Persistence, Practice, and Determination

February 2, 2021

Yvonne Gay

A girl holds a bass guitar in a portrait.
Caylen Bryant ’17
Photo credit: Photo Courtesy of Caylen Bryant

Instead of an alarm clock, the sounds of Sergei Prokofiev and Chaka Khan would waft through Caylen Bryant’s childhood home every Saturday morning. Those early days  served as inspiration for the jazz bass performance and Africana Studies major. After graduating from Oberlin in 2017, Bryant has continued to develop her own sound and now heads a music program handed down to her by author and musician James McBride ’79.

Read more in this After Oberlin Q&A.


Awards Received: John F. Oberlin Scholar and Bonner Scholar

Where do you currently reside? I currently live in New Jersey.

Place of employment? What is your role there? In addition to being a self-employed performer, I also run a home-grown community music program based in Brooklyn, New York. The program is run out of New Brown Baptist Church and was founded by author and musician James McBride ’79, who passed the program down to me last year. The kids in the program are youth at risk of being ignored. Although we've swapped in-person lessons for virtual lessons due to the pandemic, we are still very active! 

My role as the program director is not only to teach music, but also to demonstrate that the lessons they learn can be applied to any part of their lives. One does not need to become a professional musician to benefit from learning how to practice, study, and express yourself. If you can do music, you can do anything. 

Did you pursue further education after Oberlin? No, but I do have plans to pursue a master’s this upcoming year.

How would you describe yourself and why? I would describe myself as persistent! I completed all five years of the Double Degree Program, which was particularly challenging because I officially matriculated into the conservatory my third year. In addition to completing my college requirements, I had to condense the four-year conservatory curriculum into three years in order to graduate in five years. Walking across the stage during Commencement was a life-defining experience that I will never forget. 

Did you perform internships while at Oberlin? In 2015, I served as a President’s Public Service fellow for the FireFish Arts Camp, a visual arts summer program for Lorain [Ohio] youth. This 11-week program allowed me to work closely with and get to know people I would never have met but for the program. It was certainly one of the more unique experiences I had at Oberlin. It showed me part of the greater Oberlin community that I hadn't seen before. Instead of autumn in Oberlin, it was summertime in Lorain. 

Did you have mentors at Oberlin? If so, how did they influence you? When I first stepped into the jazz building, Peter Dominguez, the jazz bass professor, knew that I would become a bassist. Throughout my time at Oberlin, he was a wonderful teacher to me. His willingness to take in a student who had never before played the instrument spoke volumes about his commitment to teaching the music. Adenike Sharpley, founder and director of Dance Diaspora [at Oberlin College],  taught me to listen because I wasn’t always good at it. Chris Jenkins, associate dean for academic support, taught me to persevere. I spent a lot of time in his office seeking help during my final year.

In addition to studying, I worked during my time at Oberlin. Dave Lengyel, the observatory and planetarium coordinator, the lovely women I worked with at the cafe underneath Wilder Hall, and my peers at Third World House all shaped my experience as well.

Do you come from a musical family? Yes, indeed! Music has always been inescapable. My brother and I did not get to sleep in on Saturday mornings. We were always awakened by the sound of loud Salsa music blasting from the speakers downstairs in the living room. It meant, 'Time to get up and clean the house.' Everything from Sergei Prokofiev to John Coltrane to Chaka Khan was played on those Saturday mornings. 

My parents met at Berklee College of Music. My father came from jazz and the Black Baptist church. My mother grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and was in the 1979 movie Fame, as she was in the graduating class of 1979 at the High School of Music & Art in New York City. My father is a professional jazz musician and has traveled the world playing the tenor sax, singing, composing, and arranging. My mother sings and plays the piano. Because of our parents, my brother and I learned how to appreciate the many languages of music.

I remember your Oberlin performances that combined vocals and cello. How would you describe your sound? I would describe my sound as a quilt made from many different squares. When I first began singing and playing the cello together in high school, I started to unlock new musical expressions, drawing inspiration from my musical heroes to create something of my own. By the time I got to Oberlin, I had been able to develop that sound, and being at Oberlin certainly contributed toward its further development as well.

Do you play other instruments? I’ve always been a vocalist (according to my parents, since infancy) but my first instrument was the cello, not the bass. When I matriculated in 2012, I was a cellist and vocalist in the college, eager to make music. I came up short in my classical cello auditions, and although I continued to play the cello, I was drawn to the jazz department. 

There was no jazz voice program, but I sang in ensembles for secondary credit. Professor Dominguez, the bass professor at the time, recommended that I pick up the bass. I started studying with him during my sophomore year. After a few years, I picked up the electric bass. I feel that each instrument I play holds a piece of my identity.

Your Freestyle Friday sessions on Facebook are so soulful. Do you have a favorite genre? I could not possibly pick a favorite genre of music! I adore so many types, and I will listen to anything, even if it’s not my style. I will always give it a try, as I do not hate any type of music.

What are your most memorable performances and recordings since graduating from Oberlin? Although my music has taken me many places, I especially enjoyed coming back to Oberlin to work as the musical director for the main stage production the Bluest Eye, directed in 2017 by [theater professor] Justin Emeka ’95. Using bass, voice, and cello, I composed a sort of musical narration to support the actors as they told the story. 

Another memorable performance was touring the West Coast as the bassist for Blue Note artist, Kandace Springs, in February 2020. The tour featured an all-female band, and served to promote her upcoming album the Women Who Raised Me, a tribute to the female vocalists who most impacted Springs' musical identity.

A memorable recording experience was playing bass for the 2020 Grammy-nominated album All the Ladies by Joanie Leeds, an album focused on female empowerment, written, produced, recorded and performed entirely by women.

Any performances or recordings planned this year? Over the spring and summer of 2020, I produced a project in which I filmed myself playing each song from Rubén Blades and Willie Colón's 1978 album, Siembra. This project meant a lot to me, and represented a Pandora's Box of creativity. Quarantine had just begun and so I spent four months developing a unique character for each song, including costumes, props, and of course, my own musical arrangements. It even caught the eye of Rubén Blades, who took the time to write me a heartfelt letter, encouraging me on my musical journey.

The final product inspired me to further pursue Salsa and Latin music. I am currently composing and planning to record an album this year, to be titled Brujería Panameña (Panamanian Witchcraft) that will feature the music of my maternal Panamanian roots.

Have your career goals changed since you were a student? No. I have always been a performer at heart and passionate about sharing the music with others as a teacher.

What has the real world of musicianship taught you? I’ve learned that as an artist, you need to be prepared to hear the words 'no,' 'next time,' 'the plans have changed,' etc. 

I’ve learned that not everything is about the music either. Sometimes it comes down to politics, connections, and marketing. It's simply part of the game. If the odds are 1 in 100, then you need to go and generate 100 chances. Harness every disappointment as momentum to further your artistic aspirations. 

Any advice for students who would like to follow your path? Practice! Every skill, whether it be music, dance, culinary art, or STEM needs to be honed. Each and every one of us has a path set for us. Continue practicing and you will embark upon it. But do not stop practicing, and be honest with yourself when you do.

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