Smitty: Well, I must say that it’s certainly just a treat to have this next musician with us here at JazzMonthly.com. He’s one of the most melodic and soulful saxophone players in the business, with a sound that is both inspirational and totally identifiable to music fans around the world. His great new CD is called Rising Sun. Here to talk about this great record and his fantastic career, please welcome the incredible and amazing Najee. How ya doin’, man?
Najee: I’m doing good, thank you, thank you.
Najee: You make me feel so special.
Smitty: Oh, man, you’re a special cat. Come on!
Najee: Oh, well, thank you, thank you so much.
Smitty: When we think about what you’ve accomplished over the years with this great music that you have produced, it is a special treat for fans around the world, and I’m a fan. (Laughs.)
Najee: Oh, well, thank you, okay. I appreciate it.
Smitty: Absolutely. You’re a two-time Grammy nominee, you have toured and jammed with some of the best in the business, you’ve had a stellar career. How did you get mixed up in this business, having so much fun? Talk about those early days. You grew up in New York, right?
Najee: Yes, I grew up in New York City.
Smitty: Yeah, and you started out with the clarinet?
Najee: That’s right. As a youngster I started out playing clarinet, but my love was always the saxophone, so when the opportunity came in junior high school, I decided to play saxophone and put away the clarinet, and then eventually that led to playing the flute and bringing me where I am today.
Smitty: Okay, was the saxophone because of the girls or what? (Both laugh.)
Najee: Well, you know what? It didn’t start out that way. I mean, I just loved the sound of the horn, the way great players played it. I mean, I was exposed to many different styles as a kid. My mother, she loved the sound of the instrument plus trumpet and she loved jazz, so she had records of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, with George Coleman playing tenor saxophone. She was just a fan of the instrument. And as a kid, I will never forget, in elementary school this guy came into my school and played a song that I remember hearing on the radio called “Desafinado,” it was a Stan Getz song and I didn’t know the name of it back then, but I knew the melody when he played it and I was so amazed that he could play something that I heard on the radio, and that sparked my interest from there on.
Smitty: And you had some help with your brother too. I mean, your brother was inspirational to you continuing your career as well.
Najee: Oh, absolutely. You know, he’s been right there with me the whole time. He’s a guitar player. We both came up in the industry together. We both played with Chaka Khan in the early eighties and we’d been through the neighborhood bands in New York in Queens, so he’s been there right along, and as a matter of fact, he produced my most successful albums up until this point. Now he’s involved in so many other things, he didn’t have time to even contribute on the record this time, you know?
Smitty: Yeah, that’s how it is, man, you know? (Both laugh.)
Najee: Yeah, I know.
Smitty: And I’ve got to ask you about studying under the direction of Jimmy Heath and Frank Foster and Billy Taylor.
Najee: Oh, yes.
Smitty: I mean, these are legends, man.
Najee: Oh, yes.
Smitty: You know, how blessed you have been.
Najee: I was, you know? And how it all started, when I was in high school, I went to a school called August Martin High School in Queens, which was an aviation school, actually, but we had a great music department and Billy Taylor, the jazz pianist Billy Taylor, was invited to come and perform at our school to recruit some of the music students to join Jazzmobile, and before I even understood who these gentlemen were, I wanted to go study up at Jazzmobile because Billy Taylor came with Frank Wes on the alto saxophone I remember.
Najee: And I had the pleasure of going up on Saturdays. Myself and a few of my colleagues, we would travel on the subway train to Harlem, where Jimmy Heath and Frank Foster, Frank Wes, they taught classes, like master classes on jazz composition, jazz theory, technique of the instruments of both saxophone and flute, and actually my advancement on flute I have to say in the jazz was as a result of my association with Jimmy Heath.
Smitty: That’s incredible. Wow.
Smitty: Now, you mentioned earlier that you toured with Chaka Khan along with Fareed.
Smitty: Man, how did that happen? I mean, how does a person get a gig with Chaka Khan? (Both laugh.)
Najee: Man, you know what? I tell you, it was just all the planets and that’s just the way my career has always been. The planets just aligning up the right way, you know? I actually had left Boston. We had gone to school in Boston at this school called the New England Conservatory of Music and we had a really hard time in Boston because we didn’t have much money and we didn’t have parents that could afford to send us there, so we had to kind of figure it out on our own, and my brother had moved back to New York and began doing a lot of session work, so I began coming back to New York on the weekends to try to see if I can get gigs and he would find session work for me. And one evening I just happened to go into a club and sit in, just playing some straight ahead with some of the guys in the neighborhood, and her musical director, Lesette Wilson, who I grew up with, was her keyboard player and musical director, and we hadn’t touched base in a long time and we were in there playing, and then about two days later I get a call saying “Listen, Chaka wants you to try out in the horn section. If you can read the charts, I’m sure I can get you on the gig.” And of course I could read the charts, so that’s how it happened, and with my brother, he just happened to come to the rehearsal that Tony Maiden didn’t show up at and Chaka hired him on the spot and told him to plug in his guitar, so Tony wasn’t too happy when he came back and saw somebody in his seat and he had to share the bill with him, you know? (Laughs.)
Najee: That’s how it happened for us. It was as simple as that.
Smitty: Well, you reminded me of something that Bob James told me once. He said musicians that make it in this business are the ones that are always stay sharp, prepared and ready.
Najee: That is so true.