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A New Album By Grammy-Nominated Saxophonist/Flutist Najee Sets Jazz Lovers Ablaze, Savoir Fair!

Updated: Aug 29

I enjoyed speaking with the multi-Platinum & Grammy Nominated saxophonist and flutist Najee. He is super talented, and I admire his kind, humble and gracious nature. We talked about his music, life, and childhood memories. This is what he shared with me.

Good afternoon, Najee. How are you doing today? I'm doing great, thank you!

That's awesome, and you're welcome. Are you in California? I'm based in Florida but also have a place in California.

The weather is beautiful and sunny in both places. You've got the best of both worlds. When you're not performing, what does a typical day look like for you? Honestly, it depends on what's on my schedule. Since my son just started college, I take him to school when I'm here. I enjoy spending time with him. The other activities I engage in depend on the day of the week. We also have "administrative days." Because I'm recording several projects at home, my days aren't typical. I spend every day in a variety of ways.

No day is complete without a fantastic breakfast to get your day started. What was your favorite childhood cereal? My favorite childhood cereal was "Captain Crunch." It's terrible for your body, but that's what I enjoyed eating as a child.

I loved that cereal as well. When they came out with "Captain Crunch Berries," that was a game changer! (laughs) Oh yeah!

What is your favorite place to find serenity and peace when life becomes hectic and chaotic? Because I travel a lot and am always on the road doing something, my place of peace is home. When I'm away from home, I don't constantly tour. Occasionally, I work on events, recordings, or other projects.

Excellent; as a saxophonist and flutist, what are the physical challenges that your body goes through playing your instruments professionally? Also, what did your body go through initially when you first started playing? My playing dates back over 50 years, so it's an adjustment process of training the body and mind. Understanding the instrument was easy since I had a natural intuition, but learning its mechanics took more time, work, and consciousness to become second nature. In the beginning, almost every student struggles with understanding how to get it to play and make their instrument produce sound. In my case, the flute was more challenging to play than the saxophone. This was when I first started. I spent years studying the mechanics of the flute.

I see. What made playing the flute more challenging than playing the saxophone? It's very unforgiving. Many variables go into getting a good-quality sound, whether it is the head joint, the embouchure, or the equipment you're using, such as sterling silver versus gold. I started playing the precious metal flutes when I became an adult. As a student, I had to play lower-grade flutes. A lot goes into it, but it gave me a good foundation.

The challenges you faced when learning an instrument as a child made me reflect on how things are different today compared to when we grew up. Currently, when things get tough, people stop, but quitting wasn't an option in the past. Due to the negative consequences of quitting prematurely, we had a greater stick-to-itness than previous generations. (laughs) The culture was much different then. The things we did were part of the culture. Growing up in New York City, everybody was in a band in my community and my circles, and many of the people you respected in those bands became famous.

When the New York City Department of Education started cutting back on its music program, many kids gravitated to rap. Consequently, there were a lot of rap groups in my neighborhood. In summary, it depends on what the culture and the educational system dictate.

Absolutely. Najee, because you travel the world, I'm sure you've had the opportunity to be exposed to diverse cultures and foods. Have you ever told yourself that you would never try a particular food but enjoyed it after trying it? Growing up in America, it's so culturally diverse that many foods offered in other countries are generally introduced to us within the United States. For example, in the late 80s, when I first visited Japan, it wasn't foreign to me because I had already tried sushi.

This is true in other countries as well. I've been to Brazil a couple of times, but before that, I had already tried Brazilian food right here in Florida, so it wasn't foreign to me. Different cultures have different things; fortunately, because we're in the United States, we experience many things.

Regarding cultural differences, do you find that American Music is received differently abroad than in the United States? As someone who has traveled the world, I am accustomed to different cultural responses. I used to tour Japan a lot back in the 80s and 90s, and one thing I appreciated about that culture was that they let go at the end. One time, I performed there on New Year's Eve, and everyone was drunk, so they were not concerned about all that stuff; they let it go. They were having such a good time with us.

I appreciate you sharing that story with us. As a result of your story, independent artists will realize the importance of learning about the customs of other cultures before they travel. As a result, they will better understand how different cultures perceive their artistic abilities and won't take offense if their reaction differs from what they receive in their country. So, Najee, you travel a lot. Do you have any crazy flying stories you want to share with your fans, like insane turbulence? I've got quite a bit of those. (laughs) I've got on airplanes that I thought we wouldn't make it. I've had several of those. I've even been in planes where engines have blown out.

Are you kidding me? No, I'm serious! As someone who has traveled as much as I do over the last 40 years, you're bound to run into something occasionally. Nevertheless, flying is still the safest form of travel.

Are you a window or aisle seat person? A first-class aisle seat is more comfortable for me.

The aisle seats are the best because if you frequently use the bathroom, you won't interrupt those sitting nearby. I agree. Many people don't know this, but I went to high school to become a pilot.

Wow! That's nice! I didn't know that. That's wonderful. I attended August Martin High School in New York. The school was located in the African American community of Jamaica, Queens, NY, where I spent my teenage years growing up.

What made you decide to become a musician over becoming a pilot? Despite being an aviation school, August Martin High School had a strong music program. So, I played the lead saxophone in the jazz band.

Well, once, when we had a concert, I performed my solo, and after I finished, all the girls knew my name, so I immediately changed careers. True story. (laughs)

Hilarious! According to the many male artists I interviewed, women's admiration of their creative talents inspired them to pursue their crafts. (laughs) While I loved music, I was conflicted about whether to fly planes or be a musician. The decision I made at 15 will never be forgotten. After that day, everybody wanted to know me. I went from anonymity to a celebrity just like that.

What is the most impressive piece of architecture you've seen while traveling the world? Oh gosh, I've seen so many. One place I've never been to is Egypt. I've never seen the Pyramids there, but I have seen some of the pyramids in Mexico. There are so many beautiful places around the world with incredible architectural structures that I have visited. There's always going to be beautiful architecture, especially in the modern world, that stands out. Europe, Spain, and Brazil are all places where I appreciate their classic architecture.

A few months ago, I saw the "Christ the Redeemer" Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And I still love going to Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower. Having grown up in New York City, I am used to tall buildings. Impressive architectural designs were something I witnessed frequently.

In my opinion, as it pertains to children who grow up in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, seeing spectacular sights around the world might inspire them to strive for betterment. When they realize that there is more to the world than where they grew up, they may become more motivated to set positive career goals and move out of their hometowns to find a safer place to raise their future families. I truly agree with that. As a teenager, I went on my first world tour at 18 after leaving high school. As a member of a New York band called "Area Code," we toured the world for USO military bases. As a result, my first international travel experience came when I went to Europe at 18. I played for the troops in Germany, Italy, Spain, Iceland, Greenland, Central America, and all over. As a result, my life took a different course.

That's awesome! What a fantastic experience for a young man! And we're all grateful that your life took that course so we could experience your beautiful music throughout the years. Thank you.

You're welcome, so we'll pivot to a fun question right now. Ok

If you could be on a game show, what game show would it be, and which one of your smooth jazz compadres would you compete against? Your game show choices are: "Wipeout, Family Feud, or Let's Make a Deal." Out of the three, which is your choice? I would probably choose Kirk Whalum because we always have fun. We like to joke around. And I would also select Downing Will because he is hilarious. He's one of the funniest people in the world. I wouldn't get on Wipeout, so I would have to choose Family Feud.

What is the craziest item that you have on your rider? I have a very boring rider. We've got stuff like cold cuts and a lot of boring stuff. On my rider, nothing is exciting.

Awesome! What do you find most intriguing about playing the sax? The saxophone always appealed to my heart and intellect. I used to listen to my mother playing Miles Davis records as a kid. She loved Miles Davis. A saxophone player in his band played on the "Four & More" album named George Coleman. It's been said that the first sound they hear as a beginner sets a template for how they'll play in the future. I continue to be influenced by Joe Henderson, George Coleman, and John Coltrane in the tenor saxophone department. I gravitate toward Charlie Parker when I pick up the alto. Thus, it has always appealed to my emotions and intellectual sensibilities.

That's beautiful! As a person who has achieved great success, how do you determine the intentions of a new someone who comes into your life to befriend you? It's easy for me because I don't try to judge someone's intentions or motivations upon my introduction to them. That becomes very clear to me in a quick amount of time. I keep a close group of people in my life, most of whom are family members. Generally, I don't worry about it.

I grew up in New York, so even though I was never a hustler or a gangster, I know one when I see one because I grew up around it, and I know the character.

Yes. They come in all levels of success, forms, shapes, and sizes. Satan comes in, and anyway, he can get in. Let me tell you; he doesn't care about race; he shows up wherever he's welcome.

You're right! Do you recall having crossroad experiences as a young man growing up in New York, where you had to decide whether to follow the light or the dark path? I was very fortunate that I had a strong mother. My father died when I was very young, so I didn't know it very well, but my mother was very good at ensuring we stayed out of trouble. Even though we grew up in the poorer sections of Jamaica, Queens, NY, as a teenager, I didn't engage with people involved with bad things.

Most of the kids I knew came from good, hardworking families, so I can't say I was tempted by the dark side of, for lack of a better way to put it. It was just a struggle of trying to do good with our limited resources.

Awesome! Throughout the years, you've obtained a lot of fantastic education. What music teacher did you find to be most influential in your life? I had several, but the one that stands out is a gentleman named David Vetter. David was probably the one teacher that took the time to remove the mystery because he saw I had something. I don't even know if he knew what that something was, but for whatever reason, he took the extra time with me.

Because he directed me to study outside of high school, I ended up in the New York City "Jazzmobile" program founded by Dr. Billy Taylor. I remember going to Harlem on the weekends to study with major artists and musicians like Jimmy Heath. I studied in his flute master class. Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster, and Frank West were all in the jazz program then.

So, although there were several teachers that I can think of who greatly inspired me, he's the one that helped me to see my direction clearer.

What piece of wise advice did your mother give you that you carried through life and passed on to your son? Oh yeah, you know, it's funny because as you get older and your parents have moved on, certain things always come back to mind, and one of the things I recall my mother always saying is to make sure that God is first in your consciousness. Even before she passed, I remember she said, "never put a piece of food in your mouth unless you give God thanks for it." She taught me to iron my clothes, cook for myself, and never touch a woman unless you do it lovingly.

That was powerful because when you become older and you're going through stages with your woman, even though somebody crazy tries to drive you there, my mother's words ring louder and restrain me from allowing someone to pull me out of my character. When I encounter those situations, I first say, "I'm not going there."

Yeah, absolutely. Najee; you sound so much like Frank McComb; I almost thought you guys were pranking me. (laughs) Yeah, we worked together. He's on my current album.

Which song is that? I recorded a song in Brazil called "Modern Lovers." Terri Lyne Carrington and Brenda Russell wrote it and recorded it in Brazil. Frank did an American vocal performance on it. He's an amazing musician and a wonderful person.

I saw him live; he is exceptionally talented! So, Najee, let's talk about your professional career. What was the first label you signed on to, and what label do you release your music under today? When you start making money, you become a professional. The first time I made money was when I was 15. We played in a Community Health Center in New York City. The New York City Department of Health was trying to promote condoms in our neighborhood. And they paid us around $25 a piece, which was a lot of money for a kid back then.

So, that's when I turned professional. But, throughout the years, I played in different bands in New York City. I went to College in Boston at New England Conservatory Music until I couldn't afford to go anymore.

Later, I toured with Chaka Khan in 1983, and in 1986 I signed my first record deal with EMI Records under Capitol Records. My first album, "Najee's Theme," went platinum in 1986. Following that success, we had four gold albums. And the rest was history.

Congratulations again! That's awesome! Who are some of the artists that you've played with? Thank you. I've played a lot of people, including Prince, Melba Moore, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Phyllis Hymen, Stanley Clark, Quincy Jones, and many others.

To date, how many albums have you released? It's somewhere around 18 or 19.

That's awesome! Do you also write and produce your music? I do. I've done less of that lately because I now work with many talented producers.

Do you have any endorsements or own your own instrument line? I used to have my own company called "Chaser Winds." We produced a "Najee Platinum Series Saxophone."

When Covid came, we had to let the company go because shipping merchandise became difficult. Because we manufactured in Asia, fulfilling orders on time became challenging. It became expensive to maintain. And I have endorsed other people's products but only try to do that if somebody comes with a significant check. (laughs)

Yeah, exactly. What is your favorite go-to sax? I usually switch between several brands, one being my own. I still play the Brannen Brothers' Flute. It's a 24-karat gold flute, but I don't take it out; I only use it on recordings.

You've won many awards. What are your most notable achievements? Everything I've done, I'm grateful for. Throughout my career, I've been nominated for Grammys and won a Soul Train Music Award for "Best Jazz Artist." I was nominated three times and won twice. I've won one NAACP award, but I was nominated three times. I have gold and platinum records all over my house.

And a multitude of Billboard hits. Yes, Six #1 Albums & Five #1 Singles on Billboard Charts.

Over the years, who are some of the most notable artists you've worked with? Prince, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, George, Duke, Al Jarreau, Yolanda Adams, and the list goes on.

Did you ever get a chance to work with Michael Jackson? I never worked with Michael Jackson, sorry to say.

Let's talk about your current album, "Savoir Faire." Yes, my recent album is called "Savoir Faire." The album features Frank McComb, Alyson Williams, Barry Eastmond, Mark Harris II, and Adam Hawley.

Awesome! When will it be released, and how can people purchase it? It's out now, and they can purchase it by visiting my official website at "Savoir Faire" is available on all digital online platforms.

Najee, thank you so kindly for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me regarding your musical journey and new projects. I pray for God's continual hand of blessings upon you and your family. I also pray that God will keep you safe through your travels. I want you to know that I'm incredibly proud of all your achievements, and I pray for the best for you in the future. Thank you, Gina.

You're so welcome! Have an excellent rest of your day! Thank you, Gina. Same for you! It's nice talking to you.

Thank you so much. God bless you. You too. Bye.

All Najee's photos are by: By Stephenson Photography & courtesy of Najee

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