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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Pianist Bob James always hits the right notes, naturally

Kira Abelardo/Sunshine Studio
Jazz Alley

Bob James’ perfect pitch was discovered by his piano instructor when he was just four years old. By seven, he was getting college level instruction with professional engagements the following year. James eventually studied at both the University of Michigan and Berklee College of Music in Boston.

While in college at Michigan, James played in a free jazz trio. In 1962, the band entered a collegiate jazz competition, where the judges included Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones. The trio won the competition and Jones ended up signing James to an album deal, producing and releasing his first album, Bold Conceptions, a free jazz exploration in 1963.

James career swiftly took off when he moved to New York and was hired as arranger and pianist for jazz singer Sarah Vaughan. During this time he recorded with Chet Baker, Hubert Laws, and once again with Quincy Jones.

That was quickly followed by what would be a major connection in his career because Creed Taylor, producer and founder of CTI Records, hired James to work for him as a producer, arranger, and studio musician. In the 1970s, for the CTI label, James worked on albums by Milt Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, Maynard Ferguson and Grover Washington, Jr.

While still with CTI, Taylor invited James to record a solo album. The result was One, released in 1974, and famous for the song “Nautilus” which among many Bob James recordings, went on to become one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop. The "unlikely godfather of hip-hop" as he’s been called has seen his music sampled by a variety of artists. The song "Nautilus" alone is sampled in Eric B. & Rakim’s "Let the Rhythm Hit 'em," Run-D.M.C.'s "Beats to the Rhyme," Ghostface Killah's "Daytona 500," DJ Jazzy Jeff's "Jazzie's Groove” and in "Children's Story" by Slick Rick.

After three solo albums, James founded his own record label, Tappan Zee. Shortly thereafter, he recorded the album Touchdown. Among the songs on the album was "Angela," the theme song for the TV show Taxi.

The other areas of joy for James in his life include, when asked, his family. He has recorded with his daughter Hillary. He's also said he enjoys classical music and the arts and culture of Japan. James has recorded a few classical albums, staring with Rameau in 1984. His career travels have taken him to Japan numerous times and as an avid gardener fell in love with the Japanese people and their gardens. So much so, he has a dry, Zen garden at his home in Atlanta.

James loves the collaboration that performing in groups provides. His duet albums with David Sanborn, Earl Klugh, Kirk Whalum and the quartet band Fourplay with piano, guitar, bass and drums have been at the heart of many years of composing, performing and touring. From the mid 80’s to 2015 these collaborations garnered him five Grammy nominations and two wins for work with Sanborn and Klugh.

Over the course of his six decade career, James' multi-talented arsenal of writer, arranger, producer and player has given him a rich and full musical life and given us a lot of great music.