Kentavius Jones is forming next generation of artists on Eastern Shore

Kentavius Jones is forming next generation of artists on Eastern Shore

CHESTERTOWN — From behind the mic, Kentavius Jones is feeling the beat.

Inside a small studio at Washington College, he taps his feet, moves his head and rocks his body as he clenches a pair of headphones with his hands and jams to the music.

Despite his enthusiasm for the beat, the local singer-songwriter is not busting out a track of his own. He’s in the studio for someone else — vibing to a song created by one of his students.

After years working as a full-time solo artist — touring the country, living in Los Angeles — the 39-year-old has now settled into a role as a music educator and a community volunteer. He spends more time mentoring youth than he does working on his own musical projects; although the indie artist hasn’t forgotten his burning passion to create, with his second album slated for release later this year.

But now, Jones is quietly sitting in this rectangular studio room at Washington College, guiding the next generation of musicians.

Sitting next to him is Austin Martin-Williams, one of his students in the Hip-Hop Time Capsule, a summer music and production project at Washington College. Martin-Williams, bent over a laptop, is eagerly waiting for feedback.

Jones sways, bobs his head a bit. Then, he pulls the headphones off.

“It’s so much more comfortable,” he says.

“So now, I might just have to mess around and make another, ‘boom,’ kind of track,” replies Martin-Williams. “You know, cheese on the beat.”

This sparks a creative idea.

“You know what, throw a reverb on that drum track,” says Jones.

His student agrees, and then he starts talking about everything — what recording equipment he should buy, how the other students in the class are doing, even picking his brain about the latest mainstream music. He’s comfortable with his teacher.

Jones laughs with his student, and listens. The contemplative musician only speaks when he has something to say, but always manages to slip in a nugget of wisdom when he does.

Mostly he’s something of a free spirit; in the studio, however, Jones is a different beast altogether: an intense collaborator, a creative director — and always a mentor.

In the community, he exceeds even that, said Richard Marks, a local philanthropist and founder of charity organization Dock Street Foundation. Marks has worked with Jones for the past 20 years.

“Some people you can just pick up the phone and call. He is certainly one of them,” Marks said. “Many people in the community who know Kentavius Jones, they know of his musical talent — they don’t know or aren’t aware of how generous he is.”

The Time Capsule

The Hip-Hop Time Capsule project, a program that pulls from historic, African-American gospel performances in Kent County and samples the recordings for a modern rendition and twist to the music, is just one example of how Jones gives back to the community he loves and grew up in.

The program is the result of a partnership with Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which formed the Chesapeake Heartlands, a more broad initiative to study, interpret and disseminate historic African-American culture in Kent County.

The Hip-Hop Time Capsule offers a paid internship experience for 15 students at Washington College and lets young musicians release music of their own creation.

The project fits neatly into a burning passion for Jones — to improve the educational experience for youth.

“How about providing some educational opportunities? Like paid internships for students. The Hip Hop Time Capsule is a prime example of that — every student is being paid,” Jones said. “Being paid to help create music and highlight the historical legacy of Black people.”

The music also is reflective of societal issues.

Martin-Williams’ track will accompany a spoken word component from the other students in the class about police brutality. In the program, which recently ended, Jones takes no credit for the music. He says he only guided the students.

“A lot of these students are green as far as the process of music from song writing to working in a studio,” he said. “We’re just guiding that process, helping with strong structure, anything melodic they might have going on — without taking away from their creative freedom.”

And still this project is just one of many: Jones is also involved with a historic African-American spiritual song initiative at the brand-new Water’s Edge Museum; sits on the board of the Academy Art Museum; volunteers to design educational curriculum at the organization SafeSchools; and has a day job at Mid-Shore Scholars where he prepares and guides first-generation college students.

For Jones, it’s really all about education.

“What better way to impact the future?” Jones said. “I think the tapestry of the work I have been doing is culminating into me empowering other folks.”

Where it Began

Driving a small black Ford Fusion through Chestertown, Jones points out the former bars he used to play at, like O’Connor’s and Andy’s. This is where the artist first played for crowds and found his love for music, all during his student life at Washington College.

His four-man band Hot Rock and the Heat Strokes was, as he described it, “crazy.”

“We mixed (Radiohead’s) 'High and Dry' with 'Let’s Get It On' by Marvin Gaye,” Jones said.

Jones also was a major lacrosse star at Washington College.

After graduating in 2004 with a degree in political science — (he would later earn a master’s in history — Jones started to take music seriously. He toured the country for about five years, mostly playing as an opening act at big venues in New York and Los Angeles.

“I was cutting my teeth, man, trying to figure out what performance was like, finding myself as an artist,” he said.

Jones mostly played cover songs then, mixing up popular hits with his indie and acoustic-guitar style of playing. Eventually he circled back to Easton, which “got its hooks into me,” he said, explaining he had always loved the small-town feel and rural life of the Eastern Shore.

It wouldn’t take long for him to join in community initiatives like Habitat for Humanity and volunteer at Washington College. At his alma mater, Jones volunteered on a program to teach Middle Eastern students about American history, an effort to bridge a divide between the two cultures shortly after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.

For the past six years, Jones has been a board member of the Academy Art Museum, where he’s played an instrumental role in music education.

Sarah Jesse, the new director of the museum, remembers meeting him during the interview process this past spring and being struck by his passion and energy.

“I admire how community oriented he is,” said Jesse, adding that Jones has bolstered the music program at the museum by establishing the Vinyl Hour where he hosts live studio and recording sessions for the public to view. “It’s a really special experience that people don’t often have access to — that is the symbol for the kinds of community programs he is into, giving opportunities to the public that they otherwise wouldn’t.”

While diving into community work, his personal passion for musical creation has endured. In July 2019, Jones released the jazzy and soulful “Bohemian Beatbox.” His hit single from the album on Spotify, “Diamond Eyes,” netted him more than 7,000 plays. Jones toured locally to promote the album, and the record was picking up steam until the coronavirus pandemic hit the next year.

The record meant everything to Jones, who poured “mountains of love into it,” he wrote on Facebook when he released it. The album is brimming with life and happiness. Many of the songs, from the R&B mix of “Luckiest Man,” to the country rock of “Rock You,” touches on love and romance.

The song “Father Father” goes a bit deeper, diving into his lost relationship with his father: “Oh Father Father won’t you help me/ oh Father Father won’t you mend my broken heart/ oh Father Father won’t you help me/ oh Father Father won’t you take this darkness from my heart.”

Artistic Roots

Jones was born in Champagne, Ill., and moved to Easton when he was 10. His father was a DJ who also played trombone, but he wasn’t raised by him. Instead, his mother, Dr. Lois McCoy, a vision specialist who also works with folks on basic, educational and life-function needs brought up Jones and his little brother. His mother is a huge part of why he has become an educator.

“Working with kids is such further ground. They have tons of potential and you can teach them so much and help them become resilient,” Jones said. “I want to help them perform the views they have on the world in a positive way.”

He learned most of those values from his mother, who has also helped educate special needs children. After earning her degree and finding a job on the Eastern Shore, she brought the family to Easton. The family went to church frequently, where Jones listened to gospel music, his first inspiring taste of heartfelt, emotional music.

As a kid, Jones played sports and dabbled in painting and drawing. He wouldn’t find music until much later in his life.

“Art was my first creative outlet. My mom would get alarmed because she wouldn’t hear anything, and I would be off in some corner, drawing,” he said.

Jones didn’t even touch an instrument until high-school, when one of his lacrosse coaches, who was also the choir director at Easton High, noticed Jones casually singing in the locker room and on the field. The coach told him he should join the school’s choir group, which he happily did.

That led to Jones picking up his first instrument, the guitar. One of his close friends taught him the basics of playing.

He simply loves music, listening to everything from Dave Matthews Band to Jay Z. To Jones, lyrics are everything, and the most important function of any song.

Jones says “Bohemian Beatbox” was a success, but he’s more confident in his forthcoming next record.

“This album is about movement. Think about what COVID has done. ... It cooped us up. We couldn’t be social, which is so vital to us as humans,” he said. “I had a completely different theme for the album — contemplative, heavy, conceptual — but I thought that could wait for album three.”

Jones is still playing at live venues locally. He plans to pick up touring more aggressively when he releases his second album.

Community Projects

Meanwhile, he’s got his hands full in Oxford. At the African-American art museum the Water’s Edge, which honors the founding Black families of Maryland and America, Jones leads the Maryland Spirituals Initiative.

It aims to release music online, and perform live traditional songs that were sung on slave plantations — to present them as “America’s most compelling and elusive art form,” according to the program.

The songs so far released on the Water’s Edge website have been well-received, said Barbara Paca, the museum’s founder. A lead song, “Keep your Hand on the Plow” is a deep, throaty and folky touchstone of African culture.

“It’s therapeutic,” says Paca.”The second thing is how moving it is. When you take all the chatter away and let it be his voice and the environment, it puts Maryland on a different kind of platform. I’m proud of him.”

Paca first met Jones at an exhibition for Ruth Starr Rose, the late artist who created many of the artwork hung in the Water’s Edge Museum. Paca was smitten by Jones’s “combination of extreme charm and brains and talent” and offered to let him join in a potential concert from the Maryland Spirituals Initiative at Water’s Edge.

But Jones said they should expand it into an entire program, which excited Paca.

Before he can leave Washington College, Jones has to make sure all his students have rides home.

When he checks in on the interns, most of them are relaxing inside another small studio down the hall of the liberal arts center. This one is much darker, with a large projection screen, a piano, and a few seats in the back. Jones rests his shoulder against the door and chats with his students.

As soon as he enters, they start talking about the project. “Opening Love Gates,” a spoken word song the students had just finished, is first on the list. Jones hears them out, asks questions, gives some advice, and then says he has to leave. It’s quick, but his students don’t need much more than that.

“I’ll let y’all work,” Jones tells the group as he prepares to leave. “Just text me when you’re done.”

Outside, in the quiet halls of his alma mater on a hot July afternoon, Jones is finally alone. He’s silent, but his mind is at work, bumping like a rhythmic beat to a song.

He’s has got so much more work to do — in the community, for himself. But at this stage in life, after years of tours and loud venues and crazy bars, Jones seems ready to take it slow, preferring to take a backseat — to watch and guide others on their own journey.

To Jones, that’s almost like an everlasting peace. Because even when he creates music, it’s almost always for other people.

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