TSJR’s Featured Smooth Jazz Artist
A profile of our selected smooth jazz artist of the month
Each month, we will profile a smooth jazz artist we feel has made a great contribution to the music universe we have come to know and love as smooth or contemporary jazz. This month, we throw our spotlight on…
Boney James – The Charismatic “Horn of Plenty”
Boney James is a solid saxophonist whose style is the quintessence of a well-polished, solid mix of R&B and jazz. As a saxophonist, song writer and producer, James is one of the most successful instrumental artists of our time with sales totaling over 3 million records. He is known for wearing his trademark hat that I believe gives him that extra swagger he possesses.
One thing to note for smooth jazz lovers is that Boney James dislikes labels and refuses any and all of them. “In fact, I have never thought of myself as a ‘jazz’ artist specifically,” he says. With that said, we still classify him as the quintessential funky jazz master we have musically cherished and claimed as our own throughout the years.
James was born James Oppenheim on September 1, 1961, in Lowell, MA and raised in New Rochelle, NY. When he was eight, he took up the clarinet and switched to the saxophone when he was ten. James was an avid Motown fan which has contributed to his soulful R&B style. He was influenced by greats like Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire and the late iconic saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.
In 1975, his family moved to Los Angeles, CA. At 19, while earning a history degree at UCLA, he started playing in a fusion band named Line One. James said, “That was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. We opened for groups like Kitty Hawk, Flora Purim and Airto and the Yellowjackets. We basically (were no good), I’m sure, but we had fun.”
In 1985, James auditioned for Morris Day’s band as a keyboardist and got the gig the same day. Eventually, James started playing the saxophone, and this was the start of a 7-year stint as a sideman. In the meantime, he was making demo tapes in his home studio in hopes of establishing a solo career and later found himself in the position of an in-demand guest musician on tenor sax, alto sax, soprano sax, and flute, playing with Randy Crawford, The Isley Brothers, Bobby Caldwell, Teena Marie, and others.
James earned his nickname while on tour with Crawford. After mentioning to keyboardist Wayne Linsey that he was running out of food money, Linsey replied that, if he ate any less, he would have to be called Boney James. Obviously, the name stuck, and the rest is history.
While James was on the road in Japan with multi-instrumentalist Bobby Caldwell, the big chance came. Caldwell’s engineer/mixer & producer, Paul Brown who had also produced albums for guitarist Marcos Loya and saxophonist Sam Riney, began to show an interest. “And one day, he called me and asked if I wanted to do a record,” James said. “The next thing I knew, I was in the studio cutting these songs.”
The result was Trust, released by Spindletop Records in 1992, an album that got substantial radio play and worked its way onto the Top 40 Billboard.
In 1994, James was signed by Warner Bros. where he recorded albums including Backbone (1994), Seduction (1995), Boney’s Funky Christmas (1996), Sweet Thing (1997), Sweet Thing/It’s All Good (1998), Body Language (1999), Shake It Up (2000), Ride (2001), and Pure (2004).
In 2006, James made the move to Concord Records and released Shine (2006), Christmas Present (2007) and Send One Your Love (2009). In 2011, he moved to Verve Forecast and released Contact (2011), and, in 2012, he moved back to Concord Records to release his latest CD, The Beat (2013).
On May 15, 2010, on the 405 freeway in Long Beach, CA, on his way home from an appearance at the Hyatt Regency Newport Jazz Festival, James was rear-ended by a drunk driver. The accident totaled James’ car and left him with a fractured jaw, two broken teeth, and a gash on his chin that could have ended his musical career. It took six weeks for him to recuperate and start playing again. Obviously, he wasn’t going to let anything disrupt his passion of playing his sax, and we are so glad he persevered.
The album Contact is an album whose title refers to the profound effect the accident had on his life and career. “After the accident, music itself has become such a wonderful thing, since I realized I could play again,” says James. “I think my playing has a little more energy to it. People have said that they feel there is an extra passion added to my playing. I guess that’s some of the gratitude at being able to still do it.”
As mentioned earlier, in the early spring of 2013, he released The Beat, an album that combined his love of R&B and Latin music. The set included guest appearances from Raheem DeVaughn and The Floacist. “This record was born of my love for both Latin and R&B music and became a mash-up of the two genres. The initial inspiration for the record was Sergio Mendes’ “Batucada (The Beat),” which I re-imagined as a funk tune.” “Batucada (The Beat)” reunites Boney with trumpet great Rick Braun. “Rick and I have a wonderful history. There is a certain edge and energy that comes out when we play together that creates a really cool vibe.”
James, who has accumulated four RIAA Certified Gold albums, three Grammy® nominations, a Soul Train Award winner (Best Jazz Album) and an NAACP Image Award nomination for Best Jazz Album to his credit, says, “I am just a saxophone player whose music has several different influences. Jazz is only one of them.” In fact, in 2010, Billboard Magazine named him “The No. 3 Top Contemporary Jazz Artist of the Decade.” To date, nine of James’ albums have reached No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart and two have reached the top 10 on the R&B Albums Chart, a worthy accomplishment for such a humble saxman.
James resides in Los Angeles with his wife, award winning actress-filmmaker Lily Mariye (best known as Nurse Lily Jarvik on TV’s ER for 15 seasons). In fact, James contributed the original score to her 2012 feature film directorial debut, “Model Minority.”
I’d like to take this moment to invite you to visit the Smooth Conversations page on this site and listen to Ron & Aira as they chatted with the saxman extraordinaire. The conversation was on April 30, 2013. You won’t be disappointed.
James embodies the phrase, “horn of plenty.” He has an inexhaustible talent of reinventing himself through the plethora of genres he mixes in his music. Without a doubt, Boney James is definitely one of the pillars of contemporary jazz in the 21st century. – Rene Sutton