In 1986, when so-called smooth jazz was in the making, one of the big hits came from a sax player who went by one name.
By JOE KLOPUS
The Kansas City Star
Against a backdrop of synthesizers, drums and a chorus, his sax played soulful lines that people could relate to but if you listened carefully, you could also hear some seriously jazzy elements straight out of the Charlie Parker playbook.
The player was Najee, the record was Najees Theme, and it was the beginning of a very successful run that hasnt ended. That long run brings him back to the Gem Theater on Saturday.
Najee plays his music, straddling the line between jazz and R&B, because hes a product of his time and place.
I have a strong R&B influence from the neighborhood I grew up in, he says.
Hes talking about Jamaica in Queens, N.Y. and he mentions that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Fats Waller and Count Basie had lived there, too.
As a teenager, he honed his skills in New Yorks Jazzmobile program.
Each weekend I could study with Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Billy Taylor, Ernie Wilkins. It was through those gentlemen that I learned about bebop and how to navigate through changes.
Then he headed for the New England Conservatory, where he learned from jazz innovators Jaki Byard and George Russell. But he reached a point in 1983 where personal finances didnt allow him to continue at the conservatory. He headed home for New York.
And heres where the luck comes in. Within two weeks, I was in a club band, playing straight-ahead jazz. And in walks Chaka Khans musical director, who asks me to try out for her band.
This is 1983, remember, and Khan was at the peak of her career. Najee toured with her for a year and a half.
After a while, he joined the band of another singer, Melisa Morgan. He mainly played keyboards with her. Then, Someone in the management company she was signed to heard me play sax. They said, Why dont you bring us some demos?
It wasnt too long before those demos led to Najees first record deal.
The record company wasnt sure what to do with me, he said. But a very popular soul singer of the time knew what to do. Freddie Jackson invited me to go on the road and open shows for him. Then I had my first gold album in three months.
That was the record with Najees Theme. A good string of hits followed, notably Tokyo Blue.
Dont get the idea that Najee has become an 80s nostalgia act. His current album, The Morning After: A Musical Love Journey, is seated at No. 1 on at least one smooth-jazz chart as this is written.
And maybe part of that success comes from his knowledge of the jazz heritage something that some others in the smooth-jazz idiom dont care to demonstrate.
His Kansas City show will have one outward sign of his respect for jazz tradition. He promises a tribute to his friend Ahmad Alaadeen, the KC local legend whose reputation Najee knew from inside circles, he says.
They met after a previous Najee show in Kansas City, and there was much mutual respect so much that during Alaadeens last illness, Najee flew into Kansas City to visit Alaadeens bedside.
Najee will take time during his Saturday show to perform some of Alaadeens tunes, with Kansas City guests joining the band.
The Najee show is part of the American Jazz Museums Jammin at the Gem series. But theres also a smooth jazz concert series getting underway in our town, and the first show is upon us.
Guitarist and composer Peter White, a Brit who made his first splash working with singer/songwriter Al Stewart in 1978 but has since branched out nicely, headlines a show at the Gem tonight.
White has some serious credentials Junior Walker and Grover Washington had hits with songs he wrote so this week is a serious feast for fans of smooth jazz. Whites show is at 8 tonight; tickets are $47 at ticketmaster.com.
The Smooth Grooves at the Gem series also offers Keiko Matsui on March 28, the Jeff Lorber Fusion on May 22 and Alex Bugnon on Sept. 27.
Ride with McBride
All this talk about smooth jazz bypasses the goings-on in the straight-ahead jazz community. And one of the highlights is another installment in the series of live 12th Street Jump concerts.
The public radio show originating in Kansas City is aiming high, booking talent from the world stages to appear with the usual cast of Kansas City players. This time, the guest of honor is Christian McBride, boss of bassists, wholl be part of a live session being recorded Tuesday. Youre invited to be part of it.
McBrides fluency on the big instrument is without parallel. He has been a fairly frequent guest on local stages the last few years. Hes the kind of player who elevates everybodys game.
The 12th Street Jump taping with McBride takes place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. Tickets are $13. For more infomation, call 816-235-6222 or go to 12thStreetJump.Wordpress.com.
• Take Five Coffee + Bar has just announced that its preparing to move to a new, bigger location, near 135th Street and Lamar Avenue. But that wont happen until summer, so for the time being well continue to enjoy the music at the original spot, 5336 W. 151st St. in Leawood.
Take Five will have a Valentines Day show with singer/bassist Bryan Hicks at 8 p.m. Friday. Trombonist Marcus Lewis, a Georgian with some influential Kansas City friends in Janelle Monae and Logan Richardson, fronts a quintet at 8 p.m. Saturday.
• The Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., has trumpeter Stan Kesslers Parallax band, with the powerful two-drum team of Ryan Lee and Brian Steever, at 7 tonight. Keyboardist Charles Williams presents the Valentines Day show at 8:30 p.m. Friday, and bassist James Wards band appears at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. The Jazz Disciples are in charge of the Monday jam at 7 p.m.
• Highlights at the Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., include the Foundation Big Band at 9 p.m. Tuesday and organist Ken Loverns trio at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
• Highlights at the Broadway Jazz Club, 3601 Broadway, include a Valentines Day early show with singer/saxophonist Eddie Charles at 6 p.m. Friday and a late show with singer Eboni Fondren at 9 p.m. Friday; and pianist Mark Lowreys group with singer Dionne Jeroue at 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
• The band Project H plays the next show on Jeff Harshbargers alternative jazz series at RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road, at 8 p.m. Sunday.