From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Saxophonist/flutist Najee credits guitar great Charlie Christian with major influence on jazz
Guitarists aren’t the only musicians who can appreciate the lasting legacy of Oklahoma City-bred jazz great Charlie Christian.
“He changed the culture of jazz for that time, particularly being one of the people who established guitar in the jazz industry. You talk to people like George Benson and Larry Carlton or anybody like that, they’ll tell you his existence in the world at that time really had a major impact of setting the trend for what a lot of guys did after him,” said saxophonist and flutist Najee in a phone interview from New York. “Definitely he made an impact.”
A smooth jazz star, Najee will headline the annual Charlie Christian International Music Festival Saturday night at Regatta Park. The six-day festival comes to a close this weekend with a battle of the bands, book signing and live jazz, blues and gospel music.
“The whole festival is a tribute to Charlie Christian,” said Anita G. Arnold, executive director of the Black Liberated Arts Center, which organizes the event.
Christian, who grew up in the 1920s and ‘30s in the thriving jazz scene of Oklahoma City’s Deep Deuce area, was an electric guitar pioneer who helped establish it as a lead rather than just a rhythm instrument. He died in 1942 of tuberculosis at age 25, and this is the 25th anniversary of the festival.
“All three days are going to be really fabulous,” Arnold said. “People are truly excited about Najee coming to play the festival. … I think Regatta Park is such a perfect venue for it, because he’s a pretty laidback guy, and that’s a place where you can relax and enjoy some good music and just have a great time.”
Najee is making his debut at the Charlie Christian Festival.
“I think it’ll be an exciting show, especially since we haven’t been to Oklahoma in quite some time — it’s been probably about seven, eight years since I’ve been there — I think it’s going to be very exciting to reconnect with the Oklahoma City audience,” Najee said.
“It’s hard for me to explain my show. All I know is that people love what we do. They walk away very happy. We try to make it an experience.”
Najee will show off his skills on the alto, tenor and soprano saxophone along with the flute during his mostly instrumental show. A native New Yorker who now lives in Florida, he began his career playing clarinet and later sax and flute in his hometown of Jamaica, Queens.
He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston then toured with R&B songstress Chaka Khan. He released his debut album, “Najee’s Theme,” in 1987, and the record not only went platinum, it earned a Grammy nomination.
He has remained a best-seller on the smooth jazz scene, notching gold and platinum albums and winning many accolades. In 1998, he performed in South Africa for President Nelson Mandela for his birthday and wedding celebrations. He also was President Bill Clinton’s guest at a special White House performance honoring President Jerry Rawlings of the Republic of Ghana.
Najee is touring in support of his latest album, “Mind Over Matter,” which debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart in August. The record features R&B singer Eric Benet and jazz keyboardist/producer Jeff Lorber.
“At this stage of my career, I’ve been enjoying collaborations more than anything,” he said.
He also has been experimenting with his music and playing more straight-ahead jazz. He finds inspiration in the continued success of his acclaimed 1995 album “Songs from the Key of Life,” which features instrumental tributes to the music of Stevie Wonder. A few months ago, the R&B legend surprised the sax player by sitting in on Najee’s show at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.
“People know that I play straight-ahead, but I just haven’t recorded it under my own name. I’ve been a guest on other artists’ (album) who are more prominent in that genre of the music. But this is my first time really just exploring doing it on my own,” Najee said.
“There’s a desire in me to really capture a lot more … stuff that gives me a little more freedom to just improvise as an artist and not worry so much about whether smooth jazz radio’s going to play my songs.”
For Saturday’s show, he plans to mix smooth and straight-ahead jazz, his new and old material and a few surprises.
“I really don’t like concerts where the people aren’t engaged. It’s one thing when you hear a great player and he can play, and obviously there are some people that that’s all they come for. But then there’s people in jazz that really come to enjoy the total experience. And that’s what we bring.”
25th annual Charlie Christian International Music Festival
Battle of the bands: 7 tonight at Regatta Park, SE 5 and Lincoln. The event will be a battle of the sexes, with Tulsa saxophonist Grady Nichols “cutting heads” with Detroit-based all-female quintet Straight Ahead.
Book signing: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Oklahoma History Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive. Anita G. Arnold will sign copies of her book “Oklahoma City Music: Deep Deuce and Beyond,” and Christian’s Gibson ES-250 guitar will be displayed.
More live music: 3 to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Regatta Park. The lineup will include Garrett “Big G” Jacobson, Adam Ledbetter Quartet, Walter Taylor Band, JAIA, Charlie Christian All-Star Band, Saturday headliner Najee and Sunday headliner Eldredge Jackson.
Information: 524-3800 or www.charliechristianfestival.com.