How I stopped being a jazz singer and started loving myself.
The artist explains.
“The result of the black-pop continuum, jazz and soul and hip-hop and R&B, slow-cooked for more than 50 years.”
(I’m actually only 39 so that’s technically impossible, but thanks guys!)
I have made a career out of experimentation, freely embracing or discarding sounds, traditions and expectations. I learned from jazz legends like Junior Mance, Chico Hamilton and McCoy Tyner and then branched out to work with artists as diverse as Flying Lotus, Goldie and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Now, a decade after my debut album “The Dreamer” was released people are wondering, “Who is the real José James?”
Here’s the truth: It’s me. It’s all me. Everything that I’ve written, sung, recorded, produced and conceived is from me. No one put a gun to my head or a piece of paper in front of me and said, “Son, this’ll make you famous,” or, “Do this OR ELSE!”
I’m very happy with my work. Honest. I’m turning 40 next month (woo-hoo!!) and if I died tomorrow (God forbid!) then I would die being happy with my output, with my legacy. 7 albums in 10 years, that’s not bad. The Dreamer. BLACKMAGIC. For All We Know. No Beginning No End. While You Were Sleeping. Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday. Love in a Time of Madness.
I know you might have your favorites. I have mine, too. While You Were Sleeping is the closest to my heart. That was the most “José James” you’re gonna get. I produced, conceived and wrote that album along with a genius all-star cast and I’m proud of that one. Yes, it was moody. Yes, it’s kind of dark. I needed an outlet from the hell of going through a divorce and that’s what came out.
In 2011 I decided to take artistic control of my life. I had no label, no management, no idea of home. I had lived as an adult in both London and New York and the only home I knew was the road. My life is the stage. I invested my savings in a session with Pino Palladino, Chris Dave and Robert Glasper. With Russ Elevado engineering. Bad boiz. We recorded at the now defunct Magic Shop NYC (RIP!!!!! All cozy condos now!! Wow, gentrification is ruining NY, London and every culture mecca the world has. But I digress).I also did a session with the amazing Hindi Zahra in Paris, again on my own dime, without a label.
I took the mixes to Don Was, the new president of Blue Note Records, and I became his first signee (thanks, Don!). It was and is an honor to be on such a legendary music label. I went straight back into the studio, this time working with producer Brian Bender to create my first Blue Note album, “No Beginning No End.”
This was 2011 still. I was so happy and in love it was disgusting. That’s what you hear in songs like “Come to My Door,” “Trouble” and “Do You Feel.” Pure optimism. I know that’s why my fans want me to keep making albums like that. Everyone does. I want Obama back in the White House and the UK to have voted “remain,” but life moves on. I moved on. We all moved on. There was no way, no possibility, no chance that I would be able to make that album again. It was a moment, an artistic moment. A beautiful moment, and I cherish that moment, but that moment is gone.
Still with me? This is the un-fun part, the bad stuff, the mess that no one talks about unless you’re famous and you go on Oprah. I’m not famous and I didn’t go on Oprah. Instead I went through one of the most painful experiences a human being can have, my divorce. I’m getting over it now 4 years later, thus the explanation. I can’t go back y’all, but you deserve to know why.
At some point in my career, I became known for my blend of jazz, R&B and hip-hop. I enjoyed the press and the love. “The return of jazz.” All that shit. I even coined the description “The jazz singer for the hip-hop generation.” I was that. I was. But I’m not anymore.
A lot of things happened, some simple, some complex. Mostly I realized that although the art form of jazz — the only true original American art form??!! — is open to endless variation, study and exploration, the jazz industry is not. The collection of managers, promoters, agents, lawyers, labels, artistic directors, impresarios, collectors and producers. The people that exist between the artists, the musicians and their fans.
Someday I will write a book that will include all the racist and sexist things I have felt, heard and seen in the industry, but not today. But believe me that stuff pushes one roughly towards a door marked “jaded.” I have not yet opened the door, but I know its color, shape and size. My hand has rested on the doorknob, and I know all too well what waits on the other side. Misery. Gloom. Sadness. Depression. Hatred. Anger. Failure. We have all seen artists that we cherish, love and adore walk through that door. I don’t want to be one of them.
Where does that leave my fans? A lot of you feel as though you know the “real” José James. There he is, on The Dreamer. No, he’s the crooner singing jazz in a tux in the 50 Shades Darker film. Nope!! He’s that bad mf who collaborated with Gilles Peterson and Moodymann and Taylor McFerrin and only exists on vinyl!!! (180 gram, if you please). Wrong again, he’s the next step in post jazz neo-soul with No Beginning No End! Making jazz cool again with no solos and Emily King features! Hmm he’s definitely not the tortured guy trying to sing indie rock. Or trap. Or whatever goddam future R&B shit he’s trying to ruin his God-given voice on these days (yeah I know some of you guys didn’t dig LIATOM, let’s all move on shall we?).
Where does this leave me? Who is José James?
Is he the awkward mixed race/biracial kid that grew up in the white, blue-collar NE Minneapolis 80’s where everyone seemed to hate him? Yes. Is he the kid who loved jazz because his dad did, made his daddy’s dreams his own to try to get attention and then surpassed him? Hell yeah. Is he the Black kid who was raised white so he didn’t fit in anywhere but loved everything and all music? Does he see himself in all others? Is he defined by an absence, by not belonging? Did he hate school and all that it stood for (including music school)? Love the nightlife and clubs? Was he a genius giant fuckup until he wrote “The Dreamer” at age 27?
Still with me? What if anything does this have to do with jazz, with R&B and with Black culture? Everything, everything, everything. Train tracks and guitars. Sirens and red and blue lights. Getting pulled over for a violent frisk and grope by Minneapolis’ finest. Prince and Michael Jackson dying of overdoses. My dreams expressed in a Thelonious Monk solo. In Eric Dolphy’s horn. In Coltrane’s search. In Miles’ bloody collar. In Nat Cole’s smile. In Billie’s cry. Why not Dead Prez? OutKast? Nirvana? Rage Against the Machine? Bjork? Maria Callas? Joni Mitchell? Sufjan Stevens? Baden Powell? SZA? Kehlani? Drake, Snoop, Pac, Digable Planets, Al Green, Marvin, Baldwin, Twain, Whitman and Toni Morrison?
“Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world”
I’m not turning my back on jazz. I am jazz. I am the son of a jazz musician. How fucking dare you. I will always be the music, which has existed since before we had words, definitions, cages for it. I have given my life, my heart, my everything to the stage and to the One. Amen.
And now I want to go home y’all. No not America, land of the greed and home of the slave. I was born here, probably gon’ die here (with a song on my lips — cue violins!).
“Sittin’ in a park in Paris, France
Reading the news and it sure looks bad
They won’t give peace a chance
That was just a dream some of us had.”
I can’t go back and neither can you, but we can go forward, together. That is my wish for us. One family, a human family. Naive definitely, but I’d rather believe in a dream that includes all.
I’m sorry if I confused you, misled you, perplexed you or disappointed you with my music. I assure you I had (and have!) the best intentions. But I hear you. “Pick a gottdam lane, shit!!” Lmao. It’s true though, you’re entitled to that. I hear you.
So I offer, in the spirit of brotherhood, of sisterhood, the music of Bill Withers. A music of pride, of community. Of Grandma’s Hands, unwed mothers, apple cores and a piece ‘a candy. Of overcoming discrimination, obstacles, boundaries. A music of love and of friendship.
Shit is real right now. So real. We are in trouble and we need to unite to save ourselves and save the planet. We need to believe women and people of color. We need to listen and be honest with ourselves and with each other. We need to understand how our words and our actions impact the world that we live in and are creating/destroying. We need to value each other’s voices and stories.
I thank you for riding with me this far. I hope I sang a song or two that made you laugh, cry, think, shout, feel and dance in the last ten years. Thank you for the beautiful nights and stages in the last decade. The full houses, empty houses, walkouts and standing ovations. For everything. I love you and I love music. Now let’s go make this world a better place, together.