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Feeling the love with The Baylor Project

Marcus Baylor and Jean Baylor of The Baylor Project stand next to each other, as Jean leans in to kiss Marcus's cheek.
Courtesy of the Artist

The Grammy-nominated and NAACP Image Award–winning married duo will perform at the Mad Jazz Festival.

Marcus and Jean Baylor are here to share the love. That’s the mission statement of the married duo’s Grammy-nominated and NAACP Image Award-winning jazz group The Baylor Project, which incorporates a wide range of sounds that inspired them.

There’s gospel from the churches of their childhoods, jazz from Marcus’ time as a drummer with Yellowjackets and Cassandra Wilson, and the neo-soul feel of Jean’s foundational R&B vocal duo Zhané. Ahead of their show at the Mad Jazz Festival this weekend in Afton, I caught up with them to learn more about their latest album The Evening and the art of navigating the music world as husband and wife.

Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: You'll be performing at the Mad Jazz Festival on Sept. 23. What can listeners expect to hear?

Marcus Baylor: We are excited to come and it's just going to be a good time filled with fun, great music; the spirit! Jean, what would you add to that?

Jean Baylor: You’re gonna get a classic Baylor Project performance. We’re gonna have a live band of course, and we're gonna bring some of our originals, some reimaginations of a standard or two. Just feel good music rooted in the blues and founded in jazz — some smooth vibes, R&B, everything a la Baylor Project. The only thing we ask is that people come ready to have a good time.

MB: And I know it’s at a winery, but we will say for us, you can bring the entire family.

I love that term, “feel-good music.” I know in previous interviews, you've said that your goal is to have the audience feeling uplifted during and after your sets. Can you speak to that intention?

MB: Our purpose,goal and mission is that as the music uplifts us, we want other people to be inspired. Especially during these times and coming out of the pandemic, but even before all of this.

That's always been us being rooted in gospel music, R&B music, hip-hop music, our parents being pastors. I mean, we were always around good music that has lifted us and our environment and our families. That's the root of where this comes from for us.

You released the live album The Evening around this time in 2022, which brings in a lot of these eclectic influences. Tell me a little about putting that album together.

JB: What an experience. It was unexpected, because we were like, “Oh, yeah, we're not putting anything out this year, we're taking a break.” And we ended up getting hired and brought in to do a three-night performance for a private event at this amazing design studio called Apparatus.

They would have these unique, one-of-a-kind performances each year, but they hadn't had it for two years because of COVID. Coming out of COVID, instead of doing something with a thousand people, they wanted to do something that was smaller pockets of people over the course of three nights, and add a live performance element to it, to reopen their gallery in New York City.

Long story short, they hired The Baylor Project for it.

It was amazing. They styled us in very fine outfits. It was just a lesson in perfection, because the team all come from the fashion world.

We ended up recording it just to see if we had anything to work with because Marcus always wanted to do a live performance record. He always said, “I'm going to do a storefront church vibe, where it’s really intimate, but I wanted to be high-class,” and I just was like, “What are you talking about? That's not even a thing.” But it was a thing — it turned into that. It was perfect.

They do these once in a lifetime experiences, and they don't record them or anything. Basically, they like to put you in almost a dream state, and then once it's done, it's done. That's exactly what it was, because for three nights, we were just in jazz club heaven — they created a jazz club in one of the rooms in their gallery.

After we were done, late that night, they tore it down. I mean, they carpeted it, they outfitted it with thousands of fresh chrysanthemums. I mean, it was a whole thing.

MB: One thing I can say is that when it comes to performing, the audience is just as important as what we're feeling onstage. It starts with how we feel amongst each other. But the energy comes from the audience. I mean, growing up in church, that's really the spirit. It’s just like a party.

If the DJ is playing a song and people are not dancing or not moving their head it’s like, “OK, what is going on here?” At jazz concerts, people listen, but at the same time, this is a spirited kind of music. So it's about a good time.

The album really emphasizes that — there's this really beautiful mix of some jazz standards, some sacred music and some neo-soul on it.

Can you tell me how you decided on that selection?

MB: We like to just play music that we love, that we grew up on, that influences us. Whether it's music from how we grew up, or where there's something that's present or what we think the future is, I tell people we're like a playlist in our mind. We listen to everything.

The Baylor Project isn't only grounded in a creative partnership, but a personal one as well. How did you decide to start performing together?

JB: That kind of happened naturally, I think. We actually started working together on the production side first when we got married. Marcus was in a spare room that we turned into a studio, and he was working on some drum stuff. And I was kind of hearing something, and it happened organically like that.

As for the Baylor Project, after we had done two independent releases — not jazz, original compositions; more a little bit R&B-ish, we did a holiday record. He had this idea, because he was focusing on production, but playing the drums is his number one.

I said, you know, “We should do something that features the both of us on drums and vocals— as musicians and vocalists and artists—but where we can have freedom to do what we want to do musically.” Where we don't have to be beholden to a particular thing, like, you gotta have a hook on the song or you have to have this or that.

He said, “The only way we're gonna really do that is with jazz.”

Both of us went to school for jazz; I kind of always wanted to get back to it. I didn't quite understand what The Baylor Project was supposed to be, like Tuck and Patti with drums? I was like, “It definitely works with the guitar and vocals. I'm not seeing that with drums.”

That wasn't what he wanted to do. He wanted to have a band, where vocals and drums and songwriting and musicianship all kind of weave together into one sound.

How has it been to navigate the music industry as a couple?

MB: Real interesting. Navigating it as husband and wife, of course, we are giving each other our own space, which is important. I have my own hotel room on the road, and Jean has hers ... which I didn't understand at the beginning. But I love to watch ESPN. And it's football right now.

JB: Yeah, I definitely said we needed that. He was like, “No, no, no!”

MB: You were right about that. Yeah. It's been a blessing. It's great to do music with the person that you love and your best friend, being able to travel the world. We're excited to come to Afton.

JB: We just want to encourage people to come, and to check us out on our Instagram pages and where we can be found there.

MB: Twitter, Facebook, “Baylor Project,” all that. Just come. It's gonna be a lot of great bands, I'm telling you. It's going to be a great day of jazz and good music, and we look forward to coming down for our first time. I know it's beautiful down there.

The Baylor Project performs at the Mad Jazz Festival at Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Afton, Virginia, on Sept. 23.