Najee among top artists at 11th annual music festival in Miami Gardens
BY PENNY DICKERSON
Three days of soulful and sultry music returns to the City of Miami Gardens March 18-20 for the 11th Annual Jazz in the Gardens (JITG) Music Festival at Sun Life Stadium.
Festival organizers expect crowds to surpass last year’s 73,000 fans who trekked from all points of the globe to attend one of the music industry’s most celebrated and renowned multi-day concert events.
Comedian and nationally syndicated radio personality Rickey Smiley will once again serve as host and segue the audience with humor through a star-studded line-up representing genres from jazz to soul to gospel.
Performers are Aretha Franklin, Usher, Janelle Monae, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Michael McDonald, Average White Band, Kool & the Gang, Fred Hammond, Brian Culbertson, The Jazz in the Gardens All Stars featuring Najee, Alex Bugnon and Regina Belle. Local artists include CriStyle Renae, April Raquel and thee Kouture Funk Band, and Lavie.
A mayoral welcome
Miami Gardens is a burgeoning 20 square miles of cultural diversity located mid-way between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Incorporated on May 13, 2003 as the 33rd city in Miami-Dade County, it is the third largest city in Miami-Dade, after Miami and Hialeah, and boasts a population of more than 110,000.
It is conveniently accessed by I-95, the Palmetto Expressway and the Florida Turnpike and called home by residents who are among the working and middle class. The city ranks as the largest predominantly African-American municipality in Florida, many who also are of Caribbean descent.
“The Jazz in the Garden festival gives us a wonderful opportunity to not only have fun, but also showcase Miami Gardens as a destination,” said Mayor Oliver G. Gilbert III.
The Sun Life Stadium, located in Miami Gardens, is the home stadium of the Miami Dolphins.
“Any other time people are coming to the city it’s for a football game, so this is something that expands the tourism venue and also allows our residents to interact with one another. It’s extraordinary and not just a benefit to the city, but we partner with the Miami-Dade and Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, so when people come, they stay in area hotels and also patronize other restaurants,” Gilbert added.
Jazz in the Garden is set to deliver a triad of days filled with fun and ethnic foods, including conch salad scooped-out of pineapples from festival favorite Keith Reed (Reed & Sons Catering) and dry-rubbed barbecue spare ribs from Bone-na-fide.
“This event also helps our local business who serve as [festival] vendors,” said Gilbert. “People plan their fiscal year around Jazz in the Gardens because it’s that much boom for them and people who attend are able and willing to spend money.”
From the jerk chicken to Fruitzen Delite all-natural frozen desserts, Gilbert and the city welcome jazz fans new and old to the “Gardens.”
Najee in the Gardens
Performing at Jazz in the Gardens is an experience jazz impressario Najee always looks forward to as the audience is generally comprised of his early fan base who also bought his albums and supported the career climb.
“It’s always great to come back to Miami,” said Najee. “I’ll be joined by Regina Belle and Alex Bugnon and it’s going to be a blast.”
Attendees will be delighted to know that his 65-minute festival performance repertoire will primarily be a 30-year anniversary tribute to “Najee’s Theme” with a few selections from his new release, “You, Me and Forever.” His new single “Fly with the Wind” has been No. 1 for two weeks in a row on Billboard.
A jazz classic
Najee continues to reign as an iconic, industry trailblazer 30 years after the release of his award-winning album, “Najee’s Theme,’’ the latter of which blessed radio sound waves with the signature hit “Najee’s Theme” along with “Sweet Love” and “Betcha Don’t Know.”
Well, we betcha fans don’t know the back story of how a native New Yorker with boyish good looks broke barriers by ingeniously fusing the sounds of R&B and Jazz. Call it a 1980s risk, but the results have produced two Grammy nominations, two platinum and four gold albums. And we’d be remiss to not give volume to his multiple Soul Train Awards and recognition by the NAACP Image Awards.
“I never, ever plan in my mind when I make a record that I want a Grammy nomination. My mind doesn’t work that way,’’ said Najee in a recent Florida Courier interview. “I love when a group of people get together and decide you’ve been chosen to win this award or whatever, and I am always grateful because I understand the nature of my business and recognize that there are so many talented people out here. It humbles me.
Accolades aside, the journey of how Najee staked claim on the jazz scene in the mid-1980s is a narrative with its own impressive lyrics. Moreover, he has unequivocally earned a legend’s status with zero hints that his longevity will cease.
Jerome “Najee” Rasheed could have been just another fun-loving kid roaming the streets of Jamaica-Queens, New York but fate found him and God’s gift of music bloomed in his soul. Along with his younger brother Fareed, whom Najee admits to being “tied by the hip,” the talented instrumentalists attended the prestigious New England Conservatory of music. The latter laid the foundation for a stellar performance and recording career.
“New England at that time had a strong jazz department that competed with the Berkley School of Music which was right up the street,” said Najee. “There was a teacher there named Joe Allard who had taught John Coltrane and I wanted to study with him, so I auditioned and got in.”
Najee added a caveat: He studied and learned classical musical but his natural inclination has always been jazz and R&B.
“As a performer, jazz is more in my soul and heart,” said Najee.
The tenor saxophone and flute shared Najee’s affection, but a slight, sibling dispute with Fareed over Najee also learning to play the soprano saxophone proved prosperous. The smaller woodwind instrument produces higher notes, but is known to challenge intonation; however, Najee’s mastery of breathing technique serves as the capstone of his professional performance delivery.
“I additionally studied with flutist Harold Jones as part of a youth program at the Manhattan School of Music; Jones was one of the first African-Americans to play with the New York Philharmonic,” said Najee, whose mentoring, influences and collaborations include some of the industry’s legendary greats including Quincy Jones, Stanley Clarke and George Duke.
According to Najee, the tenor, soprano and flute collectively “make up my musical personality, and the instrument I use depends on the composition.’’
The sexiest name
Playing in local bands in and around New York marked the early beginnings for Najee and Fareed, who played guitar. Jerome, as his family and inner circle knew him, was now branded to the world as simply, “Najee.”
“It was that era where everyone was using one name: Sade, Prince, Luther, Whitney,” Najee explained. “So, I went with the marketing trend and the name that was sexiest!” he quipped.
The breaks came quick, beginning with invites by Chaka Khan and Freddie Jackson, but it was the signing with Capital EMI records that launched his first album in 1986, and the rest is jazz history.
“I gotta be honest. When I recorded ‘Najee’s Theme,’ I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing. I knew I wanted to do a commercial record, but what I recorded, in my mind, was an R&B record with a saxophone. The critics and everybody called it jazz because they heard a saxophone voice,” Najee unabashedly shared.
“I pursued R&B because I knew that’s where the buying public was and, of course, you take a little criticism for that, but it was a good decision in hindsight because we had a $60,000 budget and were fortunate that we took that little $60,000 and recorded what turned out to be a platinum record,” he added.
A brother’s keeper
While legions of music industry artists suffer the ill report of financial loss from bad management, Najee has been blessed with having his most trusted companion at the leadership helm of his career: his brother Fareed is also his manager.
“Me and Fareed collaborated on most of my early work and producing albums, but over time, he didn’t like the road anymore and wanted to be closer to home to raise his kids,” offered Najee. “He produced Tokyo Blue (and others) and I would have to say, that project is one my most endearing because we did it together, front to back, which established us and allowed us to stay in the game this long,” he noted.
According to Najee, the brothers made an early career decision that they were going to invest their money into their own recording studio and when the record industry takes its turn – “as it does for all artists,” adds Najee – that they would be able to ride the wave.
“Our goal was to still have a good life, put our kids through college, and not stress over having to do something because money is necessary,” Najee explained and added that having a brother wise enough to see the future, not living above his means, and putting money where it belonged for marketing, all attributed to success.
“I am a studio musician who loves performing live and in the studio,” said Najee. “My career for the past 30 years has been a combination, and I am blessed to have access to both worlds.”
For more on Najee’s career and tour season, visit www.najeeofficial.com.