Fall 2008 CJA Network Featured Interview

James Weidman

1. What initially attracted and led you to playing jazz music?


Among my earliest memories growing up in Youngstown, Ohio were the jazz recordings my father played at home. James Sr. had gigged around town as first a saxophonist and at times an organist bandleader. I had a chance to observe the musicians who came to rehearse at the house regularly. I started taking piano lessons at age eight. At age 12, I had begun to play piano for a little church.  It was the following experience that I began to be really attracted to jazz. A schoolmate of mine exclaimed according to his dad that Charlie Parker was the greatest saxophonist ever. Curious whether my pops had in his possession any examples of Parker, I went home and found happily found some of his recordings I realized then that this was some of the music I heard as a little boy. I was immediately hooked into the magical inventiveness of Parker’s playing. Shortly thereafter I began to play organ in my dad’s band. It wasn’t a jazz group per se, but we all definitely improvised. The repertoire consisted of funky blues, ballads, along with popular tunes of the day recorded by artists like James Brown and King Curtis. It was an on-the-job training experience for me.


2. Who are some of your main musical influences?


My influences ended up being something of a mixed bag and that of a young musician whose decisions were based on practical considerations. Early on I played gospel, hymns and classical piano music. When I first began to play jazz or at least attempt to improvise, I was playing organ. I studied every organ player I could. My goal was to find a common denominator, I could work from. Jimmy Smith on organ was the greatest but a little too difficult for me to emulate. So, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Jack McDuff were some of the earliest guys I listened to. There were some nice players in the area like Winston Walls, Emmanuel Riggins and Wilbur Ervin.  At the same time, I was beginning get deeper into listening to the recordings of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Their music though generally was more intricate than anything I was able to transfer to organ at the time.  It wasn’t until my college years Youngstown State University that I had an opportunity to explore the more modern jazz styles. At that point I discovered pianists like McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock. I bought jazz records, recorded jazz programs off the radio and listened to players on every instrument. I was now practicing the piano exclusively, shedding on jazz piano while also pursuing a degree in both music education and classical performance.  My teachers were important influences as well. Tony Leonardi, the late head of the jazz department and my classical piano teacher, Marcelline Hawk both gave me the guidance I needed in all around musical aesthetics and technique.


3. Much of your career has involved playing the role of a "sideman". Do you feel that having to respond to the challenge of playing for such a diverse amount of groups and individuals helped you to develop and appreciate a wide variety of styles within the framework of Jazz?


Indeed. I tried to fit in appropriately in each setting that I’ve been in. I had always liked being in a good rhythm section. The challenge is to be sensitive to the needs of the group and to be well prepared, stylistically.  When I first came to NY, I felt that getting involved in a lot of musical situations was a way to get the seasoning I was searching for. I guess the early mindset of being open in my listening experience has helped to lead me into diverse musical settings over the years. Of course, I don’t purport to know everything, that’s not possible.


4. I heard you recently did a string of concerts with Joe Lovano down in Brazil - what kind of material were you playing with him... any Brazilian or Latin jazz?


Oh no, they have their own artists who can perform their music with pure authentication! Generally American artists are invited there to do what they do. It’s a good thing that American jazz is still respected around the world. I went to Brazil with Joe Lovano's Nonet. We recently recorded the “Birth of the Cool” Suite arranged by Gunther Schuller. We performed that and also material from past Nonet recordings.


5. You once said that "Artists in our society must view their careers as a fluid creative process - a metaphor for playing a good jazz solo." Could you expand on that thought further?


When I first came to New York in 1978, I was merely following my heart.  I had not an inkling how everything was going to work out over time.  There have been many surprises along the way. In life there is the ebb and flow, the ups and downs. In life, career and music, one must ready to respond to the challenge.


6. What are your thoughts on the spiritual connection between God and music?


First, I feel that the most important thing about performing music is when musicians can become an empty vessel so that the love of God can flow through. Music is sound. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God” first says the writer of St. John. Duke Ellington musically truncates it into: “In the beginning… God!  And music is what it is. What we hear is what we receive. And we can never hear it all.


7. You play jazz in church quite often with jazz singer/composer Ruth Naomi Floyd (an incredibly gifted vocalist who is also part of our network!)  You have several dates with your trio playing in church. Share with us more about playing jazz in church.


I’m thankful for the opportunities. Ruth and I have been collaborating for at least 13 years. We’ve played in many churches over the years throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I’m currently an alternate musician at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Jersey. I’ve been part of their music ministry since 1983. The pastor, Rev. Fred Bryant, an avid jazz connoisseur, inaugurated a jazz vespers series there nine years ago.  


8, How do you go about choosing jazz material/songs that are more appropriate for church?

 Between Ruth and me, we have a reservoir of knowledge regarding the sacred music repertoire which helps informs how we fuse together the jazz elements. Our music easily fits under the category of sacred Christian jazz so it’s not difficult at all. Jay Hoggard, vibraphonist, is another artist in which I have a long association in playing in churches. The same applies in selecting material. When I perform exclusively my music, I have things that I originally wrote not specifically for church settings but still somehow musically convey praise and worship. I also love incorporating jazz arrangements of hymns and Negro Spirituals into the service. 


9. What is one of the most spiritual experiences you have ever had while playing music?


There have been many blessed experiences playing this music over the years. The best thing is after the fact when people come to you expressing the many ways they have been touched. That is always so meaningful to me. It demonstrates the power of music and the responsibility the artist has to be as honest and as excellent as possible in telling their story.


10. What is one of your favorite hymns and why?


If I may I’d like to name two hymns, “In the Garden” and “If I Can Help Somebody”. To me they together embody what Christ taught when he told us to love God with all of our heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as ourselves.


11. Your latest CD "All About Time" includes, "Lord Don't Move That Mountain" and "Song For Tomorrow" both of which have a gospel/spiritual flavor. Did you write "Song For Tomorrow" - what was the inspirational conception behind that song?


I wrote “Song for Tomorrow” in 1974 while still in Youngstown. I was feeling a little down at that time and I thought of the composition as an invocation toward a brighter future. As I look back on the song, it also gives a snapshot of my early musical focus at that time, a fusion of gospel, pop, and jazz.


12. I also really enjoy the track "Song For Kim" which has more of a Bossa Nova feel. What is it about the Brazilian vibe/feel that attracts you to it?


I really like Brazilian groovesThe rhythms along with the melodies and harmonies are so beautiful. They never cease to bring me happiness. Brazilian lyrics are very poetic and romantic too.


13. Noticed that you have played with the trombonist Wycliffe Gordon , ( who I know is also a deeply spiritual musician). Who are some other jazz musicians you know that are Christians?


I mentioned Jay Hoggard. Saxophonists Lance Bryant and Jimmy Greene, drummers Otis Brown III, Vince Ector Guitarist David Stryker and vocalist Charene Dawn are among my colleagues in the Christians faith. I must say that there are many other jazz artists in the NYC area who are steadfastly a part of someone’s worship service on Sunday’s and even during the week. Many enjoy reestablishing that spiritual connection of the church as they recognize the gifts of music that God has bestowed upon them.


For much more on James Weidman and to hear samples from his new CD visit his web site: