“Afro Blue” is a jazz standard written by Mongo Santamaria in 1959, with a lyric added later by Oscar Brown Jr. It’s been performed countless times, by everyone from John Coltrane to Robert Glasper and Erykah Badu. The beautifully understated words include the phrases “undulating grace,” “elegant boy,” “beautiful girl,” “shades of delight” and “cocoa hue.”
Afro Blue, a nine-member a cappella troupe from Howard University in Washington, D.C., is all that and more. Its members sing as one with nuance, ease and experience, as if they’ve been singing together for years. But they haven’t: The ensemble is ever-changing, as students graduate and new members audition for a coveted spot in the lineup.
Professor Connaitre Miller formed the vocal jazz ensemble in 2002. Afro Blue recently reached the final four on NBC’s The Sing-Off, and it routinely performs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. It played at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem with Dianne Reeves, and just recently was invited to the White House to perform for the president.
The list of awards and accolades continues to grow, as does the list of invitations to sing. But Miller often turns them down so that the students have enough time to study and don’t miss class.
While it usually performs standard “vocal big band” songs and jazz blended with contemporary pop music, Afro Blue recently stopped by Bob Boilen’s Tiny Desk to sing African-American spirituals — songs that can never grow old so long as talented young groups like Afro Blue sing them this well.
- “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
- “Motherless Child”
- “Ain-a That Good News!”
Amelia Brown, Imani-Grace Cooper, John Kenniebrew, Taylar Lee, Ayodele Owolabi, Peter Roberts, Devin Robinson, Matthew Robinson, Shacara Rogers, Marissa Zechinato
Producers: Denise DeBelius, Suraya Mohamed; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Denise DeBelius, Becky Harlan, Meredith Rizzo; photo by Abbey Oldham/NPR