The Kennedy Center

Queen Esther


A 2008 Grand Prize winner of the Jazzmobile Vocal Competition, Queen Esther has performed with guitar icon James “Blood” Ulmer internationally in various blues, rock and jazz configurations, including Blues Experience Raw, The Black Rock Experience and most recently, Odyssey. She is a featured vocalist on his much lauded album No Escape From The Blues (included in Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2003) and lends her vocals and songwriting talents to The 52nd Street Blues Project’s album Blues & Grass.

Steeped in the gospel music traditions of the Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I.C.) from a very early age while surrounded by a soundscape of freeform radio, countrypolitan music and show tunes, Queen Esther grew up in the Deep South – Atlanta, GA and Charleston, SC respectively – as the middle child and the only daughter, with six brothers and a four-octave range. She began her gifted education in English and creative writing as a five-year-old.

Serious operatic training as a kid led to hard time in Austin, Texas -- in theater as well as the live music scene -- opening for artists as varied as Larry Carlton, The Neville Brothers, Crowded House and Chuck Berry. It was guitarist “Big Al” Gilhausen who introduced her to the legendary blues guitar icon Hubert Sumlin. Because of their strong influence, she lost herself in the blues and found her way back to her gospel/country roots.

Her work in New York City as a vocalist, lyricist, songwriter, actor/solo performer and playwright/librettist led to creative collaborations in neo-vaudeville, alt-theater, various alt-rock configurations, (neo) swing bands, trip hop DJs, spoken word performances, jazz combos, jam bands, various blues configurations, original Off Broadway plays and musicals, experimental music/art noise and performance art.

After forming the avant-blues duo Hoosegow with guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp and releasing the critically acclaimed album Mighty (Homestead), Queen Esther beat out more than 6,000 hopefuls to land the role of The Voice of Heaven in the original cast of the 1st national tour of the Broadway musical RENT. Queen Esther signed a publishing deal with Bug Music, self-released Talkin’ Fishbowl Blues as well as the jazz album What is Love?

Queen Esther and her jazz collective The Hot Five are featured in The Salon’s annual New Year’s Eve Eve fete as well as seasonal events produced by Michael Arenella and his Dreamland Orchestra (specializing in jazz from the 1920s) including The Jazz Age Lawn Party. She wrote and co-starred in The Billie Holiday Project -- a musical based on newly discovered short stories by Zora Neale Hurston, augmented by Ms. Holiday’s rare sides -- at The Apollo Theater’s Music Café in April 2012, a project that she continues to develop.

At the moment, Queen Esther is putting the finishing touches on her next Black Americana album (soft release: February 2014) and preparing for a European tour to promote the album in the spring of 2014.

Watch Past Performances

Video 9/22/2016: Queen Esther

Vocalist Queen Esther performs her special blend of jazz, blues, and soul music, described as “Black Americana,” alongside her group The Blue Crowns.

Video 6/18/2016: Queen Esther & The Hot Five

Presented in conjunction with Jason Moran’s Forever Gershwin performance with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Kennedy Center MyTix program and Community Engagement department offer a free pre- and post-NSO show 1920s Hot Jazz dance party. Dance along as Queen Esther and her jazz collective The Hot Five pay homage to a bevy of classic blues singers, including Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Queen Victoria Spivey. Dance instructors will be on hand to lead the audience in dancing cheek-to-cheek in the Grand Foyer and under the willow trees on the River Terrace for a magical evening that will surely be a night to remember.

Video 5/10/2015: Harlem Nights/U Street Lights: A Collaborative Presentation of The Apollo and the Kennedy Center

With dual pianos onstage, all-star pianists Jason Moran, Marc Cary (Music Director), Bertha Hope, and Gerald Clayton connect the dots between jazz luminaries with histories in both New York and D.C., including late greats Duke Ellington and Dr. Billy Taylor. In addition, vocalists Queen Esther and Brianna Thomas perform with Howard University’s premier vocal jazz ensemble Afro Blue (directed by Connaitre Miller), mining the rich, related vocal history of the New York and Washington, DC jazz scenes. The evening continues with a ticketed show in The Crossroads Club featuring Jason Moran, Marc Cary, and many others.

Video 1/21/2014: Queen Esther

Specifically requested by Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor for Jazz Jason Moran, the award-winning vocalist, songwriter, actor, and recording artist takes the stage in a program highlighting her many talents.

Queen Esther