James Casey is a quadruple threat. As a saxophonist, drummer, singer and composer, the NY-based musician is a man of many talents. He has lived in New York for only three years but has quickly gone from living off pennies to playing with some of the top musicians in the city. James recently sat down with The Revivalist to school us on saxophone folk, tell us where all the jazz cats from Boston learned how to play, let us peek into his iPod and share with us what it is like to work at Disneyworld.

Photo by Deneka Peniston

First off, where do you call your hometown?

I was born in Washington D.C. and around age of 10 or so we moved up to Phoenix, Arizona.

How did you first get into music, specifically jazz?

My mom is a pastor and my dad is a choir director so when I was really young we used to go to my Dad’s choir practice. Actually I can’t even remember a time where I didn’t. My brother, sister and me can pretty much sing any part of any gospel song. As far as instruments are concerned, I used to sit behind the choir’s drummer starting from age 2. I used to sit behind him and watch him. That went on for years until I got my first drumset and first started playing the saxophone.

How did you start playing saxophone?

I know how to read. We all learned in 5th grade when I was in band class. I picked the saxophone because my brother picked the saxophone. He picked it when he was in 5th grade and I was in 2nd grade and I wanted to try and play it but I never really got a chance to because I didn’t really have a teacher. I didn’t get a chance to play it until it was time for me to pick an instrument . So I picked saxophone, and my parents were like well, if you pick saxophone you can’t quit, because my brother quit. They didn’t really have the money to pay for a saxophone, so my Mom was like, well if you pick it you can’t quit.

I know you went to Berklee for music, can you talk about what you learned in school versus what you learned on a gig?

I learned much much more going to a club called Wally’s than I learned while I was at Berklee. It’s a club up there in Boston on Mass Avenue and Columbus. At Berklee I would learn theoretical knowledge and I would apply it at Wallys. I sat in 2 or 3 nights a week and tried to understand what those guys were doing.

Who was at Wallys? What was the scene like?

Sometimes there were students. There was definitely a good mix of older students at the time, much older students and just people who gigged around town. Anybody who came out of Boston or was up in Boston for any period of time has gone through Wally’s, any musician who’s worth, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or nothing like that but most of the musicians who you hear about that have ever come out of Boston, have come through Wally’s.

You got into playing, through your parents and the church. How did you start getting into playing jazz?

I went to a brand new high school in Arizona. They had just built it, I was going to be in the second graduating class. I went there instead of the highschool that my brother went to because they had a new football team and I wanted to play football on their team. To make a very long story short, I ended up getting hurt my freshman year. I tore my ACL and I wasn’t able to get surgery until after I finished growing so my football career was over. However, what they had at this new high school that they didn’t have at this high school was a jazz band. So I would go there. I would literally wake up early in the morning to go check out this jazz band. I would basically go to all the rehearsals, because I wasn’t good enough to play yet. I would go to all the rehearsals and just watch them and look at them and see what they are doing. That was my first introduction to jazz.

Is there a person or experience that has taught you the most about jazz and music in general? A favorite gig?

The most about jazz, besides Wally? Well, I did this thing called the Disney All American College Band in 2004. I had a choice between doing that or a fall tour with some faculty from Berklee and the reason why I took that gig because the tour wasn’t a good fit. I didn’t feel like the actual faculty member wanted me on it, so I got an opportunity to do this because my friend Erin got the gig but ended up giving it up to me. I played 12 good hours everyday all summer. I got crazy chops from that but I also learned alot. They had us learning new music every other day. I had to learn and perform new music, a full set of new music every other day with different artists and different people. Plus I had to go and perform and not like regular, not like me sitting in a jazz band sitting down and I stand up for my solo to play. I had to like dance around. I had to dance around in five different areas in Disney Land. I was sitting in front of Tomorrowland in this red, white and blue nylon jumpsuit dancing and playing saxophone. It was probably the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done. It showed me a lot about performing. You have to understand who you are playing for, who your audience is. It’s not just about you as an artist. It’s also about the audience that you are playing for. That showed me the most, it also helped me the most chops-wise. Not necessarily musician-ship wise, but in terms of gaining facility of my horn and all that stuff.

Can you talk about your songwriting process and how you go about writing music?

My process of writing music is a little bit different than other people. If I’m writing something instrumental, I will more rely on what I would particularly like to hear. I’m not really concerned with what everyone would think is nice, or what everyone would think is cool or whatever. I’m more concerned about what I like to hear and what pleases my ear. Whatever I find that to be, that’s what I write towards. But in terms of songwriting with lyrics, I’m relatively new at that. I’ve been doing that for about a year, so my process may be a little bit unorthodox compared to most. I have a bunch of notebooks that have all types of little lines that I think about during the day, or some ideas that I just came across. If you just look at it, it looks like a crazy man scribbled in it. I write the music and the lyrics separately. When I come up with enough lyrics, when I say enough about a subject, that’s when I bring the music into it and I feel it enhances what I have to say the most.

Can you talk about who are some of your influences musically?

Well, I really never learned be-bop well into my college years. My teacher first got me into it. He knew I didn’t have much facility, but he knew I had a really good ear so he got me to listen to Miles Davis. Kind of Blue was pretty much the album that I went to sleep on and Giantsteps was the album that I woke up on in the morning. My whole family used to say about how I had to go to band practice at 5:30 in the morning so I would wake up and play Giantsteps all morning. No one in my family listens to jazz, but they can all sing Giantsteps because I played it so many times for at least 2 years straight. So yeah, John Coltrane.

My biggest sax influence is Wayne Shorter, because of the way he approaches musicality with his instrument is just beautiful. More about playing what he feels at the time, more than playing so many notes. That’s beautiful for me. I also really like Joe Henderson. Joe’s the man. I could listen to Joe all day, seriously.

As far as non-jazz, I grew up listening to gospel. I can pretty much play you anything done by any gospel artist between, my parents era, like 1978 to like 1995, easy. I also like nowadays, I love Little Dragon. I like Bon Iver. I listen to basically everything. If you go through my iPod it has everything from N.E.R.D.’s last album to Q-Tips’s unreleased album to the Dirty Projectors to Nirvana to all of that. Everything is on there.

Who are some of the groups you play with?

I pay in a pop rock group with this guy named Tim Blaine. He’s a pop acoustic pop-rock singer. He’s actually the guitar teacher in Garage Band. I also play some folk musc. Saxophone folk is killing. Ya’ll don’t even know. It’s coming through, kicking down doors. Sax folk. Don’t even sleep. I’m doing a lot of that. I play with Alecia Chakour & The Osrah. I played a lot with Soulive and Lettuce. I played with a whole lot of people in the last year. I do everything. I didn’t want to corner myself in as a musician in any way.

What was it like moving to New York and trying to make your way in the music scene?

Haha laughs. My band 6Figures had a gig at Wallys. I would travel from New York to Boston to play a 4 1/2 hour gig at Wallys for 50 dollars, but it costs 30 dollars, 15 dollars each way to get from Boston to New York, so I would literally come up with 20 dollars and that was what I had for the week. I saved up some money for rent and my mom and my grandmother definitely helped me out. They helped me pay my rent for the first 6 months.

Igmar Thomas had this gig up in Harlem so I would make 20 dollars up in Boston one night, and 50 dollars the next night up in Harlem with him and that’s what I would live off for the next week. And I did that for the first few months. It was kinda rough. But honestly it has gotten a lot better. I’ve met a lot of people and I’ve come into my own musically. Also, Stacy Dillard helped me out a whole lot when I first got here.

What do you like to do outside of music?

You know jazz players, we are so focused only on jazz (laughs). I travel a lot, for music. I don’t really get to do nearly as much as I would like to because I have become busy lately, but I enjoy a lot. I like watching movies, I dunno. That is a very good question, I’ve never been asked that question. I enjoy working out, I enjoy doing crazy stupid stuff. I’ve been skydiving before, I really like that. I enjoy doing things that haven’t been done before. I don’t have nearly enough time on my hands as I’d like.

When you practice, do you have a routine? Do you have any tips for other musicians as far as how to be more focused and disciplined?

Absolutely not. That is a laughable topic for me, because I am definitely not that. Well, that’s not true…haha. As cliché as it sounds, you gotta set a goal and really want it. You have to know what you want to get to and you have to understand that there is no lightning bolt that is gonna come and make you good. I used to think that when I was younger. That one day it will happen, and I’ll be good, and everyone will want me to play with them. But that’s not how it happens. It’s a process. Even when you get to a point where you are proficient with your music, then you also have to realize that that’s not it. You also have to go out and, I hate using the word, but network. You have to promote yourself and I’m terrible at that. I would much rather just play, sit in a corner somewhere and then just get home or just chill with my friends. But you have to do these things and if you don’t, people won’t know who you are, they won’t know that you’re good, they won’t care that you’re good because you’re not personable to them. You have to kinda go beyond your comfort zone in everything that you do, and that’s the only way you’re going to get to where you really want to go.

Can you speak on the state of jazz now and where you think it is heading?

6Figures is taking over (laughs). We are not even really jazz. We are taking over. We are starting to blow up people’s spots.

Jazz is not what it used to be. Every time a new generation comes along all of music changes. It went from swing to bebop to to cool bop to hard bop, you know the lineage of jazz and where it has gone and where it is now. With this generation’s influences, it’s not going to be the same as it was for the last generation. There is much more influence from hip-hop, r&b and rock noq. Everything we’ve dealt with, everything we’ve grown up with to show us a different way. It’s all coming out inside of our own music. That’s why I’m happy to see what is going to happen. I’m looking forward to the direction of music right now. Our directions are so broad. For example, my group Six Figures. Our drummer plays drums for Marcus Miller, our keyboard player Corey Bernhard it playing keys for Bilal and Talib Kweli, our bass player is playing bass for Estelle, our trombone player is a producer and plays trombone for Neyo, our guitar player Nozomi Yamaguchi is signed to Sony Japan and doing production for them. It’s so vast in what we’re doing. Everybody is doing so much so when we come together , we all have our own influences and we all come together to do what we do.



2 Replies to "James Casey"
  • Pingback: Tweets that mention James Casey – Revivalist Music -- Topsy.com

  • Dan J says:
    November 30, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Yeah James! Represent Hillside St. Best upcoming tenor player in NYC. Lookout

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