A Passionate Violinist and Conductor Makes Orchestral Magic

By Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist

May 29, 2018

Dr. Yvette Devereaux lets no grass grow under her feet. She’s a shaker and mover! I’m sitting in a Pasadena restaurant awaiting her arrival, when she bursts into the room with an energy that’s palpable. She smiles at me as she slides into the booth. Her skin tone is deep chocolate and she has this beautiful glow that looks like she’s just been dipped in warm oil at a day spa. Yvette Devereaux is one of those super-women who juggles a multitude of projects with precision. I’m pleased she could fit me into her schedule for this interview. One moment she’s playing a violin solo on a Tyler Perry’s hit television show called, “The Haves and the Have Nots”; the next moment she’s rushing to the studio and being featured on Justin Timberlake’s CD “The 20/20 Experience”. No big deal. She’s performed with Timberlake previously, like during the 2013 Grammy Awards show. After all, she’s been around a slew of famous celebrities and power-people. In one way, it humbles you. But she continually exudes confidence and she’s worked hard to achieve her independent spirit.

YVETTE DEVEREAUX:“Well, I started playing violin at seven and studied piano at three years old. When I was in elementary school, they said you had to be in Fourth Grade to join the orchestra. I was in third grade. I had picked up my love of violin from my sister, Cynthia. She played violin. My other sister, Jacqueline, played clarinet. So, we all played instruments. My mother was a pianist and vocalist. She taught piano to all the kids in the neighborhood. So, at first, I started taking piano lessons from my mother at two years old. She couldn’t take it and decided to find a piano teacher for me. I studied piano at three years old and later picked up my sister’s violin, which was too large for me, but I wanted to learn to play. In 3rd grade the teacher came around and told us we could be in the orchestra in 4th Grade and I wanted to know, can I at least try to be in it now? She said no! Then, I started playing my violin right there in front of her and she said, Oh yeah. You can be in the orchestra right now.” (laughter)

As we chit-chat and share laughter during her biographic antidote, I realize that even as a child, Yvette Devereaux was a precocious and determined, individual thinker.

YVETTE DEVEREAUX:“I grew up in Compton, California on Stockwell Street. That’s what my small company is named after; Stockwell Music. That’s where everything started. Compton thrived with the arts when I was in school. First of all, we had a full music program. Teachers travelled to other schools, so all students had music in their curriculums. The woman who was over all this, Mrs. McMasters, she was a conductor. She was the one who actually told me I could join the orchestra in third grade instead of fourth grade. But to see her at the podium in elementary school, she was pretty much my first role model for a conductor. And she was a woman who, no matter what, was hands-on for everything and encouraged her students. They had a music team in the school district and they called them travelling music teachers. One travelling music teacher was Mr. Houl. He played horn instruments. He headed a band, where my sister played the clarinet. My other sister played flute, bells and violin. My sisters were in both ensembles with Mr. Houl, all in one school; Segundo Elementary. I was also involved in our All District Choir in Compton, where students throughout the entire school district would come together (weekly) and sing! And I mean sing! We had the ‘Compton Boys Choir’ and the Compton Choraliers. We toured throughout the State and made television appearances. All our choirs were led by a wonderful woman, Esther Cleavers. I was in school orchestras from elementary school to high school, in addition to an All District Orchestra, thanks to Mrs. McMasters and my string teacher, Joseph Taylor. Both were very instrumental. I had those same group of teachers in my life all the way through school until college. It’s not always about funding. It’s about having a vision and implementing it. We need to make sure all kids have music in school. You don’t even have to have instruments. You can clap. You can sing. The kids are there. They’re waiting to be taught.”

For a moment, Dr. Devereaux let’s her passion for youth shine to the surface. Her face becomes animated and expressive. I witness her sincerity as she remembers the kind of loving attention she and her schoolmates received years ago. She’s concerned that regular music inspiration is often unavailable in our schools today. Dr. Devereaux continues.

“So, around 5th grade or so, when schools were still going up to 6th grade and then you graduated into Junior High, an Elementary school graduation was a big deal for the teachers, because it was their last performance with us. We had a graduation choir and everybody had to sing a song. I can’t remember her name right now, but she was the head of our graduation choir and she was also the pianist. She said ‘Ok children, I want you to sing this song.’ She was trying to conduct and play piano at the same time. It was difficult, so she looks at me and says, I want you to conduct the choir. That’s how it happened that I conducted the graduation choir. Then I had to pick up my violin, because I played a solo for graduation as well. I was nine-years-old. As a kid, your teacher instructs you to do something and you just do it. But as I think back, it had a great impact on me. Because I always can visualize that day. I can see that day so clearly and it’s kind of strange because my classmates accepted me as a conductor. They were all senior violin players and it was odd because they all listened to and followed me. At that moment, I felt like it was fun. But then it started to snowball.

“In Middle School, my string teacher, Joseph Taylor, was very instrumental and hands on with all his students. Most of his string students are still playing professionally. He played all the string instruments and was very, very smart and very talented. He took over this woman’s place, who was quite powerful and she played all the instruments. Her name was Mrs. Brown. She was over the entire string program. She either retired or moved on, but Mr. Taylor took over. He became my private violin teacher and he pushed us. We were playing Mozart, Beethoven, everything at Vanguard Junior High school.”

Yvette Devereaux was determined to walk her dream pathway up the rainbow and down the other side. She wanted more than the ultimate pot of gold. Ms. Devereaux was determined to be respected as a prepared and distinguished orchestra conductor. She is living proof, dreams do come true. She has conducted at her Alma mater, Chapman University, where she received her Bachelor’s Degree in Music, Orchestral Conducting and violin. In 1993, Ms. Devereaux was chosen to compete in the Antonio Pedrotti 3rd International Competition for Orchestra Conductors in Trento, Italy. She also conducted the Chapman University Chamber Orchestra and University Symphony on a tour to Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China, Spain, Hawaii and various American cities. She was a participant in the Carnegie Hall Corporation program for conductors with Pierre Boulez and spent two summers at the Conductors Guild Institute, held on the campus of the University of South Carolina. But what Ms. Devereaux really wanted was to study at the famed Peabody Conservatory of Music.

YVETTE DEVEREAUX:“I wanted to go to one of the best conservatories in the world. Even my teachers said, you will never get in. It’s so difficult. So, I said, Ok, but I ignored that advise. I decided to get some extra lessons outside of my university mentor, sense he didn’t believe in me. Peabody sent me all these requirements in preparation for their audition. They were very, very challenging. I said ok, I can take a challenge.

“I took a year off after undergraduate work. I said to myself, Oh, I’m going to get in! I stayed with my parents and didn’t do anything but practice, study; practice, study. I took lessons from various people like Daniel Lewis, who was the Conductor of the USC Symphony Orchestra. I also enrolled in some of his classes and workshops. In addition, I took a few lessons with William Shatner, who was also at USC. But it was Daniel Lewis who was so instrumental and he was the one who really said, you do these things and you’ll accomplish your goals. He gave workshops in various cities and I would be there, whether it was in Ohio, Minnesota, or where ever. He was and is still a great coach and conductor. And when I finally got to the Peabody auditions, I paid for my own airfare. That was hard. I arrived alone and stayed at a hotel. I had no idea how far it was to walk from the hotel to the audition place, but I walked straight to Peabody. My name was on the list and I checked in. I’m looking at all the other people and I’m listening to everyone else tuning up and the guy in front of me was on the podium for half an hour. I thought – Oooo, this is scary. Then I heard, ‘Ms. Devereaux, you’re next.’

“In the orchestra, there were about fifty people. You had to buy the scores in advance. The process of elimination is on several levels. I mean you have to have the money to buy the scores, get the plane ticket, reserve the hotel room. I was teaching students on the side, so I could buy those scores and be certain I was prepared. When it was my turn to audition and conduct the symphony orchestra, they had me play one of the hardest pieces of Igor Stravinsky titled, “The Rite of Spring.” I had to know every note played by the orchestra. So, I get up there and there’s a panel of four. The main conductor, who everybody wants to study with, is Frederick Prausnitz. Conductors all over the world want to study with Frederick. I saw that he was on the panel and that he was the one who’s going to tell me what to do. His assistants were next to him. He says, ‘Ok, Ms. Devereaux, you can begin.’
“Thank God I had my undergraduate experience with conducting, under the tutelage of John Koshak, because I knew how to run an orchestra. John Koshak had heard about me when I was attending high school in Compton (California). He’s the one that was instrumental in making sure I got into Chapman University as an undergraduate. I had to audition in front of him on the violin in order to get into the school of music. Consequently, I was admitted as a Violin Major with emphasis in Education (I thought!). But things changed immediately during my 1st semester after taking my theory class with Professor and Dr. Noael. The first thing a theory student learns in 1st year theory is ‘how to conduct’ and knowing the beating patterns. Originally, I had this theory class with Mr. Noael. So, I’m doing my thing and he goes, ‘Stop’. He said, ‘You have a conducting hand. After this lesson’s over, I want you to go and see John Koshak and tell him you’re interested in conducting’. I went and John Koshak also had me conduct a few beating patterns. Mr. Koshak said, OK, I’ll take you as my conducting student, meaning you’ll work for me the next four years, learning to be a conductor. That was the beginning of everything.”

Yvette Devereaux surprised her instructors and peers when she was accepted and earned a Master’s degree in Music and Orchestral Conducting at the Peabody Conservatory of Music on the campus of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. Additionally, she earned a Doctorate of Philosophy at Felton University. Consequently, she is now, Dr. Yvette Devereaux. Dr. Devereaux is both the first woman, and the first African-American woman, to be accepted into the conducting programs at both Chapman University and the Peabody Conservatory.
But things don’t always go as planned. Dr. Devereaux has always been competitive and tenacious. When she was approached to compete in the Mario Gusello 4th International Conductor’s competition in Pedrotti, Italy, she was one of three Americans who became semi-finalists. She told me about that experience.

YVETTE DEVEREAUX: “I did two competitions in Italy, but this was the first competition. You have about 2000 applicants and only fifty get chosen. First of all, they send you their repertoire three weeks in advance with scores to study. When you get there, you have no clue which one you are going to do. So, you’ve got to be prepared for all of them. There were eight scores, from light things like Mozart pieces to pieces by John Cage, all these modern pieces that take a lot of studying. … I had no idea what it would be like and when I got there, I joined conductors from all over the world who were also there to compete for this one prize. For my first piece they chose Antonin Dvořák Symphony #7. I went, Yeah! Thank you! Because that’s one of my favorites. When Dvořák came to America, he went to New York and heard black music, later creating the New World Symphony. But I was so happy to conduct his Symphony #7 during this competition. I got through the first round. You come the next day and see your name posted to realize you’ve made the first round. After the second round, there were twenty of us left. I made that round. In the last round, there were about eight of us left. I was called as the first one. When you’re the first, you have to set the bar. The musicians have to get comfortable with the piece and I was the one who actually taught them the piece. So, I made it to the third round. That was fine.

“I went by myself to Italy and to attend my first competition. I loved it over there. I felt like I was with people I knew, because as soon as I got off the plane I was taken care of. The car was there. We went and got some food. Then, when I went to Venice, it was so much fun. On the way home, I had to lay over in Milano or Milan, and that’s when it all went downhill. Some Gypsies followed me. I turned around and all my stuff was stolen. No passport. No money. Everything was in my briefcase with my scores. I put my briefcase on the ground while I was waiting for the bus outside the train station. I was so stunned! I went back into the train station and they were all laughing, like it was a joke. I asked, how can I get to the airport? They said a police report would help me to go to the consulate. So, I filled everything out. I said where is the consulate? They said fifteen blocks away. It was beginning to drizzle outside and I had to figure out how to get on a bus and get to the consulate with no money. A guy inside the terminal said to me, you look very sad. Something wrong? I told him my story and he said, here’s some tokens. These tokens will get you to the airport. Because I still had my luggage, but not my briefcase. I figured at least I could get to the airport to put my luggage into something (a locker) while I figured it out. And he said, by the way, the consulate closes in about an hour.

“So, I go to the airport and see about retrieving my ticket. They tell me they don’t see my name on the flight. I told them my ticket was stolen. I called my friend in America. It was about three-o-clock in the morning in Los Angeles and told him to go down to the airport and pay an extra $50 to get my name back on the roster. I knew I had to get back to Milan and to the train station so I could go to the consulate and get a new passport. Later, arriving at the consulate, a man said no – no – no. You cannot come in here. We are closing. I was looking at him saying, you don’t close for thirty minutes. He finally agreed, after a lady who worked there insisted he let me in and help me get my passport. He didn’t want to do it. They wanted me to come back tomorrow. Then he said I had to go down another fifteen blocks to get my passport photo taken and then go back to the consulate. I walked really fast and down into a dungeon-like basement to get the photo. I arrived back at the consulate, two-minutes before the door closed. I got the passport, But the train had left. Now I was hungry, with no money and no way to get to the airport. The consulate said they would give me a voucher for the hotel across the street from the train station, where they had prostitutes, rats and roaches. I had to stay there until morning and they gave me McDonalds vouchers. I went to the hotel and it was disgusting. So, I wired my friends for money. Then I went outside to a decent restaurant for a good meal. They told me I had to be at the train station at 6 in the morning in order to catch my plane that left at 9am. In that nasty hotel, I didn’t take off my clothes. I sat in a chair until dawn and then dragged myself over to the train station. I got on that train. It took an hour and a half to go from Milan to the airport. I had to get my baggage and check in. They charged me fifty dollars because they said my luggage was too heavy. When they said this plane goes to the United States of America, I praised God. I was so happy. I was exhausted and traumatized; No credit cards. No money. No driver’s license. When I got to JFK, thank goodness my parents were there. They didn’t know the whole story about how I got robbed and what I went through. My mother had prepared a homecooked dinner for me and that was lovely. The next day I had a recording session for Prince with Clare Fischer. That was the next day after all that drama. I had to get up and be there. No one knew what I had been through. But I was determined to be there, to work with the iconic Clare Fischer. I was so exhausted on that session. And that’s the story of my first overseas competition.

“In 1997, my sister Jackie got married 3-weeks before my next competition and no one wanted me to go anywhere by myself again. So, she came with me and made sure everything was taken care of this time and her honeymoon was with me. We travelled to Pescara, Italy and that was the best competition ever. I made it to the Semi-Finals, part of just eight contestants. There were only two Americans that got in and it was so rewarding. After each round I finished, I would go back into the audience and hold my sister’s hand. We’d wait to see if my name would be called. Wow! I get chill-bumps even now, just picturing my sister and I sharing that moment. I love her!

“When we came back through New York, Kermit Moore, the great cellist, conductor and composer, asked me how I would like to do two weeks at the Blue Note with McCoy Tyner? That was unbelievable. I was pinching myself. McCoy in my ear every night? Whoa! I was in the string quartet with his band. 1998. I will never forget it. It was hard ‘cause I ended up staying at a person’s brownstone in Harlem. The subway train stops at one-o-clock in the morning and my sister wasn’t used to travelling like that, at that hour, and neither was I. After she left early, I still had to do it by myself. McCoy Tyner heard that I was doing that and had a car pick me up. That last night with him was so amazing. They were swinging so hard and McCoy looks over and says to me, ‘Take a solo.’ Ooooo! I was part of the ensemble the whole time, but at that minute he pointed to me and said take a solo. Oh my God. He is such a great person and an amazing musician. He’s one of my idols.

“Another one is Donna Summers. She knew what was happening. And Smokey Robinson is also another one of my favorites. When you’re on tour as a Pop artist, and they see there is only one black girl in the entire orchestra, they were conscious. Donna Summers would always look over at me and say, you’re going to do the solo, right? You’re going to have to step out here, she’d say, motioning to me. That’s rarely done when you’re with a whole string orchestra. Because of Donna Summers I got solos at MGM Grand and I got solos at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. And Smokey Robinson is so generous and nice to work with. He never put himself above us. When we ate, he’d eat with us. He was always so respectful. Also, Vanessa Williams was the greatest. Although she won Miss America and acted and sang, she was still so gracious. We’d do a lot of concerts together and particularly at the Grammys. She said, ‘You’re not like the regular string players. A limo will pick you up; all four of you.’ So, she sent a car for our string ensemble. When we played for the Arsenio Hall show, we had our own room where our guests were treated well with snacks, chocolates, and candies everywhere. With Vanessa Williams, she’d even pack a box of candy for each of us to say thank you. Of course, I can’t forget Barbra Streisand, who was just unbelievable. When we worked with her on recordings at Capital Records, she was very gracious and we were just hanging out with her the whole time. It was so nice recording and hearing her in my ear. And as a woman, she was running the show. I learned so much watching her. She was such an example. She was also produced by Diana Krall. To see this duo of women, working together, it was unbelievable. That was one of the best recordings I have ever done. I spent four days with them; and Johnny Mandel was the arranger. OMG. I loved working with Johnny. He’s so smart. Just two notes and he changed the entire song. It made everything better. When Diana Krall did her record, “Love Scenes” with “Peel Me A Grape” on it, I was right there with Johnny Mandel for that too. Then there is Gerald Wilson. To see Gerald Wilson at work on that “Detroit” album was just amazing. I learned so much.”

Yvette Devereaux is concerned about our children and the lack of music and art programs offered in our public education system. You’ll find Dr. Devereaux consistently invested in the art of teaching, the act of mentorship and devoted to servicing our community.

In 1983, she began teaching violin, conducting, voice, and composition in her studio. In 1993, she founded the Progressive Arts Academy. It was an After-school and Weekend Performing/Visual Arts Program for ages 3 to adult in her hometown of Compton California. She has shared her talents at various teaching positions including the So. Pasadena Music Center & Conservatory, the Wildwood Music Camp, Mount St. Mary’s College, Compton Community College, and Dr. Devereaux has helped design the curriculum of her Alma Mater Chapman University and the Peabody Conservatory of Music. For her tireless work, she has received numerous awards and honors, including the Community Leadership Award, sponsored by the Los Angeles Christian Methodist Episcopal Church & she received the Certificate of Appreciation from former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Ms. Devereaux is an advocate for education. She is a frequent lecturer, adjudicator, educator and coach for many organizations, schools and institutions throughout the United States. She has recently written and published arrangements for youth string orchestras & is currently seeking opportunities to coach youth orchestras. She told me about a recent experience conducting an amazing youth orchestra in New York state.

“I received a call from representatives of a New York, Long Island Festival. They said, they found me on the Internet and would I be interested in conducting the youth orchestra in 2014? It was the Long Island Festival for High schoolers. So, I get there and I was blown away. These young people were really talented. I think most conductors turn down opportunities like that, because you’re not sure what you’re going to get. Perhaps they don’t want to be embarrassed. These youth were playing really challenging pieces and I didn’t expect that they would execute that well! When you deal with young people and they haven’t developed their tone yet, it’s a little hard. Sometimes they don’t have the best instruments, so the sound isn’t what I’d like to hear. No problem. I had to make adjustments. I dealt with that. Great composer, Aaron Copland, wrote “Hoedown”, a really challenging piece. It’s for more professional players like The L.A. Philharmonic. This young girl, who played the xylophone in the orchestra, nailed it. Nailed it! I mean, Nailed it. They played it well. It’s on my website. http://yvettedevereaux.com/

“I only had two days of rehearsals and then the concert. Those young people pulled it off. When you’re dealing with youth orchestras, most young people want to play well and they want to sound well. Sometimes teachers don’t have the time to look for repertoires that are appropriate for young people. So, that’s when I closed my door one summer and wrote over seventy arrangements for youth orchestras. I tell orchestra teachers that they are available. Some teachers don’t understand that all the students in the orchestra can play, regardless of their level. Children don’t have to sit out. It’s because of the repertoire. Instructors don’t always choose the right music. I write scores that are playable. So, I’ve been asked to come back this year and do two more festivals in Long Island, New York with ninth and tenth graders and over a hundred and fifty students.”

Dr. Yvette Devereaux is inspiring. When she is not acting as concertmaster of a String Ensemble for the hit TV Show, “The Voice,” or playing for Aretha Franklin’s performance at President Obama’s Inauguration, you may have seen her as the lead violinist for the 2011 Grammy Awards show featuring Bruno Mars. She regularly appears with sensational, jazz saxophonist, Kamasi Washington, most recently this year at the Coachella Festival in California. She has appeared as a solo violinist at the Hollywood Bowl with Stevie Wonder, with Hank Jones, Gerald Wilson, Joe Lovano, Kenny Burrell and as she mentioned, made a solo appearance with the Disco Diva, Donna Summers in Las Vegas. She has been a principal violinist for Luciano Pavarotti. I asked her about that.

“You know, I was so taken by his voice. I heard recordings and I had seen him on television, but in person was amazing. I just wanted to be sure I played my notes right. He was so knowledgeable of what he was doing and so knowledgeable of the orchestra. You had to be on your game. He had travelled and gone from playing at the Met and playing at the Opera House. He was so used to being around greatness, so I was very fortunate to be sitting there as a principal and just playing my notes.

“You know, I think I’m grateful for my teachers. You have to develop, whether it’s your technique or your knowledge. You have to put all this behind you until you’re considered to be an artist. If you’re trying to learn an instrument, you have to learn that instrument and everything about it. It doesn’t happen overnight. And we have to practice. You can’t let one or two days go by without working on your talent. It’s amazing. I practice every day. I have to. Because I want to stay on it. I make sure I’m qualified always. Do you know what happened with Leonard Bernstein? The conductor was sick or something and at the last minute, that’s how Leonard Bernstein got the job with the New York Philharmonic. He was called to conduct a difficult piece by Stravinsky, and that was the beginning of his conducting career. Who knows when it will happen? You have to be prepared!”

And prepared she is! That preparation allowed her to become the first woman to hold the position of Music Director and Conductor of the Southeast Community Symphony in Los Angeles. Just hand her the music, a violin and/or the baton, sit back and watch a prepared, passionate, professional work her magic.

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Connection Works Records

Noah Preminger, tenor saxophone; Nate Radley, guitar; Kim Cass, bass; Rob Garcia, drums.

Speaking of classical orchestration and magical music, here is a unique project. All the compositions are by Frederic Chopin, cleverly played in a very free and jazzy style. Classical music lends itself to jazz, because jazz is based on the European classical scales with the addition of slave songs, blues and work songs and most importantly, improvisation that expresses a longing for freedom. Jazz music has developed into America’s unique classical music and it’s a national treasure. These musicians somehow easily make the connection between modern jazz and the iconic 19th century composer, Chopin . From the very first hauntingly beautiful “Nocturne Op27 Nᵒ1 in C# minor” with the bass setting the tempo and Noah Preminger playing the melody at a faster pace than you might expect, I find myself intrigued. Kim Cass continues to make a bass statement, even when simply locking in with the drums and tightening the rhythm section. Rob Garcia is ever present, steady and supportive as a flexible and necessary net beneath this musical high wire act. He adds color and strength to the tracks with his busy drum sticks.

I love the drum solo on Prelude Op28Nᵒ 24 in D minor. Rob Garcia is spectacular during his solo percussive escapade. In the liner notes he explains.

“These are great songs that can be played with many different treatments. There’s a lot of room for us to just be ourselves.”

I never noticed before that some of the melody of this “Prelude Op28 Nᵒ24” has parts that are uncannily similar to the Nat King Cole jazz standard recording of, “Nature Boy.” It’s the very first line of this song that is eerily similar to Chopin’s composition. Check out Nat King Coles beautiful vocal on it below.

Preminger, who often recalls the smooth riffs that Stan Getz used to play, is a native of Canton, Connecticut and this is his twelfth album release as a bandleader. Downbeat Magazine has heralded him as among the top tenor saxophonists in their annual polls. I am infatuated with his whispery, airy tone and tenacious, solid sound.

Garcia is active in the current Brooklyn jazz scene and is respected as both a sideman and bandleader. He’s appeared on over forty albums, including Grammy winners. His 2009 CD, “Perennial,” was named one of the 10 Best Jazz Albums of that year by the New York Observer. He’s been a major force in artist-run jazz organizations and is the founder/artistic director of Connection Works and a member of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, as well as a founding member of the Douglass Street Music Collective.

Together, these two dynamic artists successfully celebrate and elevate the amazing music of Frederic Franciszek Chopin, along with their bandmates. It’s a magnificent listen.
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