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Interviews

Jamie Fox: My Long, Strange Trip

By Published: March 10, 2008

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.

AAJ: I'd like to ask you about a couple of your experiences. You just described Jack McDuff, so we'll continue chronologically. Dr. John, how'd you come into contact with him, and what'd you get from that experience?

JF: Sure, well, I love New Orleans music, and he's one of the incredible musicians from out of there. In San Francisco there was a night club, which I think is still there, called Slim's. It was kind of a hot spot then, and I was in the house band there. That was a really good band, and we would play with people who came down without a band, and Dr. John was one of those guys. We played for several nights and it was just really cool. For one thing, as a student, from where I was standing on the stage, I could see his hands on the piano, and it was so cool to watch and hear the sound and sort of see what he was doing.

So it was just a great experience that way. I have a moment that I still recall very fondly where we were playing one of his tunes called "Walk On Gilded Splinters," which is like this real moody, minor key, slow groove kind of thing. And there's just some space where he's not singing, and I was playing some chords that were maybe more broader than harmony. He stopped playing for a while and was just listening to the stuff I was playing. And then in the dressing room later, he said, "Man, I liked what you were playing on that. It sounded like John Scofield." And I was surprised that he would know about John Scofield, but then I found out that they had played together right around that time. So it was just great because I loved the music and he's a really cool, fantastic musician.

AAJ: That's funny. I've actually heard "Gilded Splinters" through the Allman Brothers and through Widespread Panic and through the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, so three different incarnations along with the original. It's become a very popular song around the jam band scene. Another house band experience was at the Hawaii International Jazz Festival, where you got to play with some pretty special performers. Why don't you talk a bit about that experience and how you got all the way out to Hawaii.

JF: Sure, that came about through a connection in San Francisco whose name is Benny Rietveld. He's an electric bassist who played for several years with Miles Davis in his latter period, and he's played with Santana for years. He's a great musician and incredible composer and just a kind of super-talented guy. So we played together a lot, and he was one of the sort of revolving cast in The Blues Among Us. That's why I thank everybody who played in that band on the new CD because it was just kind of an interesting experience with a bunch of different people. In fact, John Kahn was our first bassist, and he was the bassist for all the Jerry Garcia Band albums.

So Benny's from Hawaii, and it turned out that there was a producer back there who was interested in making a record with Benny and two other friends who had all grown up in Hawaii. And they needed someone to play chords, so through Benny I got involved with that and went to Hawaii for the first time, and we made the record. They were kind of local celebrities, because you know they'd been to New York and San Francisco and had been playing with famous people. So it was really fun going out there and connecting with them and their families and friends. And then there was a promoter who started this Hawaii International Jazz Festival, and he recruited us to be kind of like the house band. We played with all these different people, you know Ernie Watts and Gene Harris and all these great people. But it was very intense because you know we were getting some music ahead of time, and we might be doing two completely different things back to back. So yeah, I ended up going back to Hawaii many times, and it was just a really cool thing. I played at several of those jazz festivals.

AAJ: So the last person I really wanted to talk about was Jen Chapin. You touched on her a little bit, but of all the people that you've played with, she seems like she's as eclectic as you are, in different ways obviously, but maybe a kindred spirit. So why don't you talk about your experiences with her.

JF: Yeah, we just played last night actually. Her dad is Harry Chapin and her brothers are well-known musicians, and they do these Chapin family shows every once in a while. So they did one in New Jersey last night. Basically they play a bunch of Harry's music, and they do a little mini set of Jen's music in the middle, and I'll play on tunes with other people.

align=center>Jamie Fox

Jen Chapin with Jamie Fox



So back to Jen, you know I met Stephan Crump early on at like a brunch gig in Soho, and that was before even he and Jen had met. And then after they met, Jen would come and hear gigs that we were doing, and she just liked what we were doing. She had a really interesting band then, but she kind of just wanted to make a change. So first she had Stephan start playing bass, then she asked me to play guitar. That was seven, eight years ago now. And we mostly performed with a pretty full band with a guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and often saxophone. So we just did that and we did a bunch of tours, but after a while for different reasons, we're mostly now performing as a trio, just upright bass and guitar and Jen sings.

There's just a really strong connection musically between us; she's just a very soulful person and super appreciative of the musicians that she works with. There's no separation of singer and band—it's like we're all together. And her music is really rich harmonically and melodically, and it's not like there's a whole lot of stretching out in terms of soloing, but there are moments where Stephan and I just kind of groove out on an outro or something. And people will always come up and say, "It sounds like there's a drummer." So we just all have a really great connection, and she's still growing as a musician and singer. And, yeah, we're just really good friends too.

We recorded a new album this August. It's a quartet, actually, with Liberty Ellman playing acoustic guitar, and it's mostly cover tunes, so we do some Springsteen, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, stuff like that. And it really sounds good I think. So that's the thing with Jen, and most of the touring I'm doing is with Jen, and it's just a great thing. It's a great gig, but it's way beyond that too.

AAJ: So that new record, that's the Rosetta band with Jen, right?

JF: Yeah, basically, because she jokes how she keeps stealing from Stephan's bands for her records.

You know who I didn't talk about, who I should mention too, is Joan Baez, because I played with her for about three years from 1989 to 1991. That was another one of those coincidences. It's like, well yeah, I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and some Joan Baez and folk music, but at the time I was pretty into playing jazz. A singer that I knew told me that Joan Baez was looking for a guitarist. I said, "OK, fine," and drove down to her house in Palo Alto and auditioned and ended up playing with her for two to three years, which was a really interesting experience. For me it was very limiting musically, because she's not as open or free as Jen, for instance. She's very set in how she approaches things musically, and improvising is sort of a mystery, you know.

But it was really good to fit into that concept. My attitude was just sort of like, "OK, this is nothing I would've sought out, but what a great thing to do!" We went to Europe a couple of times and toured the States on really long tours. We were in Eastern Europe right around the fall of the Berlin Wall. You know she's always very politically involved. So it was a really interesting experience playing with her; it wasn't necessarily my musical direction, but I liked it.

AAJ: When I Get Home is your first album as a leader. Why don't you talk a little bit about what it was like being a leader?

JF: What it's like being a leader is spending a lot of money, because, OK, you're the one responsible, and you're writing the checks and stuff too. But writing the music was just something I'd done all along. I'm not super prolific, but I have a lot of music at this point, and a lot of it happens over a long period of time. And then to pull together this project and doing a record, you know, I have many things with other people, but it's about time to collect a bunch of music and just record it as my own. I had Stephan playing bass and Michael Sarin playing drums, and I had met Kenny Werner, the pianist, just through friends. It was great to just kind of take the responsibility for pulling things together and say, "OK, this is my thing." It's great, you know, I'm trying to plan it out for the next one. But I like being a leader—it's a lot of responsibility, and at a certain level of jazz, it's hard to get good-paying gigs, so you have to subsidize it, but that's just how things go. I enjoy it, I'm very happy with the record. I was always pretty hyper-critical of myself, especially on recordings. I went through that phase with this record, but I'm pretty happy with how it came out.

AAJ: Why don't you talk a little bit about writing and the process of writing—I guess some of these tunes came from different places, different times, so just how you write, how often you write, etc.

JF: Yeah, you know, it's something I wish I did all the time. I find that most of the musical time that I have, I just work on playing the guitar. But the songs tend to come out of that. If I'm sitting around playing, a lot of times I'll hit a groove or a melody will come up, so then I have a little song idea. And I'll record it. Once in a while they'll come out pretty much in one piece, but more often it's a fragment that I then have to develop. I find that to be really hard work, but it's just kind of like, you know, I mainly do it just playing the guitar. Just taking my time and trying to fit little bits together with another in my head. It'd be great to get up every day and say, "OK, let's spend some time writing music," and maybe someday I'll get to that point too.

AAJ: So "home" ended up being the theme of this album—what it is, where it is, etc. Why don't you talk a little bit about how that theme came about, and where some of these songs come from.

JF: Well, "When I Get Home" is actually the last song on it, and I really like that song because it does seem to combine a lot of elements I was kind of feeling at the time. Stuff like, for instance, The Band—I was feeling the vibe of that group in this sort of open, little-bit-country, little-bit-bluesy sort of way. But definitely there's some improvising in there, which I always have, and in the outro, we did some horn parts that were a little bit Thelonious Monk-inspired.

Jamie Fox

So the theme of the record wasn't something I started with; it was something, once I saw the music together, that I realized, "Oh, there are things that tie this together." That song "Roll After Roll"—I grew up in the San Fernando valley in Los Angeles, which is basically one vast, huge suburb. But when I was a kid, there used to be a lot of orange groves near where I lived, and I used to go play there, play around in these fields, which were gradually torn down. So "Row After Row" just somehow evoked to me these fields and their gradual disappearance.

"When I Get Home," it's funny, I don't know, the title just came to me. "New News" I wrote shortly after moving to New York, so it's like I'm really psyched to be here, playing new music, meeting new people, so I was kind of stimulated by that. "Mine and Yours" was inspired by a New Orleans kind of feel. And, you know, I just started to feel other musical touchstones that I've felt before. So it kind of made sense to me.

AAJ: So would you describe the record in some sense as a career retrospective?

JF: Well, that's sort of implying that my career is over, so not in that sense, no.

AAJ: (laughing) Right, right. But maybe up to this point?

JF: You know, it's a collection of a certain bunch of tunes, and one thing I noticed is that while being completely happy with it and feeling that it covers a lot of ground, boy, there's a lot of stuff that I do that's not on there that I'd like to do. Basically it's like kind of a stimulus to keep going. So it did gather together pieces that had been around for a long time, and some that were brand new, but it's just more like a project, and now it's time to go do some more.

AAJ: Well the two songs that really hit me most were "When I Get Home" and "Row After Row," and I was going to ask about them. But you already hit on those, so why don't you talk a bit about the musicians?

JF: Yeah well, I've talked about Stephan a lot already, but he's just one of my favorite bass players period—just unbelievably musical and talented and super sensitive and also really versatile. It's like really feeling whatever music he's playing. And he's a great electric bassist too. So that was the longest association that I had.

And then Michael Sarin I haven't played with quite as much, but I really admire his drumming. He's just super creative and just really smart—a brilliant drummer and just endlessly creative. He's played a lot more kind of "out" music than what mine tends to be, but you know, like Stephan, he just feels the music that he's playing and adds perspective to it.

So that was a great foundation, having that bass and drums. And then Dan Willis I had played with in some other contexts and just found, you know, there's a lot of great saxophonists around New York, but there was something about the way Dan played my music that I just thought, wow, he really connects with it. I'm really happy that Dan plays on my record. Some of this stuff is maybe a little challenging if you're a jazz saxophonist, but he just connected with the different places that the music was coming from. You know not all tenor players have listened to the Band or Van Morrison—surprisingly a lot of them haven't—but just his ability to connect and bring something was just great.

Kenny Werner, you know, is a tremendous musician. One of the things I wanted to do with the record was have different textures. I didn't want to do just a typical blowing session; I wanted to have different combinations of instruments. Obviously there's some trio stuff, some quartet stuff, some things with piano, and Kenny's on three of the tunes. He's just, you know, kind of a genius musician—has perfect pitch, great instincts for everything. So it's a little daunting, in a way, playing with him, that he's this good. But it was great. I'm really happy to have the addition of his piano on some of the tunes.

And then Peck Allmond did some overdub horn parts; he played the trumpet and the euphonium, which is sort of a tuba-like thing, and the tenor saxophone. He's someone I've known from the Bay Area, and he's lived in New York for many years. He's amazing because he can play anything that you can blow into, so you never know what he's going to bring to a gig. And he plays thumb piano too. So I wanted someone to just layer a whole bunch of different horns onto some things, so I just called Peck.

Another project I'm involved with and really excited about came about from Peck, who met a singer named Ed Reed who lives in the Bay Area. And they made a record together a year or two ago, and we just recorded a couple months ago. Ed came out here to do a recording. Ed's 78 years old, and this was his first record that he ever did in his life. He grew up in LA around the jazz scene in the 40's and then got into the same kind of drug problems that a lot of people did. And it kind of sidelined him for many years, but he's way past all of that stuff and is just a really soulful, great jazz singer. So I don't know when that record is going to come out, but it was really fun doing it. And that was total straight-ahead stuff, but when you play with people who have such a great ear for it, it's really gratifying.

It's like these connections, you know, shoot off in different directions, and you never know what's going to come about next.

AAJ: That's really great. So what's next for Jamie Fox? You mentioned wanting to do another record, some other stuff, what's next?

Jamie Fox

JF: Well, I just did that record with Jen that I'm really happy about; she just has to find a way to put it out now because her contract with her last label ran out. I'm just planning, you know, another collection of songs of my own that I want to do—some of it's more kind of groove oriented, with a little more funk in there, but it kind of forms itself as it goes along. I have some new songs I've been working with a lot lately, and I'm just trying to go through that fairly organic process of figuring out what the songs are going to be. But within not too many months from now, I'd like to organize a serious recording session.

I'm interested, maybe at some point, in doing some vocal stuff. In The Blues Among Us we all sang—singing, I wouldn't say, is my strong point, but there are ideas for songs that I have that kind of call out to be sung. So anyway, just trying to get a bunch of music together and see what feels like it goes.

AAJ: Alright. Well, anything we missed?

JF: I don't think so. I mean we've been pretty thorough.

Selected Discography

Jamie Fox, When I Get Home (RareCat Records, 2007)

Jen Chapin, Ready (Hybrid Recordings, 2006)

Stephan Crump, Rosetta (Stephan Crump, 2006)

Jen Chapin, Linger (Hybrid Recordings, 2004)

Stephan Crump, Tuckahoe (Papillon Sounds, 2001)

Joan Baez, Speaking of Dreams (Capitol, 1989)

Photo Credits

All photo courtesy of Jamie Fox



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