If Wayne Ashley had a nickname, it would have to be The Music Man. With his lifelong involvement in music and his appreciation for many genres, his résumé includes being a founding member of the Cloudburst Vocal Jazz Quartet, a collaborator with celebrated organizations like the Apollo Chamber Players and Houston Ebony Opera Guild, and a lead tenor in the choir at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.
“I think the heart of it is that I just love to sing. I love opportunities to make music in any way and any capacity that I can. And being in a diverse community like Houston, I have the opportunity to get into lots of really cool and fascinating projects,” he says.
Originally from Arkansas, Ashley was surrounded by music his entire life. “I am thankful to have grown up in a family of incredible musicians,” he notes. “Music has always been something that I remember at the heart of the positive experiences of my childhood.”
His family introduced him to blues and gospel musicians, and his grandfather and great-grandmother were both pianists. He feels much of his musical DNA was passed down through the generations.
Ashley started playing trumpet in his youth, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree as a euphonium performance major from Henderson State University. After earning a master’s degree in vocal performance at the University of Houston, he served on the faculty of Texas Southern University. He now maintains a private voice studio to coach some of Houston’s brightest up-and-coming young artists.
He also runs Nilhoak Media, where he helps artists promote their work and learn how to navigate the music industry. “Something I absolutely love, in addition to making music, is supporting other musicians. That’s really the root of my [current work]—to help people.”
One of his longest-running associations in the Houston arts scene has been with the Houston Chamber Choir, where he has performed every season since 2008.
“Houston Chamber Choir has presented such incredible programs over the years that I hold close to my heart,” he says enthusiastically. “Each season, we’ve gotten better and better, and it’s been more fun each time.”
He is looking forward to the Chamber Choir’s current season, themed Prime Time, which launches on October 7 with the first of eight concerts throughout the year.
Ashley’s connection with the Chamber Choir is especially notable because he was among the singers who recorded an album of Maurice Duruflé’s complete choral works on the Signum label, which earned the Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance in 2020.
He recalls that recording Duruflé’s sublime choral music was an accident of sorts. “Our conductor, Robert Simpson, didn’t originally plan to record it. It was just going to be our opening concert for the season. When we got together to rehearse that music, we recognized it would be something special. After the concert concluded, we knew we couldn’t be done with Duruflé.”
Aside from the Grammy Award, the album stands out in Ashley’s mind for additional reasons. “The concert was held at Rice University, which is where we also recorded the album. It’s something that was done entirely by local musicians. Every single one of us who performed on that album are local musicians. That’s a rare thing in the recording industry.”
Ashley’s enthusiasm for music stems from its ability to create conversation, emotion, and connection. “Music is a language, a bond, a community experience that is unique, and unlike anything else that we can do as humans. We can share a moment in time together, but we all experience it differently. What music allows us to do is to take someone’s voice, someone’s hopes, their dreams and their desires, and project them in a way that resonates with people.
“Unlike other types of media, we can say things through the emotional content of music that sometimes we may not have the courage to say out loud,” he adds. “Music provokes our emotions, and when we combine that with the power of words—the incredible power of poetry and prose—it becomes an even deeper art form. Music bonds us in a way that other experiences just can’t.”
Ashley is also a member of the Recording Academy, which presents the annual Grammy Awards. As such, he uses his influence to advocate for keeping music recordings affordable to produce, and for enabling recording artists to earn equitable paychecks. He also leads conversations about how best to preserve arts communities and concert presenters.
“I want to sing as much as I possibly can,” he says, “but I also want to use my voice to uplift others, and that’s what I really want to see for my future.”
Follow the Houston Chamber Choir at HoustonChamberChoir.org.