Kevin Oliver Jr., left, and Joshua Williams grew up playing music together in Metro Atlanta schools. They graduated together from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City in May. (Special)

Kevin Oliver Jr. and Joshua Williams bonded over a love for music while attending a Metro Atlanta middle school. Today, the best friends are graduates of The Juilliard School, one of the world’s leading performing arts schools based in New York City.

The young men are now pursuing professional music careers in the Big Apple. Kevin, 21, a jazz alto saxophonist, received a $20,000 entrepreneurship and career advancement grant from Juilliard he is using to record an album. Joshua, 22, a tuba player, is pursuing a masters degree at Juilliard and auditioning with different orchestras.

Both say they would not be where they are without the other’s encouragement, support and challenging each other to make better music. Before they were friends, though, they were rivals.

“We started off as mortal enemies,” Kevin said with a laugh.

Both ended up attending Sandtown Middle School in South Fulton where they both sought to play saxophone for the school band taught by Sarkino Walker. Kevin said playing the saxophone came almost naturally in elementary school, sealing his love for the instrument. Joshua, who was born in New Orleans, envisioned himself a young jazz protege connecting with his hometown roots.

“We would have auditions for who gets first chair in the sixth grade band, and only a certain amount of saxophone players got chosen to be in the jazz band,” Joshua said.

“So we were in competition with each other. And we did not like that because, of course, you want to be the best even at the age of 12,” he said.

But there were too many saxophone players, so their band teacher, Ms. Walker, asked if anyone wanted to play tuba. Joshua’s brother played tuba and he liked the sound the large horn made. So Joshua switched to tuba.

With the rivalry now out of the way, Kevin and Joshua quickly became good friends because they shared a passion for being the best musicians they could be. They liked other stuff, too.

“We loved going to the band room in our spare time to just play music,” Joshua said. “We both go to the same church. We both really like football, playing video games. And we just realized there were more things we have in common — so it was, like, how can we not be friends?”

Kevin said Joshua’s friendship at Sandtown Middle School made him want to be a better musician.

“We kind of grew with each other, and pushed each other to be better,” he said.

“I just fell in love with music and the saxophone. And by the time I was in seventh grade, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do for a profession,” he said.

“By that time, I knew I either wanted to go to Juilliard or Southern University, an HBCU in Louisiana,” Kevin said.

“I knew the prestige that surrounded Juilliard even in the seventh grade,” he said. “I didn’t know much about anything, but I knew that. And I wanted to study music at the highest level, so that was definitely the place to do it.”

Joshua went to Tri-Cities High School in East Point and Kevin went to Westlake High School in South Fulton. Both continued to play in the school bands and also played with various Atlanta university jazz bands, studied with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, as well as district honor bands and all-state bands.

Juilliard is notoriously difficult to get into. About 7% to 8% of applicants are accepted at the school with enrollment now at roughly 800 undergrad and graduate students. Tuition and other expenses can run about $80,000 year to attend.

Kevin and Joshua applied to several schools not expecting to get into Juilliard. The application process is a rigorous one, including performing live. But they excelled during the process, were accepted and were awarded scholarships.

The love of music only grew, they said.

“I like the saxophone because I feel like it gives me a voice,” Kevin said. 

“Being able to express yourself artistically, it does so many good things for you emotionally,” he said. “Growing up, I loved math and science … and language was definitely one of the more difficult things for me. I just feel like I can tell my story the best way possible on the saxophone.”

Kevin Oliver Jr., left, plays the saxophone during his senior recital at Juilliard with best friend Joshua Williams accompanying him on tuba. (Special)

And Joshua wants people to understand the beauty of the tuba beyond its massive size and perceived clunky, loud booming noises.

“A lot of times when you think of a tuba, you don’t really think of anything necessarily very melodic or very virtuosic,” he said.

“But the tuba is kind of a reflection of how I just like seeing people in general, in the world — never assume what what anyone can or cannot do know based off how they look,” he said. “I feel like that reflects through me through the tuba.”

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Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.