How a kid from West Baltimore discovered music and is now scoring the Oscars

Published on: March 26, 2022 at 8:00 am EDT

Updated on: June 13, 2022 at 10:09 am EDT

Dontae Winslow portrait

Among the stars gracing center stage at the 94th Academy Awards Sunday will be West Baltimore native Dontae Winslow.

The world-renowned musician will serve as lead orchestrator, conductor, composer, arranger, and trumpet player.

Winslow grew up on the west side of North Avenue and attended Baltimore School for the Arts before graduating from The Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. He taught music for three years at Gilmor Elementary before pursuing a more fulfilling career in music.

He moved to Los Angeles with his wife in 2003 and formed relationships with record producers, working with big names like Mary Mary, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre. He played during Dr. Dre’s Super Bowl halftime show In February.

Winslow talked to The Baltimore Banner from his L.A. home Friday about the opportunity to serve as lead orchestrator at The Oscars, how his creativity was nurtured as a youth in Baltimore and what impact he hopes his success makes on kids in the city.

How did the opportunity to play such an important role at The Oscars come about?

I am officially a conductor, composer, lead orchestrator, arranger and performer playing trumpet all throughout the night. And it’s an incredible honor. We have an amazing team. The musical director Adam Blackstone hired me as well as another brilliant brother, Derrick Hodge. It’s been a great experience of paying homage to the great film composers, the great producers, directors and actors who make this event, but also infusing my passion for music and for scoring and for orchestra into the interpretations.

What was your experience coming up as a young musician in Baltimore? You went to Peabody as well.

I didn’t leave until 2003. I was grown and married. Then I decided I wanted more for my life than teaching at Baltimore City public schools. It was rough for me growing up there and for many who are from Baltimore. I grew up on North Avenue, West Baltimore on the rough side. I had my grandparents who were wonderful, who I lived with because my mother was, you know, addicted to drugs and we lived a rough life.

I grew up in a crack house. I grew up seeing a lot of killings. A lot of my family members went to jail and were murdered. And the trumpet was a saving grace for me not to be drawn to that lifestyle. I was blessed to have great mentors like the great attorney Billy Murphy and the great jazz legend saxophonists, Gary Thomas and Gary Bartz, and Mr. Whit Williams pour into me as a young man and let me know that I could make it and become somebody. And they made sure that I got the right lessons and made sure that I was fed the right music.

What was it like when you first got to L.A.? Was it easy for you to get into sessions or did you have to go to jam sessions to get your name out there?

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When I first broke through, I got a full fellowship to USC and so I got to study with Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter — the great legendary masters of jazz. And after two years of that program, I had to learn more about my craft. For me, it’s all about studying the craft and staying close to excellence and being better.

I graduated and me and my wife had nowhere to stay. We had to sleep on couches for a minute. I had to sell my watch. My wife was pregnant with my son Jedi. Then I started working with the great Warren Campbell. He was at a church here and he was one of my favorite producers. I met him at church and said, “man, I’d like to come learn at your studio.” And he’s like, “man, come play trumpet.” Our first records were Mary Mary records. We started working on [Kanye West’s] “We Major.” We did David Banner. We did so many hit songs at the time. And I was getting to learn the craft of producing at a high level at the same time. So Warren kind of took me under his wing.

When did scoring become an interest of yours?

Interestingly enough, my wife pushed it. Dr. Nathan Carter from Morgan, his wife Jane Carter, and my wife all saw something special in me in terms of the orchestra — how much I love classical music, how much I listened to orchestra music all day long when I was in the seventh grade. I remember before I could read music, I bought a copy of the score of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. I looked at the meters and said,” wow, this is so beautiful.” Orchestral music has always made me cry. Film music has always made me cry. And I never understood that. So I figured that was something in me that attracted me to orchestra music, which now is basically film music.

What impact do you hope being a composer at the Oscars will have on a person from Baltimore?

I would hope that a young girl or boy would look up, see me and say, “Wow, I can do what he’s doing. Because he came from where I’m from. He lived and walked the streets I walked from. He came up with a single mother. He didn’t have lunch money. He stood on bus stops. He was bullied. He suffered abuse … and look what God did for him. If he can make it, I can make it.” That’s what I want kids to look up and see and say.