It started in 1919 when Sidney Bechet, New Orleans jazz clarinetist, bought a soprano sax in Europe and made it his main squeeze. In 1960 John Coltrane recorded My Favorite Things and his energetic soprano workout on the title track made his reputation and opened up a new direction for the soprano sax as a lead voice in jazz music. Jazz had turned yet another corner and was becoming more contemporary. Grover Washington Jr. expounded on the concept with fire and intensity with his R&B tinged jazz grooves. George Howard preference was to add a bit of funk to the mix. Ronnie Laws made it sweet as could be and then can Najee.
In 1986 his Grammy nominated debut release, Najee’s Theme, on which the saxman established his trademark voice using the soprano sax, was a huge hit, selling gold immediately and eventually going platinum. With the release of the equally successful Day By Day in 1988, he became a for- real-celebrity. Najee is one of contemporary jazz’s true pioneers along with Grover, George and Ronnie. In the early days of the smooth jazz format he inspired an urban vibe that dominated the instrumental world throughout the ‘90’s. And then …?
Out of sight, but not out of our minds. His inquiring fans wanted to know where or what happened to Najee. Well, the buy Misoprostol pills no prescriptionGods smiled on me. I heard through the music grapevine that Najee was signing with Heads Up International Recording Company and, get this; he would be releasing his debut album with them on August 23. Say what? That was my initial response too. I felt an interview coming on. Najee – Heads Up – new release, gotta, gotta, gotta, make that connection was my next thought and or song. Blessings continued to flow and the hook-up was made. So here I am, having pizza and an up close and personal conversation with Najee at Uno’s Pizzeria in Orlando, Florida as we go beneath his music
You are known by one name. “Yes. Najee.” Is Najee your given name? “Yes, it’s my middle name.” Does Najee have a special meaning? “Ah, it has several meanings, one being friend of God.” I can go with that.
Why is it, in your opinion, record companies don’t invest in making videos for jazz artists like they do with artist of other music genres? “In the ‘80’s, I had at least two videos for each album. Back then, VH1 would play my videos, MTV wouldn’t. VH1 and BET [did]. Today, you are not going to get Usher and then get a Najee video on BET. Generally there is no real outlet other than BET Jazz for artist like myself. And, they are playing all of the old stuff. Unless record companies make a commitment and become willing to spend the money, nothing will change.” It would be nice for them [record companies] to not separate out the jazz platform and merge it with everything. That would be the best case scenario. “Right, there has to be a market that’s created. See, BET on Jazz is a cable station that has a very limited viewer-ship. So, unless there is a major marketing campaign that will get them to the level that people are going to add them to their cable channels, it’s [going to be]a little difficult. What do you think about their programming? It’s not what I thought it would be. “I think they are working with limited resources. And when you don’t have major corporate money to develop creative programming, you programs will reflect [the] low budget figures, you know? So, I think they are working with limited resources and if there was a real major effort to spend money on their programming, you would see something pretty amazing.”
Who do you listen to? “I listen to everybody.” Everybody, you don’t have any favorites? Not anymore, now influences?” Yes, your influences, “As an artist, Yousef Lateef on flute and Hubert Laws with the flute. Hubert Laws was the one that made me want to play jazz on the flute. On saxophone it was John Coltrane and Maceo. And, Grover was a major influence on soprano sax.”
Why did you gravitate toward the soprano sax? “Actually I didn’t. I’m really a tenor, alto and flute player. But, my first album in 1986, Nagee’s Theme, my brother, Fareed, kept saying ‘man you need to play soprano.’ I said, “I don’t like soprano, I want to play tenor.” ‘He said, ‘man you need to play tenor.’ So, far that first album I pulled out the soprano and played it. That album was really a demo; it was a collection of demos. And, I took the demos to Charles Huggins, who was Melba Moore’s husband and manager at the time and Freddie Jackson’s manger at that time [too], and he did the album and signed it with Capitol/EMI. It ended up becoming gold and then a platinum record. From that point on I was like, “may be they were right about the soprano.” And you have been forever linked with the soprano sax. “But that was the sound. Actually Grover and Ronnie Laws, in the late 70’s, made it a popular instrument. And then, later, the other guys came along like Kenny (G), George (Howard), and me.”
I’ve been told that this specific album is very personal for you and that you are saying that this is your point of view literally? “I’ve always written songs around titles and written albums around titles with the exception of Nagee’s Theme, which was really not my idea, to name the album that. That was someone else’s idea. Day By Day(1988) was my idea. The third album, Tokyo Blue (1991) and Just an Illusion (1992) all those are the titles I thought about. I’ve always written albums or created albums around titles.” Shall we say [you do] concept albums or theme albums, you pretty much have an idea about what it is you want to present. “Yes, I like thinking around titles.”
I found My Point of View to be very relaxing, very laid back. Is that a reflection of your personality? Sometimes, yes. You seem like a pretty mellow fella. “Yeah, I’m pretty mellow,” he says with a huge smile. “But, I cannot be. It depends on the situation.” Okay, I think I’ve got my answer. (This is so cool; I’m lovin it.)
For Najee, the 90’s were marked by extraordinary experiences, from performing at Nelson Mandela’s birthday celebration in South Africa to playing as a special quest of President Clinton at the white House at an event honoring Jerry Rawlings of the Republic of Ghana. And, that ain’t all. Listen to this, “I get a call from Prince, right? He called and wanted me to come to Minneapolis. I thought I’d be there just for a few days, but I wound up staying two weeks recording on his Rainbow Children album. Two weeks turned into a six weeks tour and six weeks turned into three years and five more tours.
Najee returned to the recording studio in 2003 to record Embrace, which featured two of his longtime heroes, vibist, Roy Ayers and gospel legend, BeBe Winans. “Every experience brings something new out of me. The most rewarding thing is being able to live my dreams and achieve so many things beyond my wildest expectations. I have been blessed that my fans have stuck with me for the long haul. The missing link over the past few years has been having a great label that loves what they do, and I’m excited to have a fresh new start on Heads Up. I’m ready to get out there and have fun again, sharing music from My Point of View.” Check it out, the view is great.
Seven years has passed and the the view as well as the vibe has only gotten better with time. So, check out Najee’s latest video from his 2012 Shanachie Entertainment release, The Smooth side of Soul, Dis N’ Dat
By Lyndah Malloy-Glover