Interview recorded January 10, 2012
On the eve of the release of his new album, THE SMOOTH SIDE OF SOUL, sax and flute legend Najee reflects back on his role as one of the pioneers of smooth urban jazz. He reveals how R&B fans propelled his career, what he learned most from touring with the likes of Chaka Khan and Prince and why he's not offended that jazz purists don't embrace his music. He also shares with Darnell Meyers-Johnson the person he would most like to work with and his future plans to record a traditional jazz album...
Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m about to speak with one of the masters of smooth urban jazz. You’ve been familiar with his stylings on the sax and the flute since he stepped on the scene in the eighties. He’s about to release an album called THE SMOOTH SIDE OF SOUL. Today I am speaking with Mr. Najee. How are you, sir?
Najee: I’m doing well, Darnell. How you doing?
DMJ: I’m good, man.
DMJ: I just want to say from the onset we appreciate your time, and we’re excited to speak with you.
N: Thank you; so am I. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
DMJ: Any time. We first became aware of you in ’86, when your first album came out, but it seems we still don’t know a lot about you as a person. So I’m going to start with some getting-to-know-you-type questions, if that’s okay?
N: Sure, absolutely.
DMJ: So first, for the record, what is your full name?
N: Well, everybody knows me as Najee, but I try not to… not that it’s really a secret, but I just hate putting it all out there that way. I like keeping the mystery a little bit. [Laughs] Yes, sir.
DMJ: So were you always known as Najee growing up, or did you adopt that for professional purposes?
N: Pretty much. It’s my middle name, actually. But really to be honest with you I didn’t start using it as a one-name thing until probably… I believe it was maybe my first recording. Actually, it was with Meli'sa Morgan after Chaka Khan, on her album.
DMJ: Oh, okay.
N: Yeah, I started doing that. And when my first album came out, that’s how everyone was using the one-name thing—Sade, Kashif, Kenny G—everybody was shortening everything, and it was just an easier brand, if you will.
DMJ: I got it, I got it. Some of the ladies may still want to know: are you married, do you have kids?
N: Oh yes, I do. My children are grown.
DMJ: We know that your brother Fareed is a guitarist and you guys started out together, and he’s worked on a lot of your albums. Do you have any other brothers or sisters?
N: Yes I do, but none of them went into the music industry with the exception of one sister, who did go to college for music but she hasn’t pursued it as a fulltime career.
My brother and I, we both were just kids that grew up in New York City playing in local bands, and that evolved into touring with some of the main acts in the mid-eighties, Chaka Khan being the one that we worked with together on the Ain’t Nobody tour. He went on then to do the Don’t Stop tour with Jeffrey Osborne. And that’s pretty much it. The two of us are the ones that kept the flame going, if you will.
DMJ: And I was going to ask you about Chaka in particular in just a moment. But I wanted to ask you first about what your high-school years were like for you, because if I understand, that’s where you initially got seriously interested in music. Am I correct?
N: Yes, that’s very true. Well actually, I went to school for aviation to become a pilot; I went to a school called August Martin High School in Jamaica, Queens, New York. But they had a really strong music department, and I was in a jazz band in school and ended up becoming the lead tenor saxophone player.
And one instance where we were doing a concert, I stood up to take my tenor saxophone solo and all the girls knew my name from that point on. So I had a quick career change [laughs]. True story. I became a celebrity overnight, basically.
DMJ: Prior to that were you interested at all in music in terms of playing anything?
N: Oh yes, absolutely. It was an activity that I did; particularly, it was our activity outside school that we did for fun. When we were coming up, the extracurricular activities that we had were bands in my community. You’d either go into basketball or some sport or something, or you were into playing music. Or if you were not into those constructive things, maybe you were doing destructive things like being in a gang. But I was never a gang-type of guy, so music was pretty much my activity—my main focus outside of school.
DMJ: And why did you decide to focus on the sax and the flute and not, say, guitar like your brother?
N: I think I really have to credit my mother with that appetite for the instrument. She was very fond of the saxophone sound, so growing up I remember hearing records with saxophone players like Mongo Santamaria, who always had great saxophone players; Miles Davis with George Colman and John Coltrane. She loved Junior Walker on the pop side.
And as a kid, I just fell in love with the sound. And even as a child I would pretend I was playing the saxophone: I would always take her curtain rods—she would have extra curtain rods—and I’d bend them up like the shape of a horn and act like I was playing in a band. And I think eventually she saw that I had an appetite for it, so she went and bought me an alto saxophone. One day she just came home with one.
DMJ: And the rest is history, basically.
DMJ: You mentioned just a couple of moments ago about the tour with Chaka Khan, and that happened before you began your career as a recording artist. How did that gig come about? I know both you and your brother were on that tour.
N: Yes. Well, we were both enrolled in college up in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music, but it got to a point where we couldn’t afford to go anymore, so we decided to come back to New York City.
And fortunately my brother was doing a lot of record session work at the time, and every time he would get an opportunity to mention someone using a sax player he would recommend me. Well, one of these times I went back and I was sitting in a club just playing what we call straight-ahead music—traditional jazz music—and the musical director for Chaka happened to come in and see me. Now I knew her; her name was Lisette Wilson. And within about maybe a day or two later she called me asking me if I wanted to audition for the band, and I did.
And my brother, who happened to just come to the rehearsal that Tony Maiden, who was the guitar player with Rufus, didn’t show up at—we were rehearsing in New York and he missed his flight from L.A. or something. And my brother happened to have his guitar; and Chaka came, saw him with the guitar and said, “Plug up.” He plugged up and he got the gig right there on the spot, and there began our association with her.
DMJ: Right place at the right time.
N: Right there at the right time. And I gotta say, it was probably a major, major turning point for us in our careers as young kids just freshly out of college trying to figure out how we were going to make a living, and Chaka gave us the opportunity to at least see what it was like in her world at that time.
DMJ: And what did you most learn from that experience?
N: I would have to say the thing I took away from being with her is she loved the people that worked for her, particularly the band. She took care of them. She was almost like very protective of how the band was treated on the road. I remember that we had a road manager that didn’t treat the band very well; didn’t have much respect for us. And my brother and I, for whatever reasons, were the designated spokespeople for the band to talk to Chaka. We brought it to Chaka’s attention and I’ll never forget: we were in New Orleans, down in the quarter staying in some hotel, and we were summoned to Chaka’s room with the road manager.
We aired the band’s complaints and concerns and Chaka just almost immediately fired the road manager and started yelling at her, talking about “My band shouldn’t be treated like this! I’ve been a musician on the road all my life and blah-blah-blah and you need to treat them…” I took that away with me to heart, because she really tried her best to make sure we were always taken care of. I loved her for that.
DMJ: And I was going to say, probably because of her extensive touring history back in the day with Rufus and all of that, she probably saw a lot of things going on.
N: Oh yeah… oh yeah. So here we were; we were basically kids, and we were like, “Wow, yeah! She’s on our side.”
DMJ: Now at that same time Meli'sa Morgan was singing backup for Chaka.
N: That’s right.
DMJ: And I’m not sure… you can tell me how it happened, but you ended up with Charles Huggins and Hush Productions and all of that led to the release of your first album. How did that come together? Because I know that Meli'sa was part of that Hush Productions camp too.
N: She was. She was in the band too, as you said, as a background singer. And her first album, DO ME BABY, she recorded that and asked me to play on the record. We had become friends on the Chaka tour, all of us. So I went in and played saxophone. And at the time in New York there was a club called The Cellar, and I was playing with a band called Flique. This band was actually the members of the group Change. I don’t know if you remember Change?
N: But all the original members of Change were called Flique and we would play in this club, and I was in there playing as a keyboard player. Well, when Meli'sa did her first album I played on there, and Charles Huggins—who was very familiar with the band and used to come and hang out at The Cellar, he and Melba Moore—had only seen me playing keyboards. So when he heard the sax solo he said, “Man, I didn’t know you played sax like that.” I said, “Yeah. Well, really I’m a sax player. I play keyboards just to keep working.” He said, “You know, I’m thinking about signing a jazz artist. Why don’t you bring me some demos?” And so I did.
They weren’t very good demos, but I brought it to him anyway, and he called me up a week later saying he had a record deal on Capitol /EMI Records. And that’s how it all happened. And then from there… he had Freddie Jackson at the time, who was really doing major, major arenas—like ten thousand seat arenas at the time. When the album came out I don’t think there was much expectation for a successful record in that record chain.
Charles in his brilliant thinking said, “We’re going to talk to Freddie and see if we can you to open for him.” And thereby, NAJEE'S THEME I think was gold within a matter of three or four months.
DMJ: And I was going to mention Freddie Jackson, because as you just said, that was what some people considered the peak of his career at that time. Besides launching your recording career, so to speak, what was it like being on the road with him?
N: Oh, it was great, man. If you know Freddie, he’s a very easy guy to be around—really nice guy. And I had the opportunity to play on at least two of his records—maybe three, actually—before I had signed my record deal. So I went out on the Tasty Love tour—that was the tour I remember. And he was always very kind to me.
Now when I went out there, I remember I only had fifteen minutes a night to make my impression. So I would go out there, right before Ray, Goodman and Brown would come on, and I would play fifteen minutes. And I’ll never forget showing up at the first music theatre on the tour. It was somewhere in Milwaukee… I forget the name of the theater there. But I remember getting to the theater the very first night and they didn’t even know who I was. They called me Ninja Man: Freddie Jackson, Ray, Goodman and Brown and Ninja Man [laughs].
DMJ: Ninja Man.
N: True story... I think I might even have a picture of that. But within a couple of weeks that all changed.
DMJ: Then everybody knew what your real name was.
N: Oh, yeah.
DMJ: One of my favourite albums by you is TOKYO BLUE from 1990 and one of my favourite songs from that album is “I’ll Be Good to You”, which featured Vesta Williams on vocals. As you know, we lost her suddenly back in September and it was recently confirmed that it was due to heart-related issues. What do you remember most about working with her?
N: Well, I hope you have a little time because I have actually two stories here with her.
DMJ: Go ahead.
N: Actually maybe three, but one was when we first did that record, she had a manager at the time… and the way it works is when you hire someone to do a session you pay their management or whoever they designate to collect the finances. Well, we paid her.
And then recently, maybe about five years ago, I was in L.A. at the Capitol building doing a Christmas special with Will Downing, and I was one of the artists along with Vesta and a few other people who performed on this TV special he was doing.
And when I saw Vesta, she was like apologizing to me. She was saying, “Najee, I gotta really apologize to you. I’m so sorry.” I said, “What are you apologizing for, Vesta?” She was like, “You know, I was on the radio telling people that I did this record with you and that you never paid me.” I was like, “Well, Vesta… come on.” She said, “Oh, no, no, I know now that you paid the manager and all that and I just didn’t get the money, but I had gone on the air telling people that you just didn’t pay me.”
I said, “Well, sis, I don’t like it, but I forgive you for it.” And that was the last time we saw each other. It’s so funny, because for me, she resolved an issue with me and now she’s not here. But I am at least one person who can be a witness and say, “She made her resolution with someone.”
DMJ: And you said you maybe had another story you would like to share?
N: Oh, yeah. Well, when TOKYO BLUE came out…
DMJ: Let me just say before you start, the reason why I’m asking you is because you may not know, but Vesta’s one of our favourites here on the site and the site’s founder, David Nathan, who I think you also know—
N: Yeah, David—please give him my best.
DMJ: I will do.
N: Matter of fact, I saw him on Unsung last night. I was going through On Demand TV, and I saw the Phyllis Hyman special and I saw him. So please give him my best.
DMJ: Right, and he wanted me to say hello to you as well. And he knew Vesta as well, as you probably know. So here at the site, we’re fans of hers, and that’s why if you have another story to share we’d be more than glad to hear it.
N: Oh, I would love to. This one is a good one. As you know, my first three albums had gone gold at that point… I think two had gone platinum, and TOKYO BLUE was beginning to go gold. And this was during the time of Arsenio Hall. My management was having a problem with Paramount Studios at the time and what ended up happening was Arsenio Hall was not allowing any of his acts, which included me, to perform on the show.
Well, one day Arsenio Hall’s people get a call from EMI saying, “Why are you taking this out on Najee? He’s a successful artist here, he has nothing to do with this problem you have with his management,” and all that. So Arsenio says, “Well, I will take Najee on a show only if he brings Vesta.” We get on the show and he allows her to sit down on the couch—he doesn’t allow me to sit on the couch, even though the song that we performed was my song on my album.
However… and much to his credit—much to his credit—that began our relationship, once he got to meet me personally. And he invited me back on the show at least five times past that time. So I have to say he resolved that with me, but it was because of her we got on Arsenio Hall. I got much love for Arsenio; I do.
DMJ: I recently chatted with Kim Waters, and like him you’ve also been very prolific in your career. What do you attribute to your longevity?
N: Honestly, I think it has to do with how I started. I was fortunate: before we had what is now called the smooth jazz industry, the format we depended on was the R&B stations. I really think my first records were really soul records with the saxophone—instrumental soul records. The industry called it jazz or smooth jazz later on, but my connection was really to the R&B audience that bought records back then that were the same fans that Freddie was appealing to. Those were the people that I was recording to, and I was fortunate enough to gain a base audience that has followed and grown with me over the years.
Even when I may not have had a lot of radio play or videos or whatever, that audience has stuck with me, anticipating whatever it was that I would be releasing next. And so that’s probably attributed, I think those first initial years.
And plus, in the very beginning we had a lot more going on in terms of videos and TV access. When I first started I was on Good Morning America, I was on The Tonight Show, I was in USA Today… so there was a lot more of that kind of press, and radio in particular were a lot more acceptable to playing instrumentalists, particularly in the quiet storm formats.
DMJ: I was going to ask you about that too, because in my conversation with Kim Waters I mentioned that he too was around before the smooth jazz formats existed on radio, and I wanted to get his impression about why he thought R&B radio embraced him so early on in his career. And as I was preparing for my chat with you, it was basically the same thing with you: R&B radio seemed to embrace you right away in your career.
N: Exactly, yes. So I’m very grateful for that, because I don’t know if we would have had the same success with the same formula much later on with the current format as it exists now in a different day.
DMJ: While you were still in high school you were trained by some tried-and-true jazz legends. Do you think that your music, or smooth urban jazz in general, has been accepted by diehard jazz fans?
N: No, I don’t. I think there are the people that I would say are a little purist in some ways, and I understand that—I come from that world; I understand the mentality very well and I’m not offended by that. Because I do understand the nature of that music and the standards that they look to, and I think anything that doesn’t really fit within that particular genre that way, they look at it as probably "poppish," or leaning more towards a commercial audience, if you will. And honestly I make no apologies for that, because the era I came up in is different from the era of the sixties where Trane came up in, you know what I mean? And I comfortably like to perform that music when I can. I love that music. And I don’t know if you know or not, but I did put one straight-ahead song on the record this time around.
DMJ: Yeah, I was going to ask you about some of the standout tracks on the album. So let’s just go ahead and talk about the new album: it’s called THE SMOOTH SIDE OF SOUL. This is album number what for you, because I lost count?
N: Me too, man. I think it’s fourteen, maybe.
I think it’s fourteen, but I’m not really sure about that because I’m like you; I lost count. I know there’s a couple of remake albums out there like Love Songs, which are really a collection of older things, and the Best of Najee—that kind of thing. But somewhere around fourteen, I believe.
DMJ: Is this classic Najee, or what you would consider to be your classic sound? Or can your longtime fans expect something a little bit different this time around?
N: Well, I think it’s classic Najee in the sense that it’s my voice—I don’t lie about who I am that way. I am who I am… I’ve become comfortable with who I am, if you will, over the years as an artist in that vein. But there are fresh energies in there. We did what I like to think of as a throwback song, the one I have done with Phil Perry called “Just to Fall in Love”, which is four-on-the-floor-type thing which is kind of reminiscent of disco days, if you will.
DMJ: I was going to ask you about that too, because that’s the lead single, right?
N: Yes, that is the new single, and I’m playing flute on there. When I was young, my first recording—I think I was about fifteen, sixteen years old—was with a group called Obatala, which was on a label called TK Disco back in the day. They invited me to come in and play; they wanted a flute player and I went in and played flute on that.
And I’ll never forget going in a disco one night and hearing the song, I was so excited. And when I was presented this track by Will Downing and Phil Perry I was like, “Man, I got to put my flute on this thing, take it back.” And that’s what I did.
DMJ: So how did that song come together—Phil Perry and everybody—how did that happen?
N: Quite naturally. You know there’s a brilliant keyboard player/songwriter named Chris—we call him Big Dog—Davis. He actually had this song and he had done it with Will—I believe it was for Will: he and Phil Perry and Will wrote it together. And either Will or Phil was supposed to do it, and they didn’t use it on their records. And when I heard it I was like, “Hey, man, this is perfect.” And actually Phil had already sang the lead on there, so I just went in and put my flute and my saxophones on there, and it came together very easily.
DMJ: Tell me about the video, because I saw that and that was very nice as well.
N: Oh, yeah. Oh man, that was a lot of fun. We did it in L.A., and the video director knew Vanessa Bell Calloway very well. She had just completed a new movie with him and he said, “Listen, man, I think I can get Vanessa to come in and be your love interest in the video, if you’re interested.” I was like, “If I’m interested? Are you kidding? Of course!”
She came in there and she’s funny, as you could imagine, and just a wonderful sprit to be around. So we just had a great time that whole day. We didn’t feel like we were working the whole time, to be honest with you, we had so much fun.
DMJ: Yes, it’s a feel-good video when you’re watching it.
DMJ: I was going to ask you just to mention some of the standout tracks on the album, to kind of give our audience a little preview, if you will, of what’s there.
N: Sure. There’s one called “Fu Fu She She”, which is just really a fun song. I’m playing alto saxophone on there. When I heard the track I was like, “You know what? This makes me think of a character-type song, the kind of element you see in people who just enjoy the fu-fu she-she things”… myself included, I’m a Starbucks drinker—I like all that stuff.
DMJ: Are you a coffee snob?
N: Yeah, man, I gotta have my thing every morning and I gotta be honest with you, it’s gotta be a certain way. So that’s a fu-fu she-she thing, if you want to call it that. So that’s basically it.
DMJ: Oh, man… sorry to call you a snob, that didn’t sound polite. But yeah, people are serious about their coffee, man.
N: Oh, man.
DMJ: One of the other things I was going to ask you about: Phil Perry and some of the other people you’ve already mentioned; throughout your career, whether it’s been onstage or in the studio, you have worked with some amazing vocalists: we talked about Vesta, you mentioned Will Downing. Are there any favourites that you liked working with or still like working with today?
N: Yeah, honestly there hasn’t been anyone I’ve worked with that I haven’t… I have a policy, I really don’t work with people I just don’t like. Our last album, we had Eric Benet on one track—that was a fun track. Let me see… I’ve had the pleasure of having Jeffrey Osborne on one song, I think it was the JUST AN ILLUSION CD. Who else… Caron Wheeler from the group Soul II Soul was on one CD with me. Who else? We had Bebe Winans on one album, I can’t remember which album it was now… I want to say it’s maybe EMBRACE. So I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of great vocalists.
DMJ: So is there anybody on your wish list that you haven’t been with yet, in terms of vocalists, that you would like to work with?
N: Absolutely. How about Sade? Man, that would be a dream come true for me. Yeah, I would love to work with her as a vocalist. Or what would be nice, if we could find the right song and she was really interested, would be Chaka. I think it would be great to do something with her.
DMJ: In my head, and I don’t know if you’ve worked with her or not, but I could hear you and Dianne Reeves doing something together. Have you ever worked with her?
N: I have. We toured together, actually, several years in a row… I want to say it was the late nineties. She and I toured together as a package: she and I, and George Duke and Jonathan Butler and Will Downing, at one point. There would be different combinations, but she and I did a lot of work back in the late nineties together.
DMJ: Wow, nice lineup.
N: Oh, yeah.
DMJ: In the early 2000’s you toured with another one of our favourites here at the site: Prince. Everybody loves Prince. I was going to ask you how that gig came about, but actually, I’m more curious to know, again, as I asked you with the Chaka situation, what did you learn from Prince?
N: Oh, man… where do I start with him? He was a lot bottled up in one person, I tell you. He has to be, probably, for me, the best of the best in terms of not only as an artist but as a businessman in the industry—one of the most brilliant minds I ever met, just the way he’s able to market himself directly to his audience. I would watch how we would show up in a town, and within a few hours he could sell out an arena—twenty thousand seats, easy—ten to twenty thousand seats.
And I spent a lot of time talking with him, so I learned a lot about the business, particularly how the business works. And he was very instrumental, actually, in helping me get out of an abusive deal I was in at the time.
During the time I was touring with him I hadn’t recorded for five years. So I toured with him for three years, then for five years I didn’t put out any albums. But he was a great help in helping me resolve a lot of this stuff.
DMJ: Well, let me just ask you this, because you’re with Shanachie Entertainment, right? This is your first album with them?
DMJ: How did that come about, that deal?
N: Well, honestly I’ve known Shanachie for many years. I’ve always thought they did a great job with the artists they had on their roster: Kim Waters, Maysa—who we worked with quite a bit, and Kim Waters and I talk all the time—Walter Beasley, he’s another one. I think they’ve been watching me for a long time based on just being in the industry together, and we’ve talked in the past about doing things together. But at the time my commitments were elsewhere so I wasn’t really able to entertain it.
But I’m finally happy that we’re able to do something together because I’ve always enjoyed watching how they make sure the public knows what the artist is doing.
DMJ: Yeah, because if the public doesn’t know then it’s kind of like your own personal vanity project.
N: Exactly. You are so absolutely right about that.
DMJ: So let’s put the word out. When is the album coming out, THE SMOOTH SIDE OF SOUL?
N: January 31st it’ll be out, and I’m so excited about it. We’re looking to put together some tour dates and have some fun.
DMJ: And where can fans get that tour information, on your website?
N: At the website. We’re actually getting ready to reconstruct the website, but it’s called najeemusic.com.
DMJ: And are you on those other social networks, Facebook and Twitter?
N: Yes, let me see… Facebook is Facebook slash Najee music. Or is it…? Let me think about that. Oh! Facebook slash contact Najee—Facebook dot com slash contact Najee, that’s it.
DMJ: And what’s your Twitter?
N: You know what? I don’t have a Twitter account. I’m sorry to say that, I’m going to start one now that you’ve brought that up, because I’ve been thinking… I’m going to start one right away.
DMJ: Don’t feel bad, because I have one but I don’t use it as much as I probably should. So don’t feel bad. Before we go I want to ask you this one last question.
DMJ: You performed for Nelson Mandela; you’ve been to the White House. You’ve been on concert stages all over the place with some of the best in R&B and jazz. You have a truckload of albums to your credit. What’s next for you to conquer? What is it that you still want to do that you haven’t done yet?
N: There’s some specialized projects that I would like to do. I’m secretly recording a traditional jazz album.
DMJ: I guess it’s not a secret anymore now.
N: There you go, right! Well, just meaning that I haven’t made an official announcement about it. But I started that project. And I think I want to do an all-flute album. I get a lot of emails throughout the year from people who are interested in hearing me do something with just flute. I think it’s about time to do that.
DMJ: Okay, so we’ll look forward to those. We’ll wrap it up there, sir. I do appreciate your time.
N: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.
DMJ: I wish you much success with the new album. Fans can pick that up on January 31st. And anytime that you have anything going on, when these other albums come out, if you want to come through our doors at SoulMusic.com we’ll be more than happy to share that information with our public.
N: Thank you so much, I really appreciate your time.
DMJ: All right, man. Be blessed.
N: Okay, you too. Thank you.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.