Jadrian Tarver lives like a main character in a Black musical.
When you think of opera, his mind has gone to gospel. Baroque for you, jazz for Jadrian. He laughs that magical Disney laugh like he’s emptying himself with each chuckle. He referenced Whitney Houston as a “vocal Bible.” Aretha Franklin’s voice reminds him of grease.
“Her voice sounds like the preacher has preached and we have gone into the annex to eat,” Tarver explained through vivacious giggles. “While he preaches, you can smell the grease from the chicken that’s just done.”
As he’s colored his life with Black monikers, it has all led him to a new harmony: a music professor at Gonzaga University through the Underrepresented Minority Postdoctoral Fellowship. The step into his future position is a mirror into his past.
Born to Linda Salary, Tarver was raised in Haines City, Florida, and New Beulah Missionary Baptist Church.
“He always loved to go to church, sing in the choir, and that was his passion,” she said. “He was passionate about what he did. It had to be correct at all times.”
Tarver sang Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Caesar with his Aunt Joyce, who helped raise money for a bronze cross that lit up white in the church pulpit. Tarver started in youth choir and loved “lining the hymn,” a call-and-response between lead singers and the entire choir.
“My mother taught me, and my uncle, a deacon, would egg me on,” Tarver said. “He would sing, ‘Everything you do for Jesus, let it be real.’ I’m like a 7-, 8-year-old boy up there just thinking about being authentic in everything in life.”
Tarver’s intention and passion landed him into the Lois Cowles Harrison Center for the Performing Arts in Lakeland, Florida. Church was still a heavy aspect of his life though school was 45 minutes from Tarver. Out of his district and community, he became the token Black student.
“I took a step back dealing with leadership in church in particular,” Tarver said. “It was hard to balance school, church activity and being active within the NAACP Youth Council.”
Tarver went on to study music education at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically Black university in Daytona, Florida. He had classes with Curtis Rayam, a professor of music and voice at Bethune-Cookman University and a world-class opera tenor. Receiving a quality education was one thing, but the lesson to return and serve his community was another.
“At Cookman, on every door, ‘enter to learn’ is on the outside, ‘depart to serve’ is on the exit. So the idea of service and educating your community, I take that everywhere I go,” Tarver said.
He departed for Georgia State University to receive a master’s in voice and opera. His deep, sturdy talking voice is a sneak peek into his soulful, baritone vocals. If Nutella flowed like a river or wood oozed instead of burned, Tarver’s voice would be that. Opera was the perfect platform for his voice, but the learning curve was steep.
“Opera’s singing style is extremely technical and, this is me being honest and transparent, reading the language was difficult because I have dyslexia,” Tarver said. “Reading isn’t difficult, but learning another language, and reading it, trying to see the page and everything altogether? Sometimes I would mix up words.”
The GSU community helped with his opera troubles. GSU is located in the heart of Atlanta, which became a playground for Tarver to network with other Black musicians. Cookman’s safe haven of a campus had urbanized into a city.
“Cookman was the place for me to become who I wanted to be in my Blackness,” He said. “Atlanta was the place where I got to accept it and be it.”
As he mingled and matriculated, Tarver noticed the lack of funding and opportunities for Black musicians had plagued their chances to climb the ladder. But, instead of falling in line, Tarver created an opportunity by building a platform called Sankofa.
Sankofa is a Ghanian term that translates to “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” It is usually paired with an image of a bird with its head and neck turned backward reaching for something. Black artists were the ones at risk. Tarver knew what he had to go back and get.
“We don’t have to wait for companies to call us, we are artists, we are creatives, we can do this ourselves,” Tarver said. “We’re going back and taking our history, and we’re bringing it forward.”
High Point Church welcomed Sankofa organizers for a concert location. Capital City Opera helped sponsor it. High Point’s pianist was a one-stop shop, setting up audio engineering while playing selections in jazz, gospel and classical pieces.
“People were crying, a lot of them had never sung in years,” Tarver said. “I put the fire under some to go back to school and continue their education. That’s when I learned I had a gift of putting together performances.”
One of Tarver’s co-organizers was Khyle B. Wooten, another student at GSU. He followed Tarver after he won the John Kuzma Young Composers International Award Competition in 2017.
“Jadrian has a way of drawing people in and together,” Wooten said. “Jadrian’s leadership goes to his keen eye for social media marketing as well as being connected to establishing musicians in our field. He’s become a champion of the vocal repertoire of Black composers across several areas.”
While his efforts of gathering people shined, Tarver went on to Michigan State University for vocal performance. Tarver sings with articulation, correction and ownership, something that Dr. Mark Rucker instilled during Tarver’s first days of singing at MSU.
“The biggest thing about Jadrian was he had the tools,” Rucker said. “He had the voice and the full package, but he didn’t truly understand how different his voice was.”
Rucker recognized that Tarver lacked vocal conviction in a piece composed by Giacomo Puccini and stopped the lesson to tell Tarver: “Love your voice because you won’t be able to sing well until you love it.”
“MSU taught me how to love instead of survive and how to fall in love with me. And that’s where I learned that I accepted all of me – good, bad, ugly or indifferent,” Tarver said. “I was always purposeful doing what I was called to do, but that’s when it took root.”
Tarver realized the lack of music students of color. He brought issues up to director of Jazz Studies Rodney Whitaker. Whitaker invited Tarver to his office and there Tarver met Jordyn Davis, another music student. She’d been expressing concerns with the lack of diversity and inclusion too. Color Me Music is their brainchild.
“Color Me Music started the day we met in Whitaker’s office,” Davis said. “If you want to talk about the parties and fun stuff, you should talk to Jadrian. And if you want to talk about policy, systems and whatnot, you talk to me.”
CMM’s purpose is to “increase cooperation and communication among the existing multicultural students and student organizations at MSU.” A dozen students attended the first biweekly Sunday meeting. Membership only grew.
In January 2019, Tarver and Davis merged CMM members and the MSU Gospel Choir for a two-hour jazz concert. The event honored Martin Luther King Jr. and Aretha Franklin, who died in August 2018.
CMM then put on a Black History Month recital to celebrate Black composers in chronological order, starting in the late 1800s and ending in modern times with Davis, a composer herself. Throughout the process, she said, Tarver allowed them to be their best artistic entities.
“Jadrian was my balancing other half, reminding me that we’re doing this for fun,” Davis recalled. “He brought this lighthearted, welcoming, beautiful energy to the group.”
The community leaned on CMM in dull times, too. Last summer’s moments of the national reckoning with America’s racial history landed on MSU’s campus after Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders. CMM members advocated for modern Latina and African American composers instead of white male composers. Studies about music’s relationship with sexuality, gender and race were brought to undergraduate levels.
Before he knew it, Tarver graduated with a 4.0 GPA and a doctorate in vocal performance from MSU. After being immersed in the highs of musical community, the lows of the unknown weighed on Tarver.
“I was walking and praying down this dark path with these lights,” Tarver said. “Each light represented a person or experience in my life that has lit my way. I said to God, ‘I say yes to my purpose, to Your divinity, to Your divine will.’ The next day. I got an email (from Gonzaga) to do a one-day interview from almost 8 a.m. to almost 6 p.m. A few days later, they asked, ‘Do you want to work here?’ “
The Gonzaga Music Department now offers a new verse to memorize, a new language to be spoken, a new note to bellow.
Tarver wants to talk about it all. He plans to fuse sociology and music together in topics such as microaggressions and discriminatory music practices and discuss how critical thinking in music inspires social change. He wants to expand on accountability culture rather than cancel culture, which he deems is “a Band-Aid to the problem” and a quick fix to long-term, societal issues.
“They’re opening their doors for me to continue my work and my purpose, and that’s the way that I look at this fellowship,” Tarver said. “What I love about (Gonzaga) is that they’re interested in developing the whole person, and that’s what I’m about.”
Tarver is 1,992 miles away from MSU, 2,356 miles from Atlanta and 2,845 miles from New Beulah Missionary Baptist Church. Gonzaga’s newness did not seem to trouble Tarver. His energy was warm, still childlike. Like the cross Aunt Joyce’s Sunday school raised funds for still shined on him. As if, as long as music was still present, he would always be home.
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