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2023 Performers & Presenters

Ramon Bryant Braxton

Ramón Bryant Braxton

The Artistic Director, Orchestra Conductor, and Choir Director

Maestro Ramón Bryant Braxton returns for a second year as the Artistic Director and Conductor for SONGS OF BLACK FOLK 2023.  A native of Tacoma, Braxton is a product of the Black Church and the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) experience. He is a graduate of the iconic Morehouse College in Atlanta (BA), where he studied under Dr. Uzee Brown, renown educator, composer, singer, Choir Director, and musical mentor.  Braxton received his graduate musical education (MM) at the Morgan Stage University in Baltimore where he studied under the late Dr. Nathan M. Carter, an internationally renowned teacher of vocal music who built the Morgan State University Choir into one of the premier vocal groups in the nation. Braxton is a composer, orchestra conductor, choir director, vocalist, pianist, and organist. He has led and served with the musical staffs of some of the most historic and premier African American churches in the nation including, the Abyssinia Baptist Church of Harlem, the Metropolitan Baptist Church of Washington DC, the New Psalmist Baptist Church of Baltimore, the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta, and the First Shiloh Baptist Church of Buffalo. Braxton has performed with Baltimore’s internationally acclaimed “Soulful Symphony”: a full symphony orchestra and vocalists of only elite African American and Latin X musicians. Braxton was formerly the vocal instructor at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington DC and the Assistant Director of the Howard University Choir.

Darin Atwater

Special Guest

Darin Atwater is a critically acclaimed composer, conductor, pianist, record producer, arranger, film composer, vocalist, and arts advocate. Though classically trained, his music incorporates gospel and jazz.  He has recorded and conducted for Yolanda Adams, Donnie McClurkin, Shirley Caesar, Richard Smallwood, Wynton Marsalis, Jennifer Hudson, and Ruben Studdard to name a few.  In 2000, Atwater founded Soulful Symphony, an orchestra with vocals made up of primarily African American and Latino musicians. The 2009 Emmy Award-winning “Soulful Symphony with Darin Atwater” was one of the longest running pledge specials for MPT/PBS. In 2018, Atwater was commissioned by the Mann Center and the Philadelphia Orchestra to compose “South Side, Symphonic Dances”- an adaptation of “West Side Story” for the Leonard Bernstein Centennial.

Darrin Atwater
Soloman Howard

Soloman Howard

Featured Soloist

Soloman is one of the most acclaimed opera singers in the world. His voice is described as “sonorous” by the New York Times, “Superhuman” by the Denver Post, and “a triumph” by the Guardian.  He is the winner of the 2021 Washington Performing Arts Ambassador of the Arts Award, and the Kennedy Center’s 2019 Marion Anderson Vocal Award. He a graduate of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Soloman is a graduate of Howard University (BA) and Morgan State University (MM). In addition to his vocal brilliance, Soloman has gained acclaim as one of the nation’s premier percussionists.

Jacqueline Echols

Featured Soloist

Lyric soprano Jacqueline Echols has been praised for her “dynamic range and vocal acrobatics” (Classical Voice) in theaters across the United States.  In the summer of 2022, Echols reprised her acclaimed portrayal of Clara in Porgy and Bess in her debut with Des Moines Metro Opera, in addition to her debut with the Cleveland Orchestra for their annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Concert and her return to Cincinnati Opera for a special performance alongside Morris Robinson in Morris and Friends.  In the 2022/23 season, Echols has returned to the LA Opera as Julie in Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels’ Omar. She also debuts the role of Juliette in Romeo et Juliette with Opera San Antonio and makes her long-awaited return to the Kennedy Center reprising the role of Musetta in La Boheme with Washington National Opera. On the concert stage, Echols has performed with the Ann Arbor Symphony in Beethoven’s Symphony No.9.  She made her debut with Memphis Symphony in performances of Handel’s Messiah.

Jacqueline Echols
James Conner

James Connor

Featured Soloist

James has been a performer at the Universal Studios since 2009. He is a Gospel and R&B recording artist, composer, conductor, pianist, dancer, and actor. James is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he Studied Music Education. He has served as Minister of Music, Worship Leader, and Choir Director for Churches in Massachusetts, California, and Washington. A native of Seattle, He sang with the Total Experience Gospel Choir under the musical mentorship of Rev. Pat Wright in his youth.

Crystal Aikin

Featured Soloist

Crystal Renee Aikin is an American gospel singer-songwriter from Tacoma, Washington, and the winner of the first season of Sunday Best.  Her eponymous debut album was released on January 13, 2009, through Verity Records.In 2010 Aikin was nominated for a GMA Dove Award for New Artist of the Year at the 41st GMA Dove Awards. In 2012 she released, Silent Night, through Verity Records. In 2015 she released, All I Need, through RCA Records.

Crystal Aikens
Josephine Howell

Josephine Howell

Featured Soloist

Josephine Howell is arguably the Pacific Northwest’s most popular and beloved African American vocalist on the scene today. She flows seamlessly between Rhythm & Blues, jazz, and Gospel music, thrilling crowds and congregations in clubs, concert halls, and houses of worship. Her distinctive contralto/mezzo voice and captivating personality make her performances a truly transformative experience for her audiences.

Choral Singers

The Choir

An intergenerational Choral group of 40 gifted African American singers from the Puget Sound Community will perform under Braxton’s direction. The Choral group will combine the talents of well-known local vocalists and emerging young local vocalists. Together they form a musically versatile Choir with an extraordinarily rich and dynamic sound.

Photo of the full orchestra

Orchestra & Rhythm Section

A 50-piece Orchestra (Conducted by Ramon Braxton) will accompany the Choir and the featured soloists. The orchestra will be comprised of musicians from the Puget Sound community.  Additionally, the music will be supported by a 7-piece rhythm section that will combine the talents of local and national musicians.

Smiling photo of our emcees

The Emcees

The emcees for SONGS OF BLACK FOLK 2023, will be the Honorable T’wina Nobles, Washington State Senator from the 28th District and Nate Miles Eli Lilly Vice President of Strategic Initiatives - State Government Affairs.

Isiaah Crawford

Special Greetings

Dr. Isiaah Crawford, President of the University of Puget Sound from 2016 - president. The first African American to serve as the President of the University of Puget Sound and currently the only African American serving as President of a major college or university in Washington State.

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