The Afro Blue jazz ensemble was founded in 2002 as an advanced singing group for Howard University juniors and seniors.
But Danielle Withers did so well at her audition that she was accepted as a freshman.
Withers, now 27, is among the group members who survived the season premiere of NBC’s “The Sing Off,” and compete again Monday at 8 p.m. for a chance to move on in the competition for $200,000 and a recording contract with Sony Music.
Withers, a soprano, said Michael Jackson was one of her biggest inspirations. She migrated to jazz after learning that much of his music had a jazz influence because of his work with producer Quincy Jones.
With an early appreciation for various forms of music, she was involved in several singing groups during high school. At Howard, she joined the university choir and gospel choir and began singing background for artists like Mario, Mya and Keyshia Cole.
“My parents told me I could sing before I could talk,” said Withers, a native of Cincinnati.
Images of Afro Blue share the walls of associate professor Connaitre Miller’s office with legends Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
“I just wanted to form a group that was going to be a really high quality—that hopefully would attract students who want to come to school and study here, where they could be able to learn a lot about the traditions of jazz,” said Miller, the founder of Afro Blue and coordinator of jazz vocal studies at Howard.
A week after Howard’s graduation in May, Miller received a call from a casting agent at NBC. After submitting a video audition, Afro Blue was selected to join the show.
Now in its third season, “The Sing-Off” brought together 16 groups from across the nation and one group from Liberia.
Miller said she hopes after seeing Afro Blue on the show more young people will be interested in jazz. She considers the members competing on “The Sing-Off” to be jazz ambassadors.
“It’s important to me to introduce our young people to jazz,” Miller said, noting that there is often more focus on classical music in colleges. “They need to know jazz.”
In the season premiere of the show on Monday, Sept. 19, Afro Blue alumna and lead singer Christie Dashiell, led the group in their rendition of Corrine Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On.” Dashiell is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Jazz Studies at the Manhattan School of Music.
Withers said there is only one downside. “Someone’s going to go home,” she said. “and that’s probably the least appealing part of the show.”
For more information on Afro Blue, visit www.afrobluehu.org.