This story is taken from Issue 17 of Highsnobiety magazine. You can buy the new issue here.

In their home city, Onyx Collective have become the talk of the town. Whether performing as a six-piece in a parking garage in Harlem or infiltrating a SoHo art gallery for a Virgil Abloh and Lucien Smith exhibition, the jazz band know exactly how to set the mood for young, rowdy crowds itching to jettison some angst. The group’s rising talent hasn’t gone unnoticed, either, with figures such as Aaron “A-ron” Bondaroff and Kamasi Washington in their corner. Onyx are taking back the city that raised them and turning it into a place where creatives can thrive on their own terms.

The tale of Onyx Collective is really more a love story about New York set during the modern jazz revival. As natives born and bred in the city’s boroughs, Onyx members have had their own distinct experiences within that story. For founding member Isaiah Barr, there were several stages of development, but music was at the core of what shaped his character and made him appreciate his Brooklyn roots.

The saxophonist meets me on a humid afternoon in July at the collective’s main headquarters, The Shed. The inviting community space is run out of photographer Adam Zhu’s apartment complex in Chinatown and serves as a focal point for various group activities, including meetings, sessions, and parties. Collages, sketches, and framed photographs of jazz icons such as Duke Ellington and John Coltrane decorate the walls of the practice space on the graffitied rooftop, with a clutter of instruments, vinyl, artwork, and street signs also vying for space.

Delving deeper into the local DIY community has expanded Barr’s perception of the world outside, with the group paving their own lane in a carefully curated scene that fosters deep connections within intimate settings. Onyx Collective coexist in a musical world orbited by the likes of Wiki, Princess Nokia, Devonté “Dev” Hynes, and Nick Hakim.

“We have to bring our A-game to the table and be the best New York representation of whatever it is that we’re doing,” Barr says while gliding his fingers across the keyboard in front of him. “We have to strive for excellence, and that’s something that I think is a New York thing. It’s not perfection, it’s just being yourself and knowing the reason why we’re here.”

Onyx Collective are the ultimate billboard for New York. Their name is taken from a building in the East Village that was home to the band’s first ever practice space (also nodding to legendary jazz hideout Onyx Club) and all of the songs included on the three Lower East Suite albums make specific references to the city, operating as a Downtown-dedicated soundtrack that will stand the test of time. In Barr’s own words, their records are “an abstract piece of concrete material that is inside our heads,” adding that the trilogy is a testament to the band “establishing our roots of who we naturally are, not who we’re trying to be or what we’re trying to manifest because of where we’re from.”

Onyx members hail from four of New York’s five boroughs: guitarist Jack Gulielmetti claims Manhattan, drummer Austin Williamson grew up in Queens, Barr and vocalist Julian Soto are from Brooklyn, and keyboardist Josh Benitez represents the Bronx. Since 2014, Onyx have been laying the foundation of a movement that is growing larger than the group could ever have imagined. Although most of the members knew each other from music programs in high school, the group formed organically through jam sessions held during Barr’s weekly radio show on Know Wave, the Bondaroff-co-founded radio station in the East Village.

Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

Whereas debut album 2nd Avenue Rundown served as a formal introduction to the group, Onyx Collective’s latest material is designed like a film score recorded to tape in specific environments. Barr explains that their next project will be a five-track EP that’s an “all-encompassing art, music, multimedia presentation.” That mindset stems from thinking architecturally and allowing projects to “expand into realms that are not very common.”

“They’re all rooted in real-life shit that happens in New York every day, and real friends that we’re lucky to know, that it’s greater than the music and that it’s something of a survival,” Barr says. “It’s something that’s about community, striving to be the best, and not to put yourself or let anyone put you in a box. I think that’s where we stand in the whole equation, especially coming out of New York and knowing New York so well.”

Even during the early stages, when Onyx Collective first formed, their shared vision was to “develop a community to play shows” among their peers. The overall goal has always been to cultivate a safe, creative place where people from different backgrounds and social standings can come together and have fun. Barr views the band as a “functioning organization of artists and creative people” that refuse to be boxed in, from their music and art to apparel and aesthetics. Their philosophy is to run things in a way that comes naturally to them, the way they wish the world also moved.

“The vision now is just to support one another, to make projects with one another, to continue to branch out on stuff we’ve done, and then completely shock people and surprise them with music that is very original and unique to our style, but that’s coming out of a different style,” Barr explains. “We like to change and just leave things for the moment that they were done, and then keep going.”

Barr prides himself on having been immersed in a diverse community of “skateboard kids, film kids, drag queens, acting [and] comedy kids, and rappers” from a young age. For Onyx Collective, everything is about “breaking down the kind of institutionalized things that are the norms,” which Barr considers the “natural essence” of New York art. He describes the city as a “hotbed for culture” and wants to create meaningful content “filled with people’s enthusiasm and their life stories.”

“They’re all rooted in real-life shit that happens in New York every day, and real friends that we’re lucky to know, that it’s greater than the music and that it’s something of a survival,” Barr says. “It’s something that’s about community, striving to be the best, and not to put yourself or let anyone put you in a box. I think that’s where we stand in the whole equation, especially coming out of New York and knowing New York so well.”

Barr

After the limited release of 2nd Avenue Rundown through Know Wave and Supreme in 2016, the group launched a sleek debut lookbook of jazz-inspired merch in May 2017 featuring Bondaroff, skater Sage Elsesser, and stylist Mellany Sanchez. In May this year, Onyx’s cult status reached new heights when they were invited to perform at the opening of Virgil Abloh and Lucien Smith’s “FRIENDS” exhibition.

Barr considers Smith an old friend, and the Empty Gallery collaboration was a chance for all parties to come together and create “a vibe for the community.” Reflecting on the experience, Barr says, “It’s an honor to work with Virgil and it’s definitely something we look forward to doing more of.” In true Abloh fashion, he even made a limited-edition OFF-WHITE T-shirt for the event featuring one of Smith’s oil-on-linen works, an iPhone-inspired image of his girlfriend Marlene Zwirner. The artwork for the cover of Onyx Collective’s latest album runs in the same vein, featuring an original painting by Julian Schnabel.

“We are a lifestyle brand that ties together so many worlds of influence,” explains Barr, referring to Onyx’s exploits outside music. “As a brand, we are representing New York streetwear as well as art and design concepts. We try to tie music, art, and fashion all together.”

Not that Onyx Collective are planning to start their own clothing line anytime soon. Like the group’s free-form approach to music, the clothes ebb and flow based on how the collective feels. Fashion allows them to express a different side of their creativity. Regarding the music, Barr could never have predicted how prominent a role Onyx Collective would play in the current jazz revival alongside experimental acts such as Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, BADBADNOTGOOD, Standing on the Corner, Kadhja Bonet, and Yussef Kamaal.

Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

“I don’t know if we saw it coming that there even was gonna be this revival or scene of things. That’s something that’s out of our control in a million ways,” Barr explains. “It’s a universe moving in a certain way and hopefully we can use our skills and knowledge, create a new wave, and push to a new thing. Finding a way to do that is constantly the focus — to push past expectations and take risks.”

In terms of what sets Onyx Collective apart from the rest — not that they’re going out of their way to be an oppositional force — Barr credits the group’s openness and adaptability. “There’s an ever-growing amount of seats at the table and everyone has a say,” he says. “Everyone has a role and their roles can change, too. There’s no fixed positions and that leads to things being completely in the unknown and being very mysterious.”

“Striving to tap into a lot of different things allows you to be able to understand and create unity, and create understanding, and create bridges across the borders. It allows you to do the best you can in that moment and really, really embrace that freedom.”

Barr

Barr describes the band’s collaborative process as open-ended and unbound to a specific method or plan. Free-flowing improvisation between him and drummer Williamson is a common occurrence at Onyx live shows. Barr compares the group’s approach to a polygamous relationship, emphasizing the liberation of “having a really solid rapport with whoever,” but “not forgetting about people and the vibe.”

He continues, “Striving to tap into a lot of different things allows you to be able to understand and create unity, and create understanding, and create bridges across the borders. It allows you to do the best you can in that moment and really, really embrace that freedom.”

Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

The ideal vibe Barr wants to create at shows is a moment of clarity, a temporary universe that seizes everyone — band and audience alike — and compels them to focus on music in its purest form. In a world of careful social media curation and meticulously planned marketing campaigns targeted at specific demographics, Onyx Collective’s ephemeral approach to music feels important, pure escapism.

And while the future of jazz remains unknown, Onyx Collective are in full control of their environment. After all, if they can make it in New York, they can succeed anywhere. As Barr says, “We’re gonna be turning heads, making a lot of surprises, and proving points just with the same order of operations that we’ve always done: putting out music [and] putting out content and art that is unique.”

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Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

Highsnobiety magazine Issue 17 is available now from our online store and at select premium stockists and boutiques worldwide.

  • Styling: Corey Stokes
  • Brands Featured: COMME des GARÇONS Homme Plus, Kenzo, Peels, Needles, Paul Andrew, RETROSUPERFUTURE, Marni, Bode, Illesteva, Issey Miyake, Raen, Acne Studios & Dries Van Noten
Words by Sydney Gore
Associate Music Editor

Taurean woman with a moon in Leo, rising sign in Capricorn & INFJ personality. Corduroy is the best bear.

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