Champion of ‘smooth jazz’ visits the Clyde
James leans into his ‘genre’
Saxophonist Boney James, born James Oppenheim, got his nickname on a tour of Scandinavia in the 1980s.
The sums that James and his bandmates were being paid to perform didn’t really cover the expense of temporarily existing in Scandinavia. Keyboardist Wayne Lindsey joked that Oppenheim was going to get so skinny from skipped meals on the tour, they’d have to start calling him Boney James.
The problem with a nickname like that, I told James, is the pressure it places on a person to stay boney.
In a phone interview with Whatzup, James admitted that there have been times in his career when he really should have been called Pudgy James.
One of the ways he used the unplanned downtime foisted upon him (or gifted to him) by the pandemic last year was to lose 30 pounds.
“I had some time on my hands, so I concentrated on eating well and exercising and it really fell off,” he said. “Although, I’ve probably put ten back on since I went back on the road.”
James, who will perform on Thursday, Oct. 7, at the Clyde Theatre, is one of the most successful smooth jazz musicians in the history of the genre. Being the most successful anything will certainly undermine a nickname you earned when you were a starving artist, but there’s another name that bothers James more: smooth jazz.
Mixed Feelings About Smooth Jazz
James has always had a vexed relationship with it. Not the music that so-called smooth jazz artists make, just the words themselves.
“‘Smooth jazz’ was just a moniker made up by marketers,” he said. “And now it’s become a pejorative term.”
He thinks labeling something “smooth jazz” leads music critics to ignore it, and it lets people who program genres other than smooth jazz think they don’t have to give it a listen.
James was inspired to create the music he makes by R&B and jazz fusion of the 1970s. His first professional gig was as keyboardist in the first band that Morris Day formed after he left The Time. The only difference between James’ greatest hits and the songs that get played as part of “quiet storm” and “urban adult contemporary” radio formats is that James’ saxophone fills the vocalist role.
James insists that this all doesn’t bother him as much as it once did. The reason is that Boney James makes Boney James music. That may seem like an obvious-verging-on-simpleminded statement, but, after all, what else would he make?
He has been at this for so long and he had built up such a loyal fanbase that he is his own genre. He has transcended the labels that once vexed him.
“I can’t think of any artist who wants to be associated with a genre,” he said. “Everyone just wants to be an individual. My music is a hodgepodge. It’s all filtered through me as a unique human being. I think every artist would prefer to be thought of as a genre unto themselves.”
Bold Move for a Release
During the worst of the pandemic last year, James made a bold decision that didn’t have to do with eating more fish and less red meat. He and his label, Concord Records, decided to do a summer release of his album Solid.
Conventional wisdom dictated that album releases should be delayed until the artists could tour in support of those releases.
“We had the sense that people were trapped in their houses and could use a little entertainment,” James said.
The gamble paid off for James and Concord.
“The record came out and I debuted at number ten on the pop chart,” he said, “which I’d never done before. I was up there with Billy Eilish and Harry Styles. It was crazy.
“Obviously, there was a pent-up demand for Boney James music,” James said, with a slightly self-spoofing tone.
James’ creative process involves singing snippets into a small digital voice recorder and forgetting about them for a while.
“Every two years, it seems, I really get the urge to start opening up these little files,” he said. “I get other ideas to add to them and start making these little Pro Tools sessions, which I can do in my backyard now.”
He said the process is a slow one.
“I’ll just spend ten minutes on a song here and ten minutes on a song there,” James said. “The next thing I know, I’ve got all these germs of ideas and they’re calling to me.”
Eventually, James finds himself putting in 14-hour days on new music.
“It’s like rolling a big boulder down a hill,” he said. “It just goes faster and faster until, all of a sudden, I look up and it’s like, ‘I’ve got ten songs.’”
James leads a pretty charmed life these days. He is married to actress Lily Mariye, who played Lily Jarvik on ER for many years and who has directed episodes of Nashville. He said he is grateful that he got his start in the pre-internet era.
“I did start in the era when there were record companies and record stores on every corner,” James said. “There was infrastructure. It was harder to break into that, but once you did, you had that infrastructure that could get your records out. And I had a lot of success. Four gold records. Over 500,000 copies.”
He was able to build up a group of fans that are always going to be interested in getting his new records.
“I feel for young artists right now,” he said. “It’s hard to make a living.”
James said he isn’t making as much money from new music as he used to, but he is still able to make a decent living as a musician. That is all he ever wanted.
“I just want to keep it going and be proud of the music I am making,” he said. “I still practice every day. I still try to improve. I still try to really nail it every time I make a record or play a show. That’s really the goal.”