It vaulted his career as an important player, writer and arranger with Grammys for One on One
with Klugh and Double Vision
with Sanborn. So many highlights. Among them was a four and a half year tenure with the legendary Sarah Vaughan
" It was great. I often refer to that time as my second college education. She was such a phenomenal musician in addition to being a brilliant jazz singer," James says. "She also played piano very well. So she could sit down at the piano bench and show me what I was doing wrong and humble me at any point whenever I wasn't doing what she needed. That in itself was an education.
"She was also very moody. I could feel the difference in the way she would sing when the trio was inspiring her or when we, for whatever reason, weren't in the groove or our tempos weren't quite right. I could hear the level of her performance go down when we weren't giving her what she deserved, what she needed. That was great motivation to get better. I could feel it for those four yearshow great she sounded when we really had the groove happening. It was fun and very inspiring."
The years with Creed Taylor's CTI label also came with a boost from Quincy Jones. He invited James to play on his album Walking in Space
and to write a couple arrangements. "The fact that Quincy wanted to hire me as part of the all-star band that was playing with him at the time, gave Creed Taylor the interest to hire me again. I started getting calls from Creed Taylor to play on various albums of his and eventually I got called in to be an arranger. For the next three or four years, before I got a solo contract with him, I was arranging for Stanley Turrentine
and Grover Washington Jr. and Hank Crawford
. A whole group of artists that I got a chance to meet first hand and be in this famous studio of Rudy Van Gelder's. Suddenly I was surrounded by people like Billy Cobham
and Jack DeJohnette
and Ron Carter
and George Benson
. I never knew from one week to the next who it was going to be, but I had the chance to find out whether I could hold my own."
James work on Taxi
was unexpected. It was the result of the production group being fans of his worknot James seeking it out or getting recommended. He had career in the recording scene in New York doing radio and TV commercials but didn't enjoy it, though it paid some of the bills. Jazz projects interested him more. Along the way, his fourth CTI album called BJ4
ended up in the record collection of one of the producers of the Taxi
James says the producers "were scurrying around trying to decide what kind of music they wanted to have, they started playing my recording. They liked the feel of it. They liked the sound of it. So they contacted me. I wasn't pursuing a career in TV or film music at all at that time. I was quite happy with the direction I was going, spending lots of time at Rudy Van Gelder's studio and doing various projects for Creed Taylor. But this seemed intriguing to me primarily because they weren't asking me to change my sound or my style.
"They liked the recording and asked me if I was interested in creating some more music in the same vein. They gave me a budget to go into the studio and do a mock up, almost like an album project, but exploring, coming up with a sound that would fit this TV series. In my mind, I was thinking New York City cab drivers, a kind of frenetic, high-energy type of music. I submitted a piece to them thinking in terms of what I thought would be a good theme for the series. But when they heard another one of the pieces I had prepared, more like a background cue, they liked it a lot more. It turned out to be 'Angela' (watch live version
) and they asked me if they could use it for the main theme instead. I said, OK. I had no idea it would turn out to be as successful as it was."
"I was helped in a very large part by the fact that the series was such a big hit and was syndicated all around the world. My theme got heard thousands of times more than it would have if I had just stayed within the jazz community. It became, for better or for worse, my signature piece. People still ask me about it all these years later."
It doesn't bother James to re-visit it show after show. "The nicest part about it is it's not a crazy novelty piece, it's not a disco piece or something I would feel dated about. It's mellow. It's got a simple, but nice set of changes to improvise on. I don't get tired of playing it. I feel really lucky that I have something like that, that I can count on at the end of my show to make my audience comfortable and happy."
Another source of pride for James is Fourplay.