By Eric Althoff
The history of jazz runs deep in Washington, D.C. Edward Kennedy Ellington—better known as “Duke” Ellington—was from the capital, as were Charlie Byrd and Shirley Horn. D.C. native Integriti Reeves found jazz when she was in high school, describing herself as a “late bloomer” when it came to discovering the genre.
“I love jazz because it fits my voice really well. That’s what drew me to it initially,” Reeves said during a recent chat. “I felt like I found myself in the music. I also love improvisation and how that’s really central to every style of jazz, even if it’s not traditional.”
Indeed, much of Reeves’ own work bears the stamp of jazz, as well as the pop and R&B sounds she grew up hearing at home.
Reeves plays both violin and sings. Her first—and to date only—piano teacher has been her grandmother. Reeves’ mother also played piano and sings.
“I definitely grew up in a musical household,” Reeves said.
In addition to her home-schooling, Reeves studied at D.C.’s vaunted Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where she learned under the tutelage of Davey Yarborough, a mainstay at the Washington Jazz Arts Institute.
“He took me under his wing and encouraged me that I could have a voice and I could make a difference in this community with music,” Reeves said. “Without him, I definitely would be doing something else.”
She also studied at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University and Howard University, which conferred on her a master’s degree in music. Reeves has since held down a jazz residency at the Kennedy Center and another at Strathmore.
Although she was already rather familiar with the musical scene in her hometown, Reeves gained an even greater appreciation for the sounds of D.C. after graduating from Howard.
“It’s incredibly rich and full of musicians who have a long lineage,” she said. “I think that the melding of people who grew up in and around D.C., like I did, and people who came to the city in search of something, or were drawn to it through the music, collided—and magic happens.”
She describes the D.C. scene as welcoming and supportive, and its musicians talented enough to vie with the best in the world.
In 2014, Reeves released an EP titled “Stairway to the Stars.” It contains the jazzy title track, a cover of the song written by Frank Signorelli and Matt Mallneck, with words by Mitchell Parish, and made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. Reeves’s vocal stylings on the song can’t help but also remind the listener of Norah Jones and Nancy Wilson.
Reeves says she has an enormous amount of song ideas that just keep coming to her. To try to see which ones will be taken to the next step creatively, she will typically sit down at the piano to try and capture the tunes in her head.
“I don’t have a process that is easy,” she said of composing. “Oftentimes, the melody to my composition comes first, and then I have to circle back and make sure the harmonies I am hearing in my head match what I’m able to play on piano. So it takes me a long time to write songs.”
Reeves’ voice and songs have certainly attracted notice, both in D.C. and beyond. She has performed with the National Symphony Orchestra as a featured soloist and appeared around town on such stages as the Hamilton, Blues Alley and even at the White House. She has also worked with some of the biggest names in music, from Smokey Robinson to Herbie Hancock and Bobby McFerrin.
She recalls a rather memorable gig with Stevie Wonder, whom Reeves describes as incredibly gracious.
“It was really nerve-wracking to be in the presence of someone so influential, but he was very down to earth and encouraging,” Reeves said. “They say don’t meet your heroes, but I’m so glad I got to meet and perform with him live. I’ll cherish that moment.”
But the ongoing “moment” that is the COVID-19 pandemic has been with us for over a year and a half. Like nearly all musicians, Reeves’ performance calendar blanked out rather briskly last March, so she used the shutdown to work on her songs.
“I’m already an introverted person, so it gave me time to really dive into music,” she said. “I think using that quiet time was really important for me so that I didn’t get too down.”
Reeves said that she also engaged in the decidedly non-introverted activity of giving lessons in voice, violin, and piano to online students, which similarly kept away the blues of not being able to perform for live audiences.
“I was able to enjoy and provide some structure and stability to children and adults who otherwise didn’t have a creative outlet, or any opportunity for levity during the shutdown,” she said.
Even as the world tentatively emerges from the pandemic, Reeves continues to offer online music lessons while she looks forward to future performance dates. However, one such gig with Washington Performing Arts, originally scheduled for Aug. 21, was sidelined not by the virus but by an entirely different sort of pest.
“It was actually postponed due to oak mites,” she said of the insects whose bites can be quite painful.
But Reeves takes it all in stride, perhaps aware that such challenges are par for the course for musicians. In the meantime, she encourages fans to find her music on her website and various outlets such as Instagram and Apple Music. She also welcomes the opportunity to mentor aspiring musicians, much as Yarborough once took her under his wing.
“It’s one of my greatest joys to share, because I think it can encourage people who may feel that they don’t have a voice,” Reeves said. “Maybe they don’t have the voice they think everyone is looking for, but if you have something to say, I think that’s the most important thing. And I would love to champion that in someone else the way it’s been championed for me.”
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