Access to Artistry in Kalamazoo: Last Gasp Collective

Within the cultural tapestry of Kalamazoo, individual musicians and artists met at open mic events around town. That was followed by impromptu jam sessions and collaborations where they mixed the sounds and rhythms of classical instruments, R&B, hip-hop, gospel and soul – ultimately forming the music group known as the Last Gasp Collective.

Members of the band Last Gasp Collective on stage.
Last Gasp Collective | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

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We sat down with lead vocalist Jessica Ivey to learn more about the magic behind Last Gasp Collective and what she admires about Kalamazoo as a performing artist and music educator.

Tell us about your musical journey that brought you to Last Gasp Collective.

I come from a very rich musical background. My dad's kind of a gospel legend, so I grew up around the booming gospel scene of Detroit in the 1990s. I got serious about music around middle school, and it shaped my identity by adolescence. I went to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo to study music education because I love connecting with people through music.

How did college in Kalamazoo help develop your passion?

Kalamazoo is where I found my sea legs and got through my fear – a couple of open mics here, a dare from a friend there. To study music in college is to study classical music, and I was stuck in my “opera box.” I did my major in music studies and my minor in African studies, which helped me connect those dots between my racial identity mixed with my artistic expression. It really ignited a different part of me that had been dormant for so long.

You mentioned studying classical music in college. Was jazz an option for your studies?

The jazz program at Western Michigan University is renowned, but at the collegiate level it’s very white centered. The difference between the purity of the art form and academia is a source of tension that I noticed early on in my college career.

How did your own education influence how you teach and perform today?

I don’t want to focus on skill-based music education but on how we can bring in humanity. The concept of decolonizing music education is about making it accessible and centering authenticity and expression.

How did you make your way to the Last Gasp Collective?

They were part of my exodus from my opera box. I was singing, but I was lonely. A friend of mine dared me to go and sing at this open mic. Yolonda and Kandace Lavender, who are pillars in the Kalamazoo artistic community, connected with me after they heard me sing. I did a show with them, and Last Gasp Collective was the house band. That night, I met Jay Jackson – the founder of Last Gasp Collective – and I later became a full member in 2018.

Jessica Ivey and Jay Jackson drinking cocktails at a bar.
Jessica Ivey (left) and Jay Jackson (right) at Dabney & Co. | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

How has being in the collective changed your musical experience?

I will forever be indebted to the artistic process that Last Gasp gave to me. Now that I'm not scared anymore, being in the collective has given me a training ground not just for performance but for music production. 

What does it mean to be a collective as opposed to a band or group?

The collective is more about how we inform and coalesce each other's art. Each musician has a career or persona or artistry that we all support, and the audience should too. There’s a cross-pollination of our individualism, and we’re coming together to do something different. That translates on stage because we are a family as well.

As someone who moved from Detroit to Kalamazoo, how do you think the cultures differ?

Kalamazoo is a launching ground for a lot of different kinds of music, poetry and visual art. Kalamazoo is like this best-kept secret – small-town feel with big-city enrichment – and it’s the halfway point between Detroit and Chicago. It’s a college town where people come together from different places, and therefore the sound is very unique. If you know how to work it, it will build you.

What are some local hangouts in Kalamazoo that you recommend?  

Dabney & Co. is a relatively new cocktail bar that is Black-owned. I think they’re doing a great job, and the people who built it are standing on the shoulders of rich Kalamazoo Black history. The Crow's Nest is the best breakfast spot. Pacific Rim, which is an Asian market, has excellent ramen, boba and dumplings. The best ramen I’ve ever had is from Kalamazoo, which is not something you expect. We also love East Egg because it’s nostalgic; it’s the cheap diner right off campus and Miss Tami is still in there going strong. I haven’t had a better grinder than at Kazoopy’s Pizza & Grinder which, again, you wouldn’t expect from Kalamazoo. The Stamped Robin is probably our favorite place to get a drink. The Clover Room is a live performance venue in South Kalamazoo; it’s intimate, and no matter what genre of music – you’re there to listen.

What would you like to tell someone who’s thinking about visiting Kalamazoo?

If you don’t have a person you know, talk to the locals. They’re nice and they’ll tell you where to go for visual art, record stores and the best coffee. There’s a lot of richness that deserves to be discovered, and it's something that you'll never forget.

Our Night in Kalamazoo | Tripadvisor x Pure Michigan