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Young, Gifted & Black: Damien Sneed, Multifaceted Music Maestro

Combining his passion for classical, jazz and gospel music Damien Sneed has risen through the ranks and now performs at the highest level.
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Making his big Carnegie Hall debut as a conductor was a major feat for Damien Sneed, a music virtuoso who’s worked many disciplines in many genres throughout the past few years.

An accomplished vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, composer and conductor, the Augusta, Ga. native is on a whirlwind with his latest pursuits, which recently included conducting his mentor Wynton Marsalis’ prized work at one of the world’s most prestigious concert venues.

“It’s really a lot and it’s really humbling,” he told NBCBLK days leading up to the big gig—conducting ‘Abyssinian 200: A Celebration’ with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Orchestra and WorldStrides Heritage Performance National Jazz Choir.

“People talk about the old adage: “practice, practice, practice gets you to Carnegie Hall’ and I know it to be true.”

Image: Damien Sneed poses for a portrait back stage at Carnegie Hall
Damien Sneed back stage before his Carnegie Hall conducting debut.Michael Rubenstein / Michael Rubenstein

“When I first moved to New York, I would drive by Carnegie because I performed everywhere in New York, so Carnegie was like the last unconquered territory and now that I’m really here it’s amazing,” he reflected, adding that he previously performed his solo piano playing debut, and sang with Grammy Award winning R&B singer/songwriter Lalah Hathaway in the hallowed halls before.

Headlining as a conductor, however, was the pinnacle of achievement for Sneed. But it wasn’t what he initially set as his life’s goal.

Adopted at birth, he grew up in isolation as an only child. Recognizing his early gifts, his parents encouraged his interests in the arts—they were old pals with opera diva Jessye Norman who sang at their wedding decades before—and invested in music lessons and tutelage.

In high school, Sneed excelled academically and had numerous full scholarship offers to some of the most prestigious schools in the country.

“I was pre-med, I actually entered medical school in high school in a very advanced program,” he revealed. “I was planning on being a doctor and I had the opportunity my senior year in highs school to go and perform at the Grammy Awards in this program called Grammy In The Schools and when I was out there, I had a chance to meet a lot of artists and it just totally changed my trajectory path and I decided not to major in biology/pre-med but major in music.“

Image: Damien Sneed poses for a portrait back stage at Carnegie Hall
Damien Sneed started out his college career pre-med, but transitioned to music. He is now an accomplished vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, composer and conductor.Michael Rubenstein / Michael Rubenstein

“The last semester, it wasn’t until May that I decided to really major in music, so it was something that I decided late but I’m so glad that I made the decision because music still allowed me to still heal and to help people just as much as medicine would have allowed me to do.”

He studied at Howard University, the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, New York University and the Manhattan School of Music. In 2010,he was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Sacred Music from the Christian Bible Institute and Seminary.

Meeting and then later being mentored by Marsalis was the catalyst for Sneed to hone his craft and blossom into the award winning force of nature he’s become.

“The crazy thing is that I was able to conduct his work with The Abyssinian Mass, for the opening of the Olympics in London at the Barbican and also do a tour in 2013, 16 to 18 cities here in America,” Sneed, 36, shared. “And that was just amazing because like who gets the opportunity to say not only do you have a relationship with your mentor [because] people are mentored from afar a lot of times, but the fact that I had a chance to not even just work with Wynton Marsalis but I also had the chance to conduct Wynton Marsalis himself? It’s really mindboggling seriously. That’s why I say it’s really humbling.”

Tightly bonded, the mentee and the mentor are featured in the new PBS documentary, ‘Everyone Has a Place’ by Dennis Scholl of the Knight Foundation and multiple Emmy award-winning producer and director Marlon Johnson.

The film captures their musical journey of last year’s historic performance of the ‘Abyssinian,’ work, composed by Marsalis and conducted by Sneed. Filmed at Charlotte’s Friendship Missionary Baptist Church during the 16-city national tour. ‘Everyone Has a Place’ features the world-renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Sneed’s very own 70-piece Chorale LeChateau. (“LeChateau” is his middle name.)

‘It’s the overall theme of Wynton Marsalis’ Abyssinian Mass that everyone has a place in the house of God no matter who you are or where you came from. It’s like a reality documentary, it’s a great experience for people to be able to watch and look in and see how we made everything work and come together.”

Image: Damien Sneed poses for a portrait back stage at Carnegie Hall
Damien Sneed prepares back stage at Carnegie Hall on April 27th, 2015.Michael Rubenstein / Michael Rubenstein

Proving to be a master of trades, Sneed plays jazz, gospel classical and contemporary music and is also juggling the promotion of his latest opus ‘Broken To Minister: The Deluxe Edition.’ He also holds professorships at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and Nyack’s Christian College.

“It’s a lot but I know that I’m blazing a path as a trailblazer and a catalyst to open up avenues for other people so they can have the opportunity to do the exact same thing that I’m doing, which is doing multiple genres and doing them all well,” Sneed added.

On May 17, he hosted his inaugural Open Mic and Artist Showcase at Harlem’s Ginny’s Supper Club, featuring gospel, jazz and soul music.

“I'm looking forward to doing this to provide an atmosphere of musical excellence and class in the center of Harlem celebrating all music styles and genres.”

Image: Damien Sneed conducts at Carnegie Hall
Damien Sneed conducts ‘Abyssinian 200: A Celebration’ with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Orchestra and WorldStrides’ Heritage Performance National Jazz Choir at Carnegie Hall on April 27th, 2015.Michael Rubenstein / Michael Rubenstein