TheGrio's 100: Darin Atwater, the jazziest conductor to date

TheGrio's 100 - As conductor of the Baltimore-based Soulful Symphony, Atwater is a trailblazer in the orchestral world...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

There are only so many people who actually deserve to be called a leader and Darin Atwater is one of those people. As conductor of the Baltimore-based Soulful Symphony, Atwater is a trailblazer in the orchestral world for fusing traditional classical music with gospel, jazz, R&B and a dash of hip-hop.

Music has always been a part of Atwater’s life, starting at Washington, D.C. Third Street Church of God, where both of his parents sang in the choir. Atwater, who learned music primarily without instruction, dropped out of both Morgan State University and the Peabody Institute knowing early that success in the music business was in store for him.

In 2000, he founded the 75-member Soulful Symphony to perform his “Song in a Strange Land,” which debuted at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Atwater saw the opportunity to exhibit his musical genius with an all African-American orchestra playing both gospel and classical music, featuring jazz great Wynton Marsalis and gospel stars Karen Clark-Sheard and Kim Burrell.

“Any time you hear Negro spirituals, you hear them without any instrumentation,” said Atwater in a 2009 interview with NPR. “There’s a real strong vocal component. You don’t have as much rhythmic freedom in gospel as you do with jazz and its cousins. So what I wanted to do was reintroduce the spiritual with that vocal component, along with all these other rhythmic possibilities that kind of went off into the secular trajectory with jazz.”

Four years after Soulful Symphony’s debut, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brokered an alliance with Atwater’s orchestra in an effort to bring more diverse audiences to indulge in the composer’s musical acumen. Since the alliance, Soulful Symphony has routinely played to sold-out audiences of diverse races, ages and cultures.

“Anybody who can figure out how to get a symphony orchestra to groove — not in a condescending way — and still have them play challenging parts, is doing a great service to the orchestra and to all of us,” Marsalis said of Atwater in an interview with the Baltimore City Paper.