A 'Taxi' to Skidaway

While it is no secret that the haunting and lush Savannah environment is a draw to tourists and filmmakers alike, the tranquil atmosphere that can be found on the edges of our Coastal Empire has also proven an intoxicating draw to successful artists of all stripes.

From bestselling authors to Hollywood box-office sensations, to superstar athletes, the notion of using Savannah and its nearby islands as a sedate and low-key retreat from the pressures of pubic life has become something of an open secret in the entertainment world.

These days it’s not uncommon to see a household name strolling along Tybee beach or dining at any number of downtown bistros. The number of chart-topping musicians who currently live (or have recently lived) in our area includes such luminaries as Greg Allman, Mose Allison, Bobbie Gentry, John Mellencamp, and Mitch Mitchell.

Still, I must admit I was a bit surprised to hear that for the past few years, one of the biggest names in the popular music world has spent a large portion of each year in our midst.

Bob James, the pianist who in the 1970s helped move jazz back to its rightful place in the pop world after years of marginalization on the sidelines, has quietly maintained a secluded residence on nearby Skidaway Island.

A brilliant and facile musician, who has worked in a variety of jazz genres since the late 1950s (including bebop, avant-garde, smooth jazz and even R & B), James was discovered by the legendary Quincy Jones at the 1962 Notre Dame Jazz Festival, and before long became one of the most in-demand session players and arrangers on the New York Scene. He would later serve a four-year stint as the great Sarah Vaughan’s musical director.

But it was his groundbreaking work in the 1970s as a solo artists and bandleader for Creed Taylor’s seminal CTI record label that cemented his reputation among the listening public. Those albums – on which he worked alongside the likes of Ron Carter, Hank Crawford, Hubert Laws, and Grover Washington, Jr., are considered classics.

For most folks, however, his first breakthrough success came with the 1979 LP One on One. That collaboration with Earl Klugh nabbed the 1980 Grammy for best Pop Instrumental Performance,a nd he was subsequently named Jazz Artist of The Year by Cashbox. That same mag would later dub him Jazz Producer of The Decade.

Still, despite a long string of hit albums (both under his own name, with such A-list players as David Sanborn and Kirk Whalum, and with his All-star fusion supergroup Fourplay), some folks will forever know him as the guy who wrote the theme to the ABC sitcom Taxi.

And that from a guy who names Seinfeld as his favorite TV show.

Now, with the late February release of The Bob James Trio’s latest CD, Take It From The Top, this celebrated artist is digging deep into his past to pay tribute to the keyboardists who influenced him the most in his formative years. Backed by his longtime rhythm section, this record is a tour de force of restraint, emotion and phrasing, and captures a side of James not often on display in his more mainstream output.

Over the course of a fun and engrossing 70-minute phone conversation, Bob spoke candidly with me about his love of performing, his interest in playing a show in Savannah, and the importance of continuing to push jazz forward, while never forgetting to learn from the past.

Connect Savannah: It’s great to speak with you. I’ve been familiar with your work for years, but had no idea you had a connection to Savannah.

Bob James: Well, it’s great to speak with you too. Our timing is just a bit off, ‘cause I was in Savannah up until last week, and had been there all winter, actually.

Connect: So where are you living right now?

Bob James: Right now you’ve reached me in Traverse City, Michigan. That’s where my primary residence is. It gets quite cold and brutal here in the wintertime, so that was one of the main reasons why my wife and I sought out a place down South, and we wound up in Savannah.

Connect: How much time do you spend here?

Bob James: It varies a lot, because I still tour quite frequently – unlike a lot of the people that are in this enclave where we live down there called The Landings. A lot of them are retired and stay there full-time. They’re on a much more leisurely schedule than I am! We started coming there around four years ago, and I guess average about three months a year. This time we stayed through the middle of April.

Connect: Why Savannah and The Landings?

Bob James: Well, we always thought Savannah was a beautiful city, and a couple of my wife’s very close friends had moved to The Landings and encouraged us to come check it out. One time while I was out on the road, my wife went down and visited our friends and really liked it. Things kind of developed from there. For us, it’s still a bit of an experiment. I’m not sure, really, how long we’ll be doing it. We’re still trying to make some sense out of an always unpredictable schedule that I have.

Connect: I think many people view The Landings as a staid environment for folks who might not have as wide-open an attitude as a globetrotting jazz musician.

Bob James: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that I fit the regular profile of the people who live there. (Laughs) But, it does offer a few really nice things for us. Just the gated community aspect is helpful if you’re an absentee resident. You feel like the place is taken care of and safe. Since we’re gone a lot of the time, that’s a big factor for us. And to be able to come in and know that there’s maintenance that makes our life a little bit simpler. I must say it’s been a bit of a negative to me to be so far from the downtown area. That’s the part where – for me at least – Savannah has the most personality. Perhaps the greatest, most atmospheric downtown of any place in the whole country. So we do try and force ourselves to make sure we come in and take advantage of it and spend some time down there.

Connect: Have you met other established musicians who maintain homes there as well?

Bob James: I’m sorry to say that I actually have not had the opportunity to meet anyone. I had a nice phone conversation with Rob Gibson, the head of the Savannah Music Festival, and had looked forward to the possibility of getting together with him, but now it looks like it’ll probably be the fall before I have the opportunity to do that, as I’m going to be away. But it has been my hope to somehow seek out some people. There’s a guy named Ben Tucker who is a fixture of sorts in the Savannah area from what everybody tells me. I had met and known Ben a little bit a long time ago when we both lived in New York City. I keep hoping at some point to catch up with him.

Connect: Under Rob’s direction, the Savannah Music Fest has really blossomed. Is there any chance we’ll see your trio perform there or at our annual Jazz Festival?

Bob James: Well, last year we attended several of the Savannah Music Fest concerts and I was very impressed with both the lineup of talent and the quality of the presentation. To answer your question, yes, I’d love to do something. I came close about a year and a half ago when the group Fourplay that I’m in was on tour. We almost had a date scheduled in Savannah. But the unpredictable nature of concert promotion means you never know sometimes till the last minute what’s going to happen. For me to do a one-shot thing it’s so much more expensive to bring a band in and rehearse. It’s much easier to do it when you’re already on tour and you’re close. I don’t know yet what’s going on down in the South. I would hope that we’d be able to hit either Charleston, or ideally, Savannah itself.

Connect: How often are you on the road?

Bob James: I’d say it’s a third of the time. It’s a constant negotiation between my wife and I. She thinks I work too hard, and I don’t disagree with her about that. But it’s always been hard for me to say no. As a musician yourself, I’m sure you can relate to this. Early on, the one thing we don’t really learn how to do is say no. You’re so eager in the beginning of your career to do anything, that you’ll say yes to any good opportunity that comes along...

Connect: Or bad.

Bob James: Or bad! (Laughs). By the time you reach the point where you’re too busy – which is a good thing – it becomes a real challenge to figure out what you should say yes to, and what you should pass up. often you can’t be sure until it’s too late. That’s an ongoing thing, and I believe right now that because of the struggles we’re all having with poor CD sales and the slow shift over to the downloading of music, it seems more important than ever to be out in front of the public. That’s the one area that’s still viable. I mean, you can download the data of a live performance, but you can’t download the experience of being there. (Laughs) If you establish real fans by being there in person – and in 3-D – I think that’s the most positive way to fight any negatives about economic problems plaguing the music business.

Connect: The realm you operate in almost begs for people to be there to witness its creation. I’d think that has a great deal to do with live jazz continuing to thrive.

Bob James: I totally agree with you. If I was just a pop performer, going out and playing the same thing every night, I’d definitely be ready to retire and would do it as quickly as I could. It’s that one aspect which has always made me love to perform. I really do love it. I don’t like the travel that’s required... It can get to be a hassle. But once you hit the stage with a great group of musicians – if you’re lucky enough to be able to do that – there’s nothing like it. I hope never to have to retire from that.

Connect: The Internet seems appealing to jazz artists who’d like to get circumvent outdated distribution models.

Bob James: I’ve had a lot of conversations over the past few years about so many different aspects of the internet that could be helpful. I think we’ve spent a lot of energy in our business attacking the Internet and dwelling on all its negatives, without dealing with the harder issue, which is the best and most creative way of taking advantage of how powerful it can be.

Connect: Most of the musicians I talk to can’t wait for their contracts to die so they can run their own careers.

Bob James: I’m one of those people. I’m just waiting for a signature right now. I’m essentially out from under my deal with Warner Brothers. When that happens – which I assume it will – I’ll be a free agent for the first time in probably over thirty years. I can’t wait. For me, the potential of controlling my own destiny is fantastic.

Connect: With your loyal fanbase, you could release CDs yourself on the web and do very well.

Bob James: I still have a big question in my mind as to how far I really want to go with that. It’s a headache, and I don’t want to try and do too many things. I have felt this whole era of electronic or digitized music has brought with it creative artists who think they have to do too much. But, you’re so tempted, because you can do it! All the recording equipment has been miniaturized to the point that just about every musician I know has some kind of studio in their home and can take a project from beginning to end. That’s good news in a way, but it also bypasses the very obvious point that there are all these other people who are just as brilliant at what they do, too. Like the engineers and the producers and the great promotion people. Some of the geniuses in that field can almost create a hit. To say that you want to eliminate them and take care of things yourself is very naive.

Connect: Did the new CD turn out as planned?

Bob James: I would say it’s as close to coming out the way it was originally conceived as anything I’ve done in years. The one things I wanted to make sure I accomplished was to get a great recording with this rhythm section that I love – James Genus and Billy Kilson. The two of them have played with me live many times and they’re my favorite section to play with in a trio. But I was very poorly represented with them as far as recordings go. The idea of doing a tribute to my favorite pianists grew out of an invitation that I received from the Japanese company JVC to participate in a tribute project to Bill Evans. I just asked them what they’d think of expanding on this concept and allowing me to pay homage to other important piano players.They loved the idea and it grew from that.

Connect: After re-examining some of your musical heroes, did you discover anything that changed your opinion of the work?

Bob James: I found myself hit over the head with a sledgehammer repeatedly in terms of why I love these people. Sometimes when life marches on, you don’t always go back and listen to the things that excited you 30 or 40 years ago. Then when you do return to them they’re dated and they don’t move you like they once did. The things that really hold up, you remember why they did in the first place.

Connect: Do you think that we’ll ever again see a maverick like Creed Taylor with a vision comparable to what he did with CTI?

Bob James: I’m very convinced that we will always be in the midst of an era where there’s some weird, creative genius coming out of nowhere, creating something. (Laughs) It may not be jazz, and it certainly won’t be the same. But I do have confidence in the overall artistic desire on the part of a small group of people... That small group of the most talented, the geniuses of our youth that are coming out of our schools in every different city. They will shape the music of the future and I’m sure it will be as interesting if not moreso than what we consider to be the best from previous generations.

Take It From The Top by The Bob James Trio on Koch Records is in stores now. To comment on this article, e-mail us at