Infusing vocal-jazz sensibilities with hip-hop swagger, José James is in a space all his own
"Everyone is chasing the dollar so hard. They’re always trying to be competitive. It takes time to develop a Marvin Gaye, it takes time to develop a Billie or a Miles."
Photos by Kwesi Abbensetts
Royce Hall, Los Angeles, 2012. A theater built for the grandeur of classical instrumentation, played host to an intimate three-piece band and what would appear to be a humble vocalist. As the drummer cracked the hi-hat, and the singer’s voice filled the spacious theater with familiarity and devotion, it seemed as if everyone came to know what I had already. José James is an icon.
To hear him is to experience life as a cosmic force coursing through a river of beauty and love. I’d first discovered “The Baritone” in the summer of 2006, in Soho, London, at a members-only record shop called If Music. A few of us would hang out daily in the shop’s vinyl bar, as distributors with white-labeled vinyl, would deliver “fresh off the presses” records from South London, Detroit, Havana, and Berlin. Many of them never made it to the shelves, as superstar DJs like Gilles Peterson, Theo Parrish, SBTRKT, Rich Medina, and King Britt would siphon them off before anyone had a chance. I’d personally watched Gilles on many occasions, skillfully negotiate a first listen as would a stockbroker on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
But on a sweaty June afternoon, when the voice of a rich baritone filled the air, everything stopped. The shop listened closely, to an eerily perfect interpretation of John Coltrane’s 1964 hit “Equinox” as the then neophyte James lyricized every note of Coltrane’s eight intimidating choruses—of which he approached with intimacy, ambition, and taste. This wasn’t a cover, but collaboration, as James’s rendition of the classic had a subtle yet smoldering power. I danced in my seat. The lyrics danced in my head. And as I watched child like expressions of wonder form in the eyes of some of the world’s most progressive tastemakers, I knew I was witnessing history.
Tonight, in Los Angeles, was no exception. Except we weren’t in a tiny record shop in a gritty London alley. There were two thousand people awaiting James. As the drummer cracked the high hat and José James took command of Royce Hall, I thought of the first time he was played in London. Danced in my seat. And smiled.
We met the next day for tea.
Wax Poetics: How many jazz singers are there right now?
José James: Living? Not a lot. Kurt Elling, Jimmy Scott, Freddie Cole, the brother from Brooklyn—Gregory Porter.
I saw him at Gilles’s festival in Sete; isn’t he more of a soul singer?
He came out of jazz. But pure jazz? They almost don’t even exist anymore.
Do you think it’s because of the difficulty of the form? Jazz takes a lot of vocal control.
I don’t think it’s that. I just think jazz is in a strange position because you have to have the discipline and dedication of a classical musician, but it doesn’t have the same infrastructure of classical music.
The business side of it. If you’re a killer violinist, you’re going to be put in the position to audition for the philharmonic, or teach—there’s work out there. Not saying it’s easy to be a classical musician, but in jazz it’s like…we have to make it up. You’ve got dudes playing five hours for twenty dollars down at Fat Cat [New York]. Then you have guys making tens of thousands of dollars. There’s a lot of freedom in jazz, but you have to be confident in your choices and make that work.
What’s the biggest challenge for you?
For me, the challenge has been, and I think Rob [Glasper], Christian [Scott], Jamire, and Ben Williams, we’re all we’re trying to figure out how to do that. We all work with elders too—I’ve been on tour with McCoy [Tyner]; Ben Williams is on tour with Pat Metheny—killin’ it. At the same time, we’re younger, we have different influences and want to develop younger audiences. I think what we did last night [Royce Hall] was cool. Me, Rob—Brainfeeder vs. Blue Note.
Who’s your biggest influence, vocally?
Probably Billie Holiday. My mom had some Billie Holiday albums. I was four or five and remember pulling the albums out, being fascinated by the covers. When I first heard her singing, I didn’t know what she was singing, but she seemed so familiar. To me she is the jazz singer. She’s been with me my whole life.
You didn’t begin taking singing seriously until high school. What changed?
I sang in the school choir, but when you’re singing in the choir, you’re a part of the whole, you’re not even thinking as a soloist. When I switched to an arts high school—South High School in Minneapolis; they put me in a smaller choir—a pop jazz choir. Two tenors two bass, so I had solo parts in that and started doing more of my own thing.
At sixteen, you were already gigging on the night scene with a live band. How’d that happen? And how did it shape you as an artist?
There was a band back home called Echoes of Ellington. It was a ten-piece band that played all Duke Ellington songs. That was my first time sharing the stage with musicians who weren’t high school dudes. Me and Michael Lewis, he was a soloist too—he got pulled out of the jazz band and I got pulled out of the choir to be the soloists for the Ellington band. I was super excited. Being onstage that young, and feeling the power of a real band…the way they looked at me—you know musicians communicate so many things with a look onstage. You can tell if they’re not feeling you. If people like you, they look at you. In jazz, it’s give-and-take, constant acknowledgment. They’re giving, you’re giving, you don’t know where the musicians are going. You have to watch each other. They were feeling what I doing.
And that hooked you.
It was the first time that I’d been judged outside of my school of teachers and community. That was when I got the bug to be a performer. I was always confident and comfortable onstage. Never had crazy stage fright. Found out I feel more comfortable onstage than anywhere else. I feel like I’m myself onstage. And like I’m acting when I leave the stage.
You’ve lived in a few different places. Minneapolis. Brooklyn. London. I heard you mention Donald Washington as a mentor back in Minneapolis.
Yeah, after Ellington, I got down with a band called Ancestor Energy. It was a spoken word, gospel, blues, jazz, and composition ensemble. Very advanced stuff. It was started by [sax player] David Wright, [poet] Louis Alemayehu, and [pianist] Carei Thomas. Donald and Kevin Washington, from Detroit, were also members of the band. All of these great, forward-thinking minds. I became an honorary member of the group—they opened me up to Alice Coltrane. [pauses] A lot of people still don’t consider Alice Coltrane as one of the greats.
If you read jazz books, she’s never mentioned. Anyway, I got involved with that group when I was sixteen and got radicalized.
Ancestor Energy was about spirit, it was about community; they weren’t trying to get a record deal. With a group like that—when they move you have to move. You can’t be doing what you were doing six months ago.
At that age, you probably didn’t even see that as training. You were just showing up and loving the vibe.
Exactly. So that started me out. It was a different time. Kurt Elling had just got signed to Blue Note. Cassandra [Wilson] was on Blue Note. It was so exciting. They were out there getting good press, making money—Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride.
You went from Minneapolis to Brooklyn.
Was that for New School?
No, this was before New School. I went there for three years in 1999. Came back to Minneapolis for two years, then back to New York for New School. And now…I can’t stay in New York. I’m moving again probably.
Sort of a tradition to leave the States for Europe, jump-start your career, blow up there, and they’ll want more you at home—
Yep. I respect all of our homies in Europe who get us out—Gilles, Lefto, Simbad, that whole crew—that’s real music family; they live and breathe music.
In the magazine, we talked about the experience of trying to get your EP listened to in New York.
[laughs] I couldn’t even get a gig in a tiny little spot. If you don’t have an agent making that call for you, then you’re not going to get a gig. I actually think it’s worse in New York than it is L.A. in that regard. I’ve seen people move a lot faster in L.A. There are a ton of unknown artists playing in huge places.
L.A.’s a progressive art city. Our dirty little secret. Especially for music, with KCRW, KPFK…
In New York, I went to a highly respected producer and was like, “I know you’ re loving that James Blake,” and he was like, “Who’s James Blake?” I’m like, “Dog, he’s dope. The EP’s been out.” And he’s like, “Nah, whatever.” He’d seen it all, done it all. The same EP I couldn’t get a gig off of, I brought to London and got a record deal.
Your performance schedule is crazy. Why work yourself to death?
Well, if you look at the amount of experience someone like John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross had—the amount of shows they did, the amount of touring, the number of shows per night they did…they had that Malcolm Gladwell level of experience at work.
Like everyone talks about Marvin Gaye, right? But by the time Marvin actually made What’s Going On, he had clocked so many thousands of hours behind the mic—writing, playing drums, hanging out with musicians, touring, singing backup, by the time we met him, he was already an expert.
I agree with that. Gladwell wrote that the Beatles had what he called their “Hamburg period” where they played—
Five shows a night.
Twelve hours a night for eight years. That’s how you become the Beatles. Are artists still practicing like that? If not, when did the mentality change?
Seventies, late ’60s, when they realized you can get a huge unknown rock band whose musicianship was nowhere near that of a jazz or folk artist but you could sell millions of records. So it was like, fuck this whole practice thing when we can be out there making money. At the end of the day, the industry is there to make money from music. There’s too much money out there. These dudes can make you more money on one album than your whole catalog has ever produced.
There needs to be a balance.
There can’t be. Because everyone is chasing the dollar so hard. They’re always trying to be competitive. It takes time to develop a Marvin Gaye, it takes time to develop a Billie or a Miles. Miles Davis’s first recording sucked. I mean, dude could barely play. He didn’t just happen overnight. He made so many albums, recorded so many sessions, know what I’m saying? By the time he recorded Kind of Blue, he’d been in the game a long time. I feel like as a society we just don’t have patience anymore. Everything has to be faster, it’s impossible for most artists to get signed and out of nowhere at eighteen, nineteen, twenty…and do what Adele has done. That’s a rarity.
Yeah but as a kid, Adele was listening to Etta James every night for hours. Many artists feel they have to compromise themselves vocally in order to make a living. How have you survived thus far without crumbling under that pressure?
The music I love, the music I grew up with was uncompromising. Coltrane, Ice Cube, back in the day—that Predator album was like, Yo. Love it or hate it. There was a moment in the ’90s—that shining moment where you had Nirvana, you had De La Soul, doing what they wanted. They weren’t like, “Oh, we have too many samples.” They were just mad excited. And so I think the spirit of that, especially going back to the Coltrane era—the feeling the music gave you, that’s what got me into music in the first place. Everyone is like, “Why do you sing jazz?” It not about why I sing jazz; it’s about the feeling I get when I hear these artists do what they do. I don’t get that same feeling from Katy Perry.
That’s your philosophy. Many artists share it but don’t exercise it. Where do you get the motivation to follow through on that?
Bell Hooks—I read a lot of her essays. Black Genius Anthology. Bell Hooks said that her big breakthrough came on realizing there wasn’t a big community out there ready to embrace her. Industry-wise, she had to create her own. She was trying to write from a Black perspective, from a feminist radical perspective, in a patriarchal industry, and realized she needed to carve out her own space to survive. There wasn’t a business that was there for her, she had to carve her own. She connected that to the history of African American icons who did the same. That was her strength. For me, reading about that—before I started—helped.
Do you feel like it’s the artist’s responsibility to bring about social or political change through their work?
The artist’s responsibility is to channel whatever the divine brings them—in a responsible way. I think the ultimate social change is to uplift people. Whatever that means to the artist. You want to get people to be motivated to be more invested in their lives and the lives of others. That means something different to everyone. What I sing is going to mean something different to everybody. A painter, a teacher, a banker…whatever meaning they get from my music will filter into their lives in different ways. So I try to make my stuff…not preachy, but still I know that everyone who knows my music knows what I’m about. Most of my stuff is about relationships.
You don’t want to classify yourself as a jazz singer.
I just want to be known as an artist.
You want that freedom.
I need it. You have to demand it. Especially in the States, as soon as you say “jazz,” it conjures up one of two things. White pop jazz—that’s Michael Bublé, Norah Jones, blonde hair, blue eyes, the nostalgic Frank Sinatra crowd—which is great, but it’s different. And you have the straight-ahead, traditional jazz crowd.
So you’re not saying you’re not going to sing jazz, you’re just saying you can’t allow other people to classify you or you’ll never have freedom and movement as an artist.
I understand that. The opening lyrics of “Desire” …She appeared in the distance like a prayer I had uttered…
[sings] She appeared in my life, like a dream only half remembered…
Probably one of my favorite lines of all time.
[laughs] I used to want to be a writer. I have a question for you. What’s your favorite track on the album?
“Bird of Space.”
And “Do You Feel.” Last night at Royce when you sang it…
Something special happened.
Yeah, it did.
Tamara P. Carter (@tamarapcarter) is a television writer by day, music obsessed by night. WaxPoetics is her favorite magazine on earth.
Kwesi Abbensetts (@kwesiabbensetts) is a Brooklyn-based photographer known for capturing “Iconic portraiture of the modern diaspora.” You can visit him at his website.
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