwriter and arranger. “The last time I’d played an instrument was middle school,” she says, “So it was really good for me growth-wise, putting me in the practice of writing arrangements for the band. It put me in a place to grow me as a bandleader without too much pressure because it was kids.”
Back at elementary school, Lynell had more time to travel to New Orleans and gig. It was around this time that she finally decided she wanted to be a jazz musician. “I wasn’t 20; I’m not about to be a pop star,” she says. “So I looked at the singers I loved—Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson—and these ladies sang everything, but jazz was their home.”
Lynell’s move to jazz was less a passionate leap of faith than a calculated risk. Her years in sales earned her a savvy many artists never find, and with her family’s livelihood at stake, she couldn’t afford to make a rash career decision. “I’m grown and I have lots on the line,” she says. “This is more than just love for me. This is my life and it’s my business. So I plan and I strategize on what I need to do to be successful. I’m not just a performer—this is business. We all need to think about it that way. Otherwise, we’ll get sidetracked and forget that the decisions we make are affecting our livelihood. So I step back from the emotional part of the songs I’m writing and the emotional connection I have with my audience and the euphoric high I get from the performance and think ‘All right, where am I at on my plan? Is my mortgage gonna get paid? Am I still putting into my 401k?’”
Even as she crunches the numbers, Lynell is having the time of her life. “At the heart of me, I’m an entertainer and I love experiencing crafted moments with my audiences,” she says. “That’s what I realized when I started singing with 2 Da T. I love the interactions with the people and giving them that time they’ll never forget. You can always remember your birthday when you went out and you saw that band. You remember the joke that singer told. Being a part of people’s lives is my joy, and singing is just how I do that. I would share moments with people if I could be your tour guide—or your teacher. I love teaching. I love working with kids. My favorite thing was being that elementary band director because everything those kids learned about their instruments and about music came from me.”
Two years ago, Lynell’s friend Cindy Scott offered her the position she was leaving as a private vocal instructor at Loyola. The move meant Lynell would only have to work two or three days a week and could still make enough money to supplement her career and support her family, but it also meant she’d be spending even more time away from home. “I’m in New Orleans three to five times a week on average, and I live in Gonzales, so people were like ‘Why don’t you just move to New Orleans? Why are you living in Baton Rouge?’ And I’m like ‘It’s my home,’” she says. “Baton Rouge is where I found my voice. It’s where I found the blues. There’s so much I’ve learned from and grown in, and my peace and comfort is sitting on that porch. Sometimes I feel homeless because I’m in New Orleans so much and I’m not as connected to that community as I used to be. And in New Orleans, you can still ask people and nobody knows who I am. Especially with the work I was doing in the hotels; that’s a lot of tourists. I wasn’t singing in places where I had a local community that knew me. And I wasn’t in OffBeat—I wasn’t in any of these magazines—so I was beginning to feel like ‘Do I even have a home?’ because there was nobody that was really connecting to me. And I felt like people in Baton Rouge had forgotten about me too.”
Lynell felt rootless at times, but she never let it stop her hustle. She used her pain as inspiration when she wrote “Baton Rouge,” a love song to the city where she’s spent her adult life, after the historic 2016 flood that almost washed it away. “I’m a very emotionally scarred woman and everything I sing is the story of my life,” she says. “Everything I do has a lot of the blues in it.”
Singing the blues is what broke Lynell into a higher stratosphere of the jazz world last fall, when she won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition in New Jersey. When she was selected to perform, a friend urged her to “bring all that New Orleans with her to New Jersey.” She wasn’t sure what it meant at first. “But then I looked at the people who were picked and there’s a teacher [who had been] at Berklee for 14 years, other jazz artists who had multiple CDs they’d released—and I only have a five-song EP!” she says. So she brought the “New Orleans” with her and stayed true to herself. “I can’t out-jazz these people and if I try to get in a mindset to think I’m about to be at the level of Sarah Vaughan in my fourth year of studying jazz, there’s no way! So my goal was to go have fun and be Quiana. I didn’t go to school in New York. I haven’t shed in New York. I haven’t grown on the scene in New York. I can only be who I am and that’s what I did. I sang [“Hip Shakin’ Mama,”] an Irma Thomas blues, and I sang “After You’ve Gone,” which is a traditional song, and then I sang an original song of mine. It was phenomenal.”
The competition win and the deal with jazz titan Concord Records that came with it capped off a phenomenal 2017 for Lynell. It started at Jazz Fest, where she played with her regular backing band for the first time. “It was David Pulphus on bass, Simon Lott on drums, Ashlin Parker on trumpet and Daniel Meinecke on keys,” she says. “We’d been working together for over a year and a half and we were so freakin’ tight. These guys knew every breath I would take, so that set was one of the highlights of my life. I walked off that stage feeling like ‘I could die right now and i would be so satisfied,’ because everything felt perfect.”
After that, Lynell’s phone started ringing. One fateful call came from Terence Blanchard’s manager, Robin Burgess. “We got lunch and she was like ‘I think you should go with Terence to Poland in three weeks.’ And I’m like ‘Okay. I hear you, but actions speak louder than words. I’m too old to be sold on this hype dream. The lights and the smoke and mirrors don’t work on me. I’m waiting for the proof in the pudding.’” Three weeks later, Lynell was boarding a plane to Szczecin, Poland, where she’d join Blanchard, Nona Hendryx and conductor Adam Sztaba’s philharmonic orchestra to perform Blanchard’s Spike Lee movie scores.
“All I could remember thinking was ‘Don’t mess up,’” Lynell says. “[Saxophonist] Roderick Paulin… He calls me Qui-Qui, and he was like ‘Qui-Qui: Long as you show up and know what you doin’, you’ll get far in this business. Know what key you’re singing in. Know how to count your song off.’ Singers get a bad rap, especially with instrumentalists, because a lot of times, we can get by with things that instrumentalists can’t get by with. We don’t know what notes we’re singing a lot of times. We don’t know what key we’re singing in a lot of times. Sometimes we just float by on a good look and a nice voice. So he was like ‘If you wanna be somebody, know what you’re doing when you get on the bandstand.’”
Lynell followed Paulin’s advice and came prepared. It paid off. Blanchard took her under his wing and worked with her on her demo, which she’ll be translating into a full-length album this summer and releasing in early 2019. “He’s amazing,” she says. “He’s such a great teacher and a great bandleader. He’s giving about information. He wanted to look at the stuff I was writing and gave me tips on how to compose. It’s phenomenal. It’s phenomenal! It’s phenomenal.”
Of Lynell, Blanchard says: “Quiana is that rare talent that is mature well beyond her years. Her soulful, perfect-pitched tone has its own character, alongside a sophisticated bluesy approach to jazz that will set her apart from the pack.”
Lynell has ascended to previously unimagined realms. In April, she performed with Blanchard, Herbie Hancock, Patti Austin, Bilal, Ledisi and more at the Orpheum Theater for International Jazz Day. At Jazz Fest 2018, she sang with legendary bassist Marcus Miller. And this summer, she’ll head to Ascona, Switzerland to perform at another world-renowned jazz festival with equally legendary bassist Roland Guerin.
“The people I’ve been around in the last year have all been welcoming, loving, supportive; giving me things to listen to, building me up versus breaking me down (or building me up first and then telling me something I could work on),” Lynell says. “There are different types of teaching styles: There’s the dictator who doesn’t wanna hear anything except what they think and then there’s the leader who values the people on their team’s opinions. And that’s the kind of bandleader that Terence is and Marcus Miller is. That’s the kind of leader I am. I could be on the bandstand and just say ‘This is what I want and this is how I want it,’ but I’ve got five cats that are amazing musicians. What would that make me if I don’t value any of the input that these people who’ve studied just as long on their instrument as I have on mine… If I don’t value anything they have to say… If I don’t give them the opportunity to be a part of the moment?”
Bandleaders like Blanchard and Miller have taught Lynell valuable lessons, but she still feels most connected to the women of New Orleans jazz. “There’s a lot of us that are contemporaries in this city. The younger generation of singers: Robin Barnes, Nayo Jones, Stephanie Jordan, Anais St. John… All these ladies I look at and learn. We’re all on the same struggle bus every day trying to keep our focus, dream chasing, trying to stay true to our voice and make our place in this musical city,” she says. “It’s beautiful. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about how it’s a Harlem Renaissance moment across the country. There are so many artists, but in New Orleans and Baton Rouge alike, there’s not a competitive ideology. We’re all sisters. We’re all like ‘What are you doing? Oh, killin’. You wanna come do this?’ It’s never ‘Oh no, you’re trying to take my gig,’ it’s ‘I’m not gonna be there next week. Can you hold it down? Because I know that you can do what you need to do.’ Everybody knows that everybody’s gonna eat. We all bring our own sense of goodness. Your light doesn’t take away from my light. We shine brighter together.”