Black History Month Alumni Spotlight

A collage of three Merit alumni: Jennifer Montague, Nova Zaii, and Dr. Derrick Gay.

In honor of Black History Month, Merit School of Music is highlighting just a few of our notable Black alumni. These alums are transforming the world through their musical and extra-musical talents and inspiring the next generation to dream big. Read on to get to know these impressive alumni.

Dr. Derrick Gay

Respected diversity, belonging, and intercultural competency strategist, Dr. Derrick Gay’s transformative work fosters inclusive cultures in educational and corporate settings. As an internationally recognized consultant, speaker, university lecturer and thought leader, Derrick has empowered organizations across the globe, spanning six continents and five languages. A proud Merit alumnus, Derrick serves on Merit’s Board of Trustees and, as an accomplished opera singer, hosted a masterclass for Merit Conservatory students. 

Anthony & Demarre McGill

Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, is a highly versatile and acclaimed American clarinetist. He performed at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. Demarre McGill is the principal flutist of the Seattle Symphony, renowned for his dynamic performances. He was a soloist with the Chicago Symphony at the mere age of 15. Both musicians are ardent advocates for music education and diversifying the field of classical music.

Jennifer Montague

Jennifer Montague is an experienced business executive known for her leadership role at NiSource where she currently serves as the President and Chief Operating Officer for Columbia Gas of Virginia. She has played a pivotal role in the company’s strategic initiatives and communications. Beyond her corporate achievements, Jennifer is passionate about philanthropy, actively supporting various nonprofits including being a long-term member of Merit’s Board of Trustees.

Marquis Hill

Marquis Hill is an internationally acclaimed trumpeter, composer, and bandleader. In 2014, he won the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Competition—the most prestigious competition in the jazz world. Marquis seamlessly blends musical styles, bringing together contemporary and classic jazz, hip hop, R&B, Chicago house, and neo-soul.

Nikko Washington

Nikko Washington is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work spans painting, drawing, and graphic design. He is also an artistic director and highly sought-after album cover artist, designing pieces for artists such as Joey Purp and Vic Mensa. In 2023, Nikko supported Merit by creating a stunning mural installed on the outside of Merit’s West Loop music center and received the Merit Award for Citizen Artistry at our annual gala.

Dr. Jennifer Turner

Dr. Jennifer Turner is a seasoned media executive and health educator, currently serving as Executive Vice President of TriStar Television for Sony Pictures Television. In this role she helps to champion diverse voices and increase representation in television. Jennifer is also a strong advocate for health and education. She founded edutainment lifestyle brand MAD COOL FITNESS, teaches at Rutgers University School of Public Health as an adjunct professor, and supports music education through serving on Merit’s Board of Trustees and the creation of Merit’s The Dr. Audrey M. Turner Private Lesson Scholarship.

Julian Davis Reid and Nova Zaii

Brothers Julian Davis Reid and Nova Zaii make up two thirds of The JuJu Exchange, a Chicago-based jazz-electronic fusion ensemble with a passion for using music to inspire social change and cultural exchange. Outside of The JuJu Exchange, Julian is a theologian, speaker, writer, solo pianist, and member of Merit’s Associate Board. Nova is an electronic producer, drummer, and inventor of a touchless instrument called the Nova Portals.

Alexis Lombre

Pianist, vocalist, and composer Alexis Lombre captivates audiences with her soulful performances that seamlessly blend jazz traditions with contemporary influences. She was an inaugural member of the Next Jazz Legacy class, a national apprenticeship program by New Music USA and the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. With a deep-rooted passion for storytelling through music, Alexis’ artistry transcends boundaries, creating an immersive and unforgettable musical experience for listeners.

Peter CottonTale

Grammy-winning musician and producer, Peter CottonTale, has been a prominent figure in the Chicago music scene for over a decade, contributing to the work of artists like Jamila Woods, SZA, and Chance the Rapper. He played a pivotal role in creating Chance the Rapper’s critically acclaimed mixtape, “Coloring Book.” Peter aims to inspire self-expression through his music and the music he produces.

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