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Jamie Fox: My Long, Strange Trip

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They would play John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, or Lester Young, Billie Holiday and stuff like that, and to me it was just like, Music, you know. It didn't make a big point to me that it was jazz.
Jamie Fox Jamie Fox's path to recording his first album as a leader has been anything but mundane. Growing up listening to, well, just about everything, Fox began his career as a musician in San Francisco. There he followed his eclectic ear to playing gigs with such diverse names as Brother Jack McDuff, Dr. John, Joan Baez, and his own collective, The Blues Among Us. After tiring of the San Francisco scene and looking for a little more stability, Fox arrived in New York ready to open a new chapter in his long book of musical exploration.

His album When I Get Home showcases a musician fully conscious of where he has been and where he would like to go. It is a remarkably confident effort, with Fox's beautifully understated playing at its heart. The album comes together in similar fashion to John Scofield's latest effort, This Meets That—you're not quite sure how such eclectic songs form a cohesive unit, but they do.

Like many jazz artists, Fox has played his music in relative obscurity. He seems content with this, happy as long as he continues to be able to make the music that he loves. Yet he (like many jazzers) is certainly deserving of more attention. AAJ's David Miller had the chance to sit down with Fox to discuss his past, present and future.

All About Jazz: You've had all kinds of influences in your career, including blues, rock, New Orleans, jazz, and others. Why don't you talk a little bit about your history and how it all sort of comes together into what makes Jamie Fox.

Jamie Fox: OK, well I always had a connection to music. Growing up I had two older brothers who both played instruments; one brother played the cello, and one brother played sax and clarinet and stuff, so oddly enough some of the early music that I had around the house and heard was jazz. They would play John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, or Lester Young, Billie Holiday and stuff like that, and to me it was just like "music," you know. It didn't make a big point to me that it was jazz. There was a lot of classical music and Chuck Berry and Little Richard also, so it was just all stuff I liked.

Growing up I played a few different instruments—I tried violin and cello because I admired my brother and I liked practicing Bach cello suites. I did all that stuff and piano before originally starting electric bass lessons at junior high school age, or even elementary school age. I had a friend who said, "If you can get a bass, we can have a band." And I didn't even know what an electric bass was at that point; I was just like, "Really, one of those huge things?" And I went to the music store and looked into the window and said, "Oh, one of those."

So I got a bass and I took some lessons and my teacher—who was in Hollywood then, so I drove to LA and went to Hollywood somehow for those lessons—he was a jazz guitarist and he said, "Hey, you know you oughta play guitar." I said, "Well, OK, cool, I like guitar too." So I started taking lessons with him. All of this was in the context of not really seriously practicing a lot or getting into it that way, but he recommended a lot of people, you know, who at the time I liked and I thought, "This is cool." But my tastes were more like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and rock and stuff. But through him I got a Charlie Christian record, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass—all these great jazz guitar players. And once again it didn't hit me that much, but I had that experience.

Through high school I sort of stopped playing and never really progressed that far, so high school was just more of a time for being adolescent. And then the summer before I went to college, I was in Santa Barbara and I decided I really want to figure out how to play guitar. I remember specifically trying to learn some BB King solos. So I was listening to BB King, Eric Clapton, and stuff like that.

I went off to college and met a bunch of other guys who played guitar and got into jamming and stuff. I'd seen the Grateful Dead while I was in high school out in Hollywood and was really struck just by the sound, Jerry Garcia's sound. So the interest really grew that summer before college, and from then on, I was into playing guitar. So, you know, at that time, classic rock was my main interest. I started getting into the Grateful Dead, the Band, Van Morrison, James Taylor, that kind of stuff. A lot of blues, Muddy Waters. So I was doing that and through the Grateful Dead I started getting interested in kind of free improvising. And off of that I also started getting interested in songs that had more elaborate chord changes and just sort of figuring out, trying to understand intricacies and harmony. All that just kind of led naturally into starting to listen to jazz.

One of my buddies was a DJ at a radio station, and he'd bring records over and we'd listen to that stuff. And I had other friends who were interested in trying to figure it out too. So that's when I started going more in the jazz direction. It was always a real super struggle to learn anything because there wasn't much material available. You know, now you can go in and you can buy a zillion books on how to do this and that in jazz, and at that time, there was like one book that Joe Pass had written, and I studied that, and basically just kind of learned on my own with my friends. I listened to records, and I was a music major for a couple of years at UC-Santa Barbara, and I learned fundamentals and theory there. So I just started going more and more into jazz.

Eventually I moved to San Francisco and started actually playing some jazz gigs there. It just felt like a very long and arduous process of sort of getting to that point. And also I debated a lot for years whether I could call myself a musician or not. You know, like was I good enough? But I just kept at it, and started doing jazz in San Francisco. At that point, around 1979, I was in my early twenties and a friend of mine played sax and played with Brother Jack McDuff, this jazz organ player who was great, but he went through lots of guitar players because he'd fire them or they'd quit, and it was really a rough gig in terms of life on the road.

But anyway he was in California and he fired his guitarist, so he asked me to come on down and sit in, and so I did. And then he said, "We're leaving in two days and if you want to come you can." So that was my first gig on the road. And it lasted several months but it was very challenging, just in terms of... it was playing what they call the "Chitlin' Circuit," lots of black clubs in poor neighborhoods. It was an incredible environment to play in, and as I look back now it's like, what a great thing that was, just right smack in the middle of it. Audiences were really different, they were really into music—it was not casual listening and it was just really important. It was an intense thing.

So I did that for a few months, and then life on the road just got too rough and pay was just nonexistent. You know you'd have to pay all your hotel bills, and we'd stay in really funky places, you know, like rent it by the hour. And you'd pull into a town in the middle of the night and just sleep in this truck. So it was a little bit of a shock for me culturally.

Jamie Fox

After that I went back to San Francisco and just kept doing gigs and playing a lot of jazz gigs, but at a certain point I got together with a good friend of mine, a saxophonist named Ron Stallings who's still out in San Francisco. And we formed a group called The Blues Among Us, which was really an interesting group because we just kind of wanted to play everything. So we'd play some jazz, but it was usually with an electric bass so that gave it a different feel. But we also played a lot of New Orleans R&B stuff, and we played calypsos and reggaes, played stuff by the Meters and all that. So it was a really fun band and we did a bunch of original music also. We tried recording a few times in the studio, but it was really a live band—the studio stuff didn't work out. But I have a lot of tapes with live stuff, and I have a few things up on my website. I want to at some point clean 'em up and make them available in some form because that was really fun.

So that was like going and spending years getting into real straight-ahead playing, and then sort of veering away from it and doing other stuff because I just liked all that other music. But in order to learn jazz, you have to have tunnel vision for several years and not listen to that other stuff.

And then I sort of continued in San Francisco, and after a while I was just dissatisfied with how the trajectory was going there, and I started thinking about moving to New York. I did, and sort of took it from there. I've met a lot of great musicians here, played some challenging and interesting music, and I've just tried to put as much energy as I can into the music.

I have some gigs that are not strictly jazz gigs, like with Jen Chapin for instance, who's a great singer and writes her own music. Her husband, Stephan Crump, plays bass for her group, and I'm on a couple albums of his—the Rosetta record and an earlier one called Tuckahoe. We made a great connection just casually meeting. And playing with Jen, it's like music that it's hard to imagine playing it if you didn't play jazz. But it's not jazz—it has this feeling of openness and willingness to be in the moment that, to me, suggests jazz.

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