Jose James describes himself as "a jazz singer for the hip-hop generation." Unlike most jazz singers, he didn't discover the music by being exposed to the all-time greats. He got into it by listening to acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets, and then learning about the jazz artists they were sampling.
James melded his influences together into a soulful sound reminiscent of D'Angelo or Erykah Badu.
amNY spoke with James.
A lot of traditional jazz musicians and fans don't like hip-hop. Why do you think that is?
It's an elitism. They think hip-hop is not actually music. They look at it as a bunch of guys sitting around stealing ideas in terms of sampling and making a beat. They obviously haven't spent time with it or tried to make a beat. There might be some jealousy too. You see these dudes making crazy money, so you hate on 'em a little bit.
Do you think younger people have a misperception of what jazz is?
Absolutely. For so many reasons. Jazz covers so much territory, from avant-garde stuff to Michael Bublé. Industry-wise, people have made jazz so confusing and marketed to old people, it's like "Why bother?"
Do you see it as part of your mission to bring jazz to a younger audience?
I feel like I'm doing it in a more subtle way. I don't want to hit people over the head with the jazz stick. ... But I do keep the subtleties of jazz. I probably won't ever write straight-up pop stuff. I think of it like Quincy Jones has done it. Don't dumb it down, but also go for as broad of an audience as you can.
You're originally from Minneapolis. What made you move to NYC?
Opportunity. Minneapolis is a great place for artists to get started, but you hit a ceiling very fast, especially as a jazz singer. NYC is ... where the best musicians in the world ... record and play.