No Blueprint

Jhanelle Graham Caldwell’s musically paved path to the law

Published in 2023 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine

By Riley Beggin on December 12, 2022


Many lawyers are familiar with the combination of adrenaline and anxiety that comes with performing during a trial. Jhanelle Graham Caldwell knows it better than most—thanks, in part, to her experience approaching a different kind of bench.

Caldwell began practicing the piano at six years old in her hometown of Kingston, Jamaica. Her parents had a deep love and appreciation for music, and believed it would enhance the learning abilities—and positively impact the cognitive development—of their two daughters. They encouraged and facilitated Caldwell’s exploration of music beginning with piano lessons, quickly finding she had “a special gift of creativity,” says her mother, Janice Graham.

For Caldwell, the program was intense; in Jamaica, classical piano lessons were conducted through the Royal Academy of Music. Examiners from England would come to Jamaica annually to conduct exams, for which students would play three pieces. “It was a great foundation for me because there was an appreciation for the origin, the structure of music,” she says. “Jazz diverges quite a bit, and is more representative of the improvisation that I enjoyed and missed with the classical training.”

While Caldwell enjoyed the challenge, her voice soon became her instrument of choice. At 12, she landed a role in the chorus of The Phantom of the Opera at Jamaica Musical Theatre Company, the country’s oldest and largest musical theater group. “There were really well-trained opera singers who were much older than I was, and I was learning from them,” she says. “It was great, at that age, to see such talented senior performance people who were just so good at what they did. It was encouraging for me to be around them.”

She performed in the chorus of Beauty and the Beast, and as Zazu in The Lion King, with shows multiple times every weekend throughout her childhood summers. Proceeds of the productions went to different children’s charities in Jamaica. “We would visit orphanages to be with the kids, to perform for them,” Caldwell says. “It was a great lesson for young people to realize you can use whatever you have to contribute to your community. It was one of the highlights of my childhood.”

At 15, the chairman of the theater, Douglas Bennett, encouraged her to apply for the lead role in an upcoming senior production, Sarafina!, about a student activist uprising in apartheid South Africa. Caldwell landed the lead role, and went on to earn that year’s Actor Boy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role—the Jamaican equivalent of a Tony. To this day, she is the youngest person to receive the honor.

“It was one of those opportunities that was just so rare, you could feel it from the very beginning,” she says. “I credit my parents for allowing me at that age to be involved in something that was so demanding of not only my time, but of theirs. I remember, very distinctly, getting the award and seeing my parents on their feet. Of all the memories from that night, that one stands out most prominently in my mind, because it was a tribute to them as well.”

Mike Daley, a theater producer who worked on Sarafina! and other productions while Caldwell was growing up, says she was talented and mature—and stood out from the beginning. “Simply put, Jhanelle has it all,” he says.

While performing in Sarafina!, Caldwell came under the wing of Peter Ashbourne, a respected jazz musician who served as the show’s musical director. She loved the freedom of the form, and began singing on the jazz circuit alongside some of the nation’s most talented musicians.

“That’s what made it so much fun: The creativity of jazz, there’s no blueprint for it,” Caldwell says. “Within the structure of the typical jazz and blues chords, there is a variation, and it’s all welcome.”

For a couple of reasons, Sarafina! ended up being her last role in Jamaica. Most importantly, Caldwell was within an arm’s reach of attending college in the United States. “The benefit of growing up in the Caribbean is I was exposed to many different activities,” she says. “And then the difficulty is you have to figure out which of these things is going to be your life’s work.”

A few years later, she was heading to the University of Pennsylvania. There, Caldwell lived in a house with other music students while exploring professional interests: First, a path to medical school; then, a switch to philosophy and law. She also became immersed in Counterparts, the school’s award-winning jazz-and-pop a cappella group.

“I knew that I didn’t have a lot of room to do all the things that I might have done in the past, but a cappella really filled that void,” Caldwell says. “That is one of the beautiful things about music: I was a Jamaican girl living for the first time on my own in the United States, and these people became family to me. That’s what music does—it really connects people of all walks of life. Once you start singing, all the barriers go away. Once you start playing, you speak the same language.”

Now, as a medical malpractice defense attorney, Caldwell attributes much of her professional nerve to her early years on stage. “The lights are down, it’s your turn to come out from the wings, and the spotlight’s on you. When you’re well-prepared, there’s a confidence that comes from knowing you’ve done what you needed to do to be there,” she says. “I apply a lot of those skills from early on, the confidence I had performing publicly, to my current trial practice. I draw on the same things. The nervous energy that then translates into the ultimate performance, being able to convey what it is that you’ve practiced for so long.”

While she has performed at the Baltimore Bar Foundation’s Cabaret & Cabernet, and in the Young Victorian Theatre Company’s 2016 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, music has taken on a more private—but equally important—role in Caldwell’s life. As a mother of two children under the age of 4, she sings to them, and watches them improvise their own melodies around the house. She also serves as a member of the board of directors of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, and is considering performing jazz publicly again when her children are older. But, for now, Caldwell wants to help create more opportunities for young people to become active in the performing arts.

“There was a period where music provided an outlet,” she says. “I was able to connect to a community through music. My goal now is giving back.”

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