Photo by Will Holton
Photo by Will Holton

By Franklin Abbott

Najee, one of smooth jazz’s greatest performers, will be in concert this Saturday at Clark Atlanta University for the Clark Atlanta University Guild’s “Jazz Under the Stars” fundraiser. Kathleen Bertrand will also be performing for his event that benefits music programs at the university.

Najee will arrive earlier in the week for workshops with CAU students. He spoke with us by phone from Los Angeles where he is busy recording a new album. He says the show will feature his trade mark smooth jazz but will also pay tribute to traditional jazz and R+B. He will play some of his greatest hits as well as songs from the album he is working on both in LA and the UK. The new songs include a remake of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” where Najee will play the flute and a cover of “You’re the Biggest Part of Me” with Najee on soprano sax, the instrument he is best known for.

Najee hails from New York where he began his musical pursuits as a student in the Jazzmobile program where he studied flute and sax under Jimmy Heath and Frank Foster. He studied flute at the Manhattan School of Music and later took on the soprano saxophone as his main instrument. As a young musician he toured with Chaka Khan and some years later spent three years on the road with Prince. He has worked with Quincy Jones, Roy Ayers, BeBe Winans, Eric Benet, Stanley Clark and the list goes on.

His latest album, The Morning After: A Musical Love Journey, is a tribute to his life on the road. It features songs about his experiences playing music all over the planet and includes “Mafalala” about a village in Mozambique and “Champs Elyesees” about Paris, of course. This album on the Shanachie label was nominated for both an NAACP Image Award and a Soul Train Award. Speaking of his life as a travelling musician Najee reflected on both the challenges and rewards. He is father of six and regrets having been away for important moments in his children’s lives. The rewards include getting paid to travel and understanding the commonalities of life in diverse cultures. He says the thing we all have in common is “the gift of life” and this is primary to all relationships.

Photo by Will Holton

Najee performed in South Africa for the first time as part of Nelson Mandala’s Gift to the Nation series of music concerts. One of the highlights of his trip was having lunch with Mandala in his home. He also was part of Bill Clinton’s first campaign for president and was later invited to the White House to perform for Clinton and visiting Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings. He describes the experience as one when he was amazed that a kid from Queens could be performing in the White House for presidents.

Najee is not only a performing musician but a teacher and mentor. He sponsors a music camp in the summer, and mentors students many of whom have gone on to successful careers. He said his personal breakthrough came when he connected with his own sound. Before this he had been dissatisfied with his playing because he did not sound like musicians whose style he trie to emulate. He teaches his students the lesson that was so important to him, “The world has heard me but hasn’t heard your voice alive in you.” He often quotes Emerson, “Envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide.”

In reflecting on the ups and downs of his years as a performer Najee says it helps to recognize life is short, “You don’t get to choose your challenges but you do get to choose how you handle them.” He adds that, “success is a problem waiting to be solved. Inside the challenge lies your blessing.”

Being in Atlanta is something of a homecoming for Najee because he has family here. One of his sons is a junior at Morehouse and one of his daughters lives here with three of his grandchildren. He is looking forward to Saturday’s concert, his meetings with students and time with his family. For more information on the concert and tickets (tax deductible), visit this link.

Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta psychotherapist and poet. 

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.