I recently spoke with three-time Grammy Award nominee Boney James (born James Oppenheim) as he embarks on his third decade in the world of R&B infused contemporary urban jazz.
His new exciting album “The Beat” was released on April 9, 2013 and already has spent 5 straight weeks at #1 on the Billboard Jazz Albums charts and the single “Batucada” (the Beat) was # 1 on radio for 8 straight weeks.
James’ new project blends his R&B/Jazz roots with gritty Latin rhythms and percussions. The versatile saxophonist’s smooth grooving sound has incredible cross over appeal and has earned him two awards generally reserved for African American artist: a NAACP Image Award nomination for Best Jazz Album and a Soul Train Award for Best Jazz Album.
BJ: I love Chicago and the theater is one of the most iconic theaters in the country. I’m super excited about coming back. George did a guest spot on one of my records and I was super honored. I’d been a huge fan of his since the early ‘70s. Years ago when I asked him to play on one of my records, I knew he didn’t do a lot of guest spots, but he agreed to do it. I flew to Phoenix where he was living and did the session. I had met him a few years even before that because I had the honor of opening up for him when I was first starting out and now we’re co-headlining these shows together (Smooth Jazz Concert Series) and I personally have to pinch myself that I’m even working with him.
N’DIGO: How did a young boy born in Lowell, Massachusetts become musically influenced by R&B?
BJ: I grew up mainly in New Rochelle, NY back in the old days when radio stations were not as quite restrictive in what they played. You would be listening to the radio and would hear all kinds of music playing on the same station. I believe that was the first way I heard it. I was always into music. My friends and I would love to just sit around and always listen to records. There was so much great music happening in the ‘70s when I was coming up. That’s just the music that I gravitated to Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder to start off. Earth, Wind & Fire were a big influence on me. Curtis Mayfield and the list goes on and on. That was always the kind of music that just got me going and still pretty much to this day. But I was playing the saxophone and many of these bands were incorporating horn sections, sax solos or instrumental passages and infusing some jazz flavorings into their R&B music. So that was just a great period where it was all kind of mixed up and that was kind of when my musical tastes were awaken. I’m still carrying on that tradition to this day.
N’DIGO: Was there anyone in your family musically inclined?
BJ: (He laughs) No, my parents can sing “Happy Birthday “ and you can’t tell what song it is. No lie (laughs). I didn’t come from a musical household. I know that’s different from a lot of cats. They come from musical families. My dad was an attorney and for a time worked for Columbia Records. I mean there were records around the house and they like to listen to music.
BJ: It’s without a doubt that Grover Washington Jr. influenced my life. He was one of the first sax players I heard mixing R&B music and jazz. In 1975 I remember walking in the band room and my teacher was playing his “Mr. Magic” album. I asked “What is that?” I was a young sax student and wasn’t really turned on by some of the music I was expected to love. John Coltrane and Charlie Parker were great sax players but that music didn’t get me as excited as R&B did. So here there was Grover playing jazz over this kind of “go-go” beat. That kind of did it for me.
BJ: I decided in my second year of college that I really wanted to become a musician. The last few years while in school I was really pursuing music most of the time. Just dragging myself to class in the mornings. I got out of school and started delivering pizzas to pay the bills. I was playing with some local bands and trying to get signed to a label. I was getting sick of delivering pizzas and I heard that Morris Day was putting a band together right after the Time broke up in 1985. I went and auditioned as the keyboard player in that band not as a saxophone player. I didn’t think I had a chance but he hired me that day. That started a seven-year career working as a sideman, backing up all kinds of artist.
N’DIGO: So you “cut your teeth” as a session musician and recorded with some pretty stellar R&B musicians and singers.
BJ: It was a great experience. It was the real school for me. All those years I played with Morris, Randy Crawford, Teena Marie, The Isley Brothers, Vesta and Ray Parker Jr. The list goes on and on. I went from gig to gig paying my dues.
N’DIGO: At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted a solo career?
BJ: Well you know about 5 or 6 years into that (session work) I started getting frustrated with that kind of life too. I started writing my own songs and getting that itch to be creative and do my own thing. I wanted people to hear the music that I was doing. So it took me 3 years. It was merely luck. I was playing in Bobby Caldwell’s band and the engineer who was mixing the house for that gig was an aspiring producer by the name of Paul Brown. He asked if I was interested in doing a record. . It took three weeks to record my first record “Trust” in 1992. Although it was an independent label it made enough noise that I was able to jump over to Warner Bros. That really started me off on my journey and here we are 22 years later, I’ve sold all these records. It’s amazing how fate plays a tremendous part in your life when you look back on it.
N’DIGO: You’ve been in this business for three decades. With the release of the “Beat” you are now entering your third decade as a recording artist. Yet, you’re still one of the most innovative urban jazz contemporary artists around. What ‘s the secret to your longevity?
BJ: Well that’s hard to say, I work real hard. But a lot of people do that. I think the secret to any sort of success is really a combination of hard work and luck. You just have to be prepared for opportunities. Perseverance. I’m very tenacious. I try not to take ‘no’ for an answer – no matter what it is. You have to keep pushing it and try to have a good time and enjoy the process. I’m very grateful for all the success I’ve had and still love doing it. I’m very passionate about making music everyday, making records and playing shows. It brings me incredible fulfillment. Maybe that’s the secret too!
N’DIGO: Describe the freedom of not having a record deal while recording your latest album The Beat?
BJ: It’s funny you say that. Tavis Smiley pointed that out to me. He read in my bio, I was for the first time in between record deals. It was for the first time since starting out. I moved around a little bit but I had always gone straight from one label to another. I was on Concord for three records and had some success there. The people from Verve said come over here and we’ll do this and that. I gave them a try. But halfway into my third record almost all those people at Verve got fired. So there really was no one there into me. So I said this isn’t going to workout. There was nobody waiting for my record. I just wanted to make a record for fun and that spirit is on this record. I wasn’t obligated to anyone. It added some positive energy to the record.
N’DIGO: You collaborated with Trumpeter Rick Braun in 2000 (Grazing in the Grass) and now I see you’re working with him again on “Batucada (The Beat) “. Describe your working with Rick.
BJ: I definitely wanted some of the energy that Rick and I have, every time we get in a room together. There’s something about the two of us playing together that’s more than the sum of its parts. When I was working on the track for Batucada for the new record, I knew I wanted that right from the beginning. It needed to be BIG! I called Rick and the magic is still there.
N’DIGO: How excited are you to perform at the Chicago Theatre (with George Benson) and what should the audience expect on June 21st?
BJ: I’m very excited to come to Chicago and give the audience a great show. I got all the guys who recorded on my record. I’m going to do some of my older stuff. For those who have never seen me live, they are going to be surprised. I’m coming to put on a show. It will be a lot of fun.