There's a lot I could tell you about Joshua James, the first of which being that he was up until "round midnight" last night, "really cookin" at Howe's Bayou - on sax and clarinet, that is, backed by nine other shining jazz players known as The Nighthawks Jazz Orchestra.
The NJO began an experimental run as the house band for the Creole and Cajun-fare bar/restaurant throughout the month of June, but sets proved to be such a success (both in performance and attendance) that the owners enthusiastically enlisted the band for a permanent run on Monday nights.
But what else can I tell you about Mr. James? Well, he lives in Ferndale, and if you're interested, he can tell you quite a bit about the rich jazz histories of this state (and, in fact, even of Ferndale). His encyclopedic music mind is girded by his work as a music teacher at both Madonna University (Livonia) and St. Mary's Prepatory School (Orchard Lake).
He also finds time to be the music director of three impressively-packed jazz bands, including Planet D Nonet (nine players spanning sax, clarient, bass, trumpet, drums, piano and trombone) and the Michigan Bridge Project (featuring as many as 18 players!).
Then there's the NJO: (Jim Holden - tenor saxophone / Tracy Chesher - baritone saxophone / Justin Joawiak - baritone saxophone / James O'Donnell - trumpet, fluegelhorn / Glenn Bengry - trumpet, fluegelhorn / Andrew Meronek - trombone / John Raleeh - trombone / Tracy Kash Thomas - vocals, flute / Michael Zaporski - piano / Jorian Olk-szust - bass / David Dionise - drums), with James leading the way, every Monday at Howe's, playing alto, soprano and tenor saxophone.
That's a lot on your plate, a lot of pots to stir, a lot of hats to wear...pick your own idiom.
But of course a jazz player could handle it. In the jazz world, James said, one's success is dependent upon one's adaptability.
"It's a skill you develop," says James, who studied music and performance at Wayne State University. "You'd say: 'Oh man, that cat's got big ears...' Meaning, they can be thrown into any musical situation, and with their ears, they'll know what that music calls for, all the nuances, they can improvise on it."
Now, pesonally, I grew up idolizing punk rockers, the torn-denim idealists with big heads, black eyes and smart-mouths, shredding shambolic/poetic-punch ballads - but, man, talking to a jazz teacher really makes those raw guitar gutter types sound like cavemen. Jazz requires a grasp of every musical style - requires a keen sense for reaction, to anything. Way beyond, indeed, the three power chords and chorus of rock, per se.
With James' "ears," (and the ears of many of his local contemporaries, like bassists Ron Carter and Dan Kolton), swift analytics can be assessed upon any musical movement/moment, in terms of "what's going on" in the song: "dynamics, articulation, tone color, do I need to play extremely square or on top of the beat or behind it..."
Be ready... for it. For anything.
James grew up in Dearborn, raised by his mother, whom he deems "really cool" and "really supportive" of his musical interests as a tween/teen. But honestly, at first James thought he wanted to be a doctor.
He took piano lessons early on and started playing the saxophone in the school band (Detroit Catholic Central). Already steadily ameliorated by an insightful private-lesson teacher, what really kicked it off for James was when his mother took him to The Detroit/Montreux Jazz Festival - an inspiring eye-opener for our future professional music composer / arranger / songwriter / band-leader.
Once out of high school, James said, "I threw myself into it..." And by "it," he means the rich seas of southeast Michigan's jazz music community: meeting people, sitting in on rehearsals and sets, joining bands.
"Eveyrone in the scene has always been very supportive," James said, nodding particularly to Paul Keller, who had his own ensemble jazz band and to R.J. Spanger and James O'Donnell who, together, founded Planet D Nonet. "You get to meet more and more musicians and it becomes like a family. I mean, don't get me wrong - jazz musicians are extremely competitive, but not cut-throat; it's competition in a very healthy sense."
Part of that "big-eared" adaptability depends on humbleness. "At the end of the day," James said, "there's always someone better than you or who writes better music or is more connected. The only way you really get anywhere is admitting that you've always got a long way to go and that you're in a perpetual state of development. Even some of the best cats are very humble."
Then of course, you have to strive for eclecticness.
"Make yourself a musical chameleon. To hang!" James said the NJO pride themselves on their range, striving to be able to play "rock or jazz or pop or funk, or afropop...even electronica and country..."
NJO sets might include arrangements of Anita Baker songs, or even stranger fare like experimental trip-hop tunes from Thievery Corporation. Hey, even the "Cantina Song" from the alien band in Star Wars: A New Hope, but then bring it right back to something more swing or bebop (or even post-bop) with a Mingus, Gillespie or Monk tune.
Planet D Nonet specializes in early traditional jazz (circa 1920s) and the music of interplanetary-experimentalist Sun Ra.
The Michigan Bridge Project means Michigan-Only! -showcasing original compositions or modern arrangements by Michigan musicians/songwriters.
James joined Planet D about four years ago and started the Michigan Bridge project in the spring of 2011 just as his reverence for Michigan-made jazz talents was piquing. Still, he wanted a big band he could call his own, thus: the Nighthawks Jazz Orchestra assembled this year and now they've got a permanent home (Howe's).
The Bridge Project, by the way, will be performing at the Flint Jazz Festival on August 5 at 5:30 p.m. By September, James plans to start a fundraising campaign for both Bridge and Nighthawks to record albums, hopeful for winter 2013 releases.
"The Nighthawks Jazz Ensemble has several members that rotate in and out based on their availability and involvement with other projects," said James. The players listed above are whom James considers the most "primary members."
MORE on JAZZ with JAMES:
I asked the local musician/composer/arranger/band-leader/adjunct-music-professor/aspiring-local-music-historian to list his -
MOST VITAL INFLUENCES
James: "Oh geez, this is a hard one..."
Bjork (for sure!!)
Maria Schneider and her big band
Duke Ellington (of course!)
Darcy James Argue (and his secret society orchestra)
Sharon Jone and the Dap Kings
It's particularly great, James said, that this weekly gig can help keep the tradition of blues/jazz culture churning here in Ferndale (something we'd been missing with the passing of Club Bart's).
Come talk more jazz (and hear the latest tunes from these industrious writers) with James and the Nighthawks Orchestra, next Monday night at Howe's (around 9 p.m.). Each and every one of these players, as James notes, particularly their piano player Michael Zaporski, has an interesting story and insight into the world of jazz - come join the musical dialogue and dig some jazz.