Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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James, Bob (Robert)

Pianist Bob James has been at the forefront of jazz-fusion since its beginnings. A versatile musician, he is well known to television audiences through his compositions for the hit series "Taxi." His recordings since the 1970s are some of the most sampled by hip-hop artists.

Robert James was born on December 25th, 1939 in Marshall, Missouri, located in Saline County. James started playing the piano when he was four years old. James has stated that he wasn’t into practicing classical music and that the freedom he first heard in jazz made him gravitate to the music.

Upon graduating high school, James enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to begin collegiate music studies. In the early 1960s, James performed at the esteemed Notre Dame Jazz Festival in South Bend, Indiana. One of the judges of the competition was a young trumpeter/A&R named Quincy Jones. Jones was very impressed by the skills displayed by James and his trio. The James trio wound up winning the festival and in 1962, James friend Quincy Jones signed him to a record contract.

James’ first album, Bold Conceptions, found the pianist along with bassist Ron Brooks and drummer Bob Pozar playing jazz standards including John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” Following the release of his debut album, James moved to New York City and since he had befriended Quincy Jones, he was able to secure several jobs including being musical director for vocalist Sarah Vaughn in 1965. James appeared on the 1965 Quincy Jones produced Vaughn album Viva Vaughn!. James worked with Vaughn until 1968, when he left to become a session musician.

While working as a session musician in New York City, James recorded with Quincy Jones on sessions, vocalists Roberta Flack and Dionne Warwick. In 1973, James joined the staff of ECM Records, for whom he played, arranged, and produced a wide array of artists, ranging from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard to bassist Ron Carter.

In the early 1970s, James also appeared on several albums by tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine including Cherry and Don’t Mess with Mr. T which featured Ron Carter, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and drummer Idris Muhammad.

In 1974, James appeared on saxophonist Grover Washington’s album Mister Magic and is featured on the title track along with drummer Harvey Mason and trumpeter Jon Faddis. Also in 1974, James released his album One, which featured the songs “Nautilus” and “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” both of which have become frequently sampled tracks by hip-hop artists.

James continued his work behind the scenes when in 1975 he worked on albums by Neil Diamond and Paul Simon. In 1978, James composed the theme music for the television series "Taxi," which starred Tony Danza and Danny DeVito. James composed all of the music used for the entire run of the series.

In the 1980s, James moved into smooth jazz. He formed a partnership with alto saxophonist David Sanborn, and they released the platinum album Double Vision. In 1981, James released the album Sign of the Times, which served as the backdrop for Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” and rapper Warren G’s hit “Regulators.” In 1991, James along with guitarist Lee Ritenour, drummer Harvey Mason, and bassist Nathan East formed the group Fourplay. Their debut self-titled album, though quite heavy on the pop and lighter side of jazz, sold over one million copies and spent a considerable amount of time on the Billboard album charts.

Fourplay's 1993 album Between the Sheets achieved gold status and was nominated for a Grammy award. Their 1995 album Elixir also achieved gold status and elevated the group to pop level success. This was cemented in 2007 when Fourplay became one of the first music groups to be honored by the United States Congress for the efforts and achievements in the music industry.

James continues to tour and record, and has recorded an album with his daughter Hilary, Flesh and Blood. While James had deep roots in jazz, his music has served as a platform for the evolution of pop-jazz-fusion and even more importantly helped plant the seeds of sampling in hip-hop music.

Select Discography

As Bob James

Bold Conceptions (A&M, 1962)

One (ECM, 1974)

Sign of the Times (Warner Brothers, 1981)

With Grover Washington

Mister Magic (1974)

With Stanley Turrentine

Cherry (CTI, 1972)

Don’t Mess With Mr. T (CTI, 1973)

With Fourplay

Fourplay (Warner Brothers, 1991)

Between the Sheets (Warner Brothers, 1993)

Elixir (Warner Brothers, 1995)

Contributor: Jared Pauley