Sharel Cassity is changing the jazz scene


Kelly Hueckman

Sharel Cassity performes with a jazz quartet in Titan Underground.

Kelly Hueckman, Opinion Editor

Chicago-based alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity provided UW-Oshkosh with an intimate jazz performance with her quartet in Titan Underground last Thursday.

A Juilliard School graduate, Cassity has appeared on the Today Show, Good Morning America and The Colbert show while also being in the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. She’s worked with music industry titans like Jennifer Hudson, Aretha Franklin and Herbie Hancock alongside other musicians and has produced five albums praised by The Chicago-Tribune, The New York Times and Downbeat Magazine.

Since she had a father who was a New Orleans-based jazz musician, Cassity was born into a musical family and began playing saxophone at age nine.

Cassity said that after dedicating herself to jazz-style saxophone at a young age, she knew she would be well-accomplished, although she didn’t know to what magnitude.

“I expected to be successful because I put the work in,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how that was going to manifest itself, but I believe if you go into a direction, preparation meets opportunity.” 

Cassity also noted the effect of working with other women in jazz had on her professional career as she reminisced on her time performing with Hudson and Franklin.

“I see more powerful men than women in jazz, so to see them, how they handle themselves, how they handle their business and how they craft their art was really inspiring,” she said.

On Thursday, Cassity took her audience through a raw, emotional journey with her quartet composed of herself, Richard Johnson on keys, John Tate on bass and Greg Archery on the drums. They performed traditional jazz standards infused with modern elements.

“We want to make something that feels fresh and modern, something that people can relate with more than just song verse standards,” Cassity said.

UWO associate music professor and saxophonist Drew Whiting applauded Cassity’s ability to incorporate different styles of music into her jazz performance. 

It’s evident that Sharel has mastery of traditional jazz vocabulary, from blues to bebop and beyond,” Whiting said.  “Because of that mastery, she can incorporate elements from other musical styles into a modern jazz setting in an authentic way.”

Whiting noted influences from various genres like rock, R&B and hip-hop in Cassity’s compositions. 

Although Cassity had sparkling solos full of cut-through horn flares, she had no trouble stepping out of the spotlight, melting in with other instruments to give her bandmates their own solos. 

The quartet’s final number, “Last Minute,” illustrated this perfectly while incorporating the quick tempo and intense dynamic of hard rock.

The song featured a whirlwind of earnest melodies from the quick-witted Johnson (who composed the piece) and a rhythmic flurry from Tate, who wasn’t afraid to explore the bass’ upper register. 

Archery’s talent also shined particularly bright on this number as he dipped in and out of half-time with ease. His standout solo ended the night as he played with complex rimshots and the lower toms while keeping a tight foot on the bass drum. 

The song is also featured on Cassity’s latest album, “Fearless” (2020) as the final track. The album was the emotional output after Cassity’s taxing experience with Lyme Disease in 2019, which left the left side of her body temporarily paralyzed.

“The effect it had on my music was very humbling,” Cassity said. “Everything I wrote in that time period was very honest and it taught me how lucky I am to play music.”

Cassity has since returned to the jazz scene and is currently working on numerous projects, including an album she said is nearly finished. She also has plans to work with Madison-based and Milwaukee-based jazz artists in the near future for her upcoming projects.

Cassity’s discography is available for listeners on Spotify and Apple Music or to purchase from