All Black, All Female World Jazz Fusion Group Musique Noire Releases New Intergenerational Album

Musique Noire (L-R) JoVia Armstrong, Leah Celebi, Leslie DeShazor and Michelle May | Image by Jeffery Cross

When you think of music genres, it’s common to see them separated not just by style, but also by age. There’s adult contemporary for example, and even radio stations promote the “golden oldies” for a certain age group. Of course it all goes back to record label marketing and the way artists and executives strategize to maximize profit. But in reality, music has no age, no gender, and certainly no barriers for inclusion.

World jazz fusion group Musique Noire is proving that artistry can be intergenerational, multicultural, and tell powerful stories that honor our differences. Formed back in 2005, the group Musique Noire was founded by Michelle May (violinist and flutist) and today includes Leslie DeShazor (violist), and JoVia Armstrong (percussionist). Initially, the group performed mainly arrangements of various jazz tunes, but it became clear that there was a strong need to create their own material. After a few personnel changes, by 2006 the lineup was complete with the addition of Leah Celebi on viola and violin.

The name “Musique Noire” was decided upon because the group’s musical interests were mainly around jazz and world music, but always the undercurrent was that the music was informed by the culture of Black people.

The group’s members are veteran players nationally and internationally, having performed with such high-profile artists as Stevie Wonder, KEM, Aretha Franklin, El Debarge, and Frank McComb among many others.

Musique Noire were 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2018 Detroit Music Awards nominees for Outstanding Jazz Recording and 2015 winners of the Best Black Female Jazz Group through Black Women in Jazz Awards out of Atlanta, GA. The group has just been nominated for a 2023 Detroit Music Award for Outstanding World Recording for their new album titled in*ter*gen*er*a*tion*al.

in*ter*gen*er*a*tion*al is a collaboration between Musique Noire and three up-and-coming musicians to show that the legacy of unique performances and songwriting, such as what Musique Noire do, is vibrant in the next generation. Each contributor was asked to write based on their experiences as women, or from a woman they admired.

In addition, each main member of the group (Leslie, Michelle, Leah and JoVia) contributed an original track of their own. Leslie’s contribution is “Motherless Child.” This was a traditional spiritual that she always loved and enjoyed arranging it to include African-style rhythms. Leah’s contribution, “Kaleidoscope” is an original from her husband John, who is a jazz pianist, drummer and composer. JoVia’s contribution, “Nirvana -Feast or Famine” incorporates themes of Afro-futurism and features lyricist Mahogany Jones. Michelle’s contribution, “Cuban Sunset (Arterdercer Cubano) was an opportunity for her to explore and express herself by performing a completely improvised tune.

We had the opportunity to speak with all four members of Musique Noire to learn more about their individual journeys, and the larger impact they hope their music will have on our culture, as well as future generations of musicians.

Michelle May (violin/flute, founder, ensemble leader)

Where did your career in music begin?

I’ve been a musician since I was in the womb! My mother was a concert pianist. She started me, my brother and sister on piano when we were in early elementary school. In the fifth grade, a teacher came to my class (I attended a Detroit Public School) and said she was going to start teaching string instruments; she brought the instruments with her as a show-and-tell and I was fascinated with the violin! 

We also had field trips to see the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, so I had a lot of exposure to classical music. I began taking flute lessons a year later. I started flute because I heard a flute on the song “Never Can Say Goodbye” sung by the Jackson Five. I was in love with Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five at the time. Motown Records was still in Detroit and I happened to live on the same street as Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. After years of study on both instruments, I’ve been able to perform with a lot of famous people including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, KEM and numerous other high-profile artists.

How did the idea for Musique Noire come about? 

I had played for many years in ensembles that were across several genres, including jazz, classical, gospel, pop, R&B and house music. These were great experiences, but these were *other* people’s musical ideas and expressions that I, and other members of these ensembles, were being asked to interpret, and in a specific way. I was ready to let my own voice be heard artistically. 

My younger sister, who is also a musician, said to me, “I think you need to start your own group”.  I resisted at first, but she was right. The only way to really do what I wanted to do musically, was to have my own ensemble. The group name means, “Black Music” in French. We wanted a name that was not in English, to represent the fact that our music has influences from all over the world, and that the overall feel of our music is the groove of music that comes from the Black experience across the diaspora. 

I decided, that to really make our sound stand out we would be a strings and percussion ensemble, no drums or piano. To round out the group, I added bass and guitar. The personnel on those instruments (bass and guitar) sometimes changes, but the core of the group is myself, Leslie, Leah and JoVia.

How did you connect with the other members? 

Violist Leslie Deshazor and I knew each other from performing in classical ensembles, but I knew that she was also an astute jazz player. Percussionist JoVia Armstrong and I met when we performed in a group that combined house music with jazz. Violinist/Violist Leah Celebi moved to Detroit from California (although she’s originally from Peoria, IL) and we met through an arts organization that she was working for. All of these ladies had two things in common: wide-ranging tastes in music and excellent technique on their instruments. They also could write original music that was challenging and unique for our instrumentation.  

Why was the intergenerational aspect of this group important to include? 

There’s a 15-year age gap between myself and Leah, Leslie and JoVia. But when we work together, that gap melts away because we’re intellectually, emotionally and musically on the same wavelength. A lot of that has to do with our experiences as Black women. 

For this newest project, in*ter*gen*er*a*tion*al, I commissioned three up-and-coming young musicians (all are 30 years old or younger) to write and perform with us: pianist Brendon Davis, singer/songwriter/violinist Alex Way and harpist Ahya Simone. Myself, Leah, Leslie and JoVia are all educators and mentors to many young people (musicians and non-musicians). This project was our way to leave a legacy to the younger generation.

We mentored these three artists in the studio, gave them a producer credit on the album, and paid them well for their work. All three of them said that writing for us was quite a challenge because of the uniqueness of our sound and instrumentation, but all three did a phenomenal job!

Can you tell us about your track Cuban Sunset? 

I wanted to challenge myself to write a song with no real melody, but was total improvisation for me on violin. I started with a bassline, and it had a Latin feel to it, in particular a Cuban sound. JoVia always knows exactly what to do to bring the right vibe to a track with her percussion, so that really gave it the flavor I was looking for. All the personnel on the track made the song sound exactly like I envisioned: a laid-back, sexy evening in Havana. I also have to thank Marion Hayden (bass) and Sasha Kashperko (guitar) for bringing their A-game and helping the ideas that I have in my head or on paper come to life.   

What do you hope the impact of seeing an all-Black, all-Female ensemble like Musique Noire will be? 

The impact has already happened! We’ve been together since 2005 and through our releases and many performances we have so many people of all walks of life that reach out to us and say how inspired they are by what we represent. 

At one of our most recent concerts, 18-year-old Black woman came up to me and said she was a violinist and had never seen anyone like us in performance and was so touched and inspired. We truly believe that representation matters and we intend to keep impacting the world through our message of empowerment for artists, for women, and for Black people.

JoVia Armstrong (percussion)

How did you initially get involved in Musique Noire?

Michelle and I had spoken a few times about playing in an ensemble that played world music. We seemed to share the same vision. She actually took the steps to make the idea come to fruition. She called me and a few other musicians. It was not all women in the beginning. We began rehearsing together and we went through a few changes of membership. The group eventually evolved its identity to become a strings and percussion group. 

Where did your music career begin, and what have been some of your highlights? 

It’s hard to answer where a career began. Does a career begin when you receive payment for services rendered? Art and music are a huge part of the artist/musician, so we’re constantly producing work whether it’s for pay or not. The career seems to slide in there somehow. I can say that my first paying gig was in Detroit in the 90’s, my first time traveling as a musician was 2003, and my first recording was around 2001.

Some highlights were performances with El Debarge and Omar. I learned a lot about patience and professionalism working with Debarge. But playing stages in other countries has been the largest highlight for me. I love meeting people in other countries and learning about their cultures and land.

Can you tell us more about your track “Nirvana -Feast or Famine”?

I was practicing at the piano when I created the chords for this track. I thought it would blend into the sound of this album was less about global music and a little more Black American, in my opinion. It was also more jam based than most of our tunes which usually have challenging arrangements. It made sense to ask Mahogany [Jones] to write lyrics to it because we had been wanting to work with her for years. So, this was an opportunity to do that. 

What do you hope the impact of seeing an all-Black, all-Female ensemble like Musique Noire will be?

We have seen the impact for years already. It is empowering. Many people in our audience have approached us individually for private lessons. I think Michelle even has a string group made up of students. And most are adults. Our audience members have also asked for advice after our shows about what instruments to buy their children or even what schools to consider going to for music. Parents encouraging their kids to play is a wonderful byproduct of our performances.

Musique Noire from L-R Michelle May, Leslie DeShazor, JoVia Armstrong, and Leah Celebi | Image by Bruce Turner Photography

Leah Celebi (viola/violin)

Where did your music career begin?

My career as a musician and as an artist is quite the “kaleidoscope” of experiences (pun intended). I’ve been a freelance musician since my high school days but you could say that most of my professional experience began while in graduate school in California in the early 2000’s. There I played regularly with orchestras and a variety of bands in both Santa Barbara and L.A. Once I graduated, I moved to Detroit, networked my way into the scene here and currently maintain an active freelance career performing with a variety of ensembles on the stage and in the studio.

How did you initially become involved in Musique Noire?

Michelle and I connected through the Sphinx Organization – a non-profit in Detroit that supports diversity and inclusion in classical music through advocacy and programming. She had heard I played and invited me to do a viola demonstration for one of the after-school violin classes she taught for Sphinx. I guess she liked what she heard since she invited me to check out the group and come sit in on an upcoming show with them. The rest is history!

What have been some of your most memorable performances as an ensemble so far? 

There have been so many good ones – but I would have to say our recent performance opening up for Samara Joy would be at the top. The crowd was HYPE and witnessing Samara Joy’s artistry was inspiring. Another memorable performance for me, although not a feature performance by the whole group, would be when Michelle, Leslie and I were invited to perform in the ensemble for Aretha Franklin’s funeral. It was a moment in history in the music industry and it was such an honor to be invited to play.

Can you tell us more about your track “Kaleidoscope”?

“Kaleidoscope” was co-written by my husband John Celebi. He is a jazz drummer, pianist in his own right and has written a few different tunes for Musique Noire. John knows our group’s sound well and wanted to give us a song with a sound that was different from the rest of the album. The foundation of the song is an 6/8 afro drum beat feel with a melody inspired by Detroit blues. As the song’s name suggests, as when looking through a “Kaleidoscope” the two worlds are separate but one as the colors weave in and out of each other.

What kind of impact or message does Musique Noire hope to share with audiences, as well as the music industry right now?

Our music represents the many shades of black and brown, cultures near and far, it’s female affirming, it’s original but rooted in the traditions of a variety of genres, and as a string player myself, I hope it inspires other players to step out of the box and take risks. To sum it up I think the message can simply be that there are no rules and anything is possible.

Leslie DeShazor (viola)

Where did your music career begin and who have been your inspirations along the way? 

I began playing the viola at the age of 11. I am inspired by so many different musicians but I’ll name the first ones who come to mind: I was in love with the sound of the Uptown String Quartet when I first heard them and then when I learned about each of their careers I was even more inspired. I was very intrigued by Bobby McFerrin as a young college student and listened to a lot of his work. Some of my favorite musicians are: Stevie Wonder, Stuff Smith, Roy Hargrove, Sarah Vaughn, Asegir and Oumou Sangare. 

How did you initially get involved with Musique Noire?

Michelle approached me and I loved the idea so I joined. 

Can you tell us more about your track “Motherless Child”?

“Motherless Child” is one of my favorite melodies but I wanted to do it as an upbeat tune. I did quite a bit of dance when I was younger and I loved Congolese dance specifically. I used the 12/8 feel from one of my favorite Congolese dances and made the arrangement based on that groove. 

Since this is an intergenerational ensemble, what kind of impact or message do you hope you will have on especially younger generations? 

I want them to trust that they have something special to share and that above all things it’s what is most important to their contribution as artists. There is a lot to be learned from those who came before so respect and appreciate those contributions, but don’t try to be anyone but yourself.

Can you tell us more about the name Musique Noire and how it is informed by the culture of Black people?  

The words mean Black Music. Black music includes a vast amount of music but ultimately it’s rooted in the traditions of our ancestors who were brought here from the Motherland. 

You can listen to in*ter*gen*er*a*tion*al on Spotify, follow Musique Noire on Instagram, and learn more about what the group is doing via their website.

Musique Noire (L-R) JoVia Armstrong, Leslie DeShazor (center, standing), Michelle May (center, seated) and Leah Celebi | Image by Jeffery Cross

Comments are closed.