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The gospel according to Damien Sneed

Damien Sneed conducts his Chorale Le Chateau during a performance of Wynton Marsalis' Abyssinian Mass in at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2019.
Ayano Hisa
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Damien Sneed conducts his Chorale Le Chateau during a performance of Wynton Marsalis' Abyssinian Mass in at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2019.

Damien Sneed doesn't believe in coincidences. Each event in his life set a purpose and path for what would follow. "For me, God has been everything in my music and everything to me," he tells Jazz Night in America, making it clear that he sees a divine hand in his own life story, which began with his adoption as a baby. His parents had a background in both early and special education — a perfect support system for young Damien, who had Autism spectrum disorder, and had difficulty speaking early on.

His family quickly learned that music, specifically piano, centered him and gave him purpose. By age 6, from behind the keys he was leading adults in the church choir. His mentor, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, attests that Damien was successfully working with "grown folks and personalities that are set in their ways."

Gordon, who lived in Augusta, Ga., took Sneed under his wing, setting him up with the right local teachers and later bringing him to New York City, for a fateful introduction to Jazz at Lincoln Center's artistic director, Wynton Marsalis. By 2008, Sneed was helping Marsalis with the world premiere of The Abyssinian Mass, a subsequent 16-city tour and concert recording. Sneed tells Jazz Night it was a defining moment in his career, an opus that "gave me an opportunity and gave me a platform to be seen going in and out of different genres."

On this episode, we'll hear Sneed conducting his Chorale Le Chateau in a movement within The Abyssinian Mass, and on organ alongside Gordon, his mentor-turned-collaborator. But the anchor of our show comes from a 2021 set at Dizzy's Club featuring Sneed on vocals and piano, with a powerhouse group of jazz musicians who also share his background in the church. His set list consists of traditional gospel songs, curated with a core conviction: "I think it's important that we don't forget where many of us have come from as Americans, that we don't forget the songs that carried us over. And that brought us through."


Damien Sneed and Friends

Damien Sneed, piano, vocals; Anitra Raquel McKinney, vocals; Michael Olatuja, bass; Jonathan Barber, drums.

Wycliffe Gordon and The Garden City Gospel Choir

Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; The Garden City Gospel Choir; Marcus Printup, trumpet; Victor Goines, soprano sax; Eric Reed, piano; Damien Sneed, organ; Reginald Veal, bass; Alvin Atkinson Jr., drums.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and Chorale Le Chateau

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: Wynton Marsalis, Artistic Director, trumpet; Sherman Irby, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, clarinet; Ted Nash, alto saxophone, & soprano saxophone, flute, piccolo, clarinet; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophones, flute, Bb clarinet, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet; Walter Blanding, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet; Paul Nedzela, baritone saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Ryan Kisor, trumpet; Kenny Rampton, trumpet; Marcus Printup, trumpet; Chris Crenshaw, trombone; Vincent Gardner, trombone; Elliot Mason, trombone; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums.

Chorale Le Chateau, conducted by Damien Sneed

Rasul A-Salaam, Justin Michael Austin, Martin Bakari, Derrick Baskin, Jeanette Blakeney, Clayton Brown, Quinn Brown, Chenee Campbell, Joe Caruncho Jr., Rafael Clark, Emily Dankworth, Tynan Davis, Josh Adam Dawson, Lauren Dawson, George Dowdy, Sequina Dubose, Patrice Eaton, Patricia Pates Eaton, Stephanie Estep, Christine Fanuel, Eustacia Foster, Shani Foster, Ayana George, Maryvel Gonzalez, Jamal Green, Amber Harris, Kaleb Alexander Hopkins, Candice Hoyes, Clinton Ingram, Arielle Jacobs, Michael Jahlil, Edward Jordan, Jonathan Kirkland, Tesia Kwarteng, Latoya Lewis, Marvin Lowe, Maria Marsalis, Ann McCormack, Richard McMichael, Lynette Rhett McNeil, Lauren Michelle, Jamal Moore, Belinda Munro, Djore Nance, Darnell Norman, Jonathan Owens, Nicole Phifer, Marquita Raley, John Rawlins Ill, Brittany Robinson, Cameron James Ross, Timothy Springs, Quiana Smith, Travis Smith, Karyn Stevenson, Sharol Stone, Gabrielle Stravelli, Elaine Sturkey, Brandie Sutton, Jennalyn Thomas, Nathaniel Thompson, Tonya Thompson, Bobby W. Walker, Joanna Wallfisch, Matia Washington, Montavius Wells, Kortland Whalum, Kali Wilder, Jorell Williams, Allyson Wilson

Set List:

All music performed by Damien Sneed and Friends unless otherwise noted.

  • "Wade in the Water" (Traditional) 
  • Wycliffe Gordon and The Garden City Gospel Choir - "Near the Cross" (William H. Doane)
  • "Walk with Me" (Traditional)
  • "You've Got to Move" (Traditional)
  • "Miss Celie's Blues"(Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton, Lionel Richie)
  • "The Lord Will Make a Way" (Traditional) 
  • Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and Chorale Le Chateau - "Recessional: The Glory Train" (Wynton Marsalis)
  • "Glory Glory Hallelujah" (Traditional)
  • Credits:

    Writer and Producer: Alex Ariff; Consulting Editor: Katie Simon; Host: Christian McBride; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Music Engineer: Rob Macomber; Senior Director of NPR Music: Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.

    Special thanks to Bonnie Barrett and the staff at Yamaha Artist Services

    Copyright 2022 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.