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Why jazz singer José James is obsessed with the sound of the music from 1978

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

And this was some of the great music of 1978.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

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CHIC: (Singing) Ah, freak out.

GLORIA GAYNOR: (Singing) I will survive.

CHAKA KHAN: (Singing) I'm every woman.

PARLIAMENT: (Singing) Flashlight.

EARTH, WIND AND FIRE: (Singing) Ba-dee-ya (ph), dancing in September...

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MARTÍNEZ: Whoo (ph). What a trip down memory lane. 1978 is also when jazz singer Jose James was born. You could definitely call him an old soul. He's obsessed with these sounds, and they inform so much of his new album called "1978."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLANET NINE")

JOSE JAMES: (Singing) Got to feel it to know, ooh, feel it to know. You got to feel it to know.

MARTÍNEZ: I asked Jose James if he had a mission statement for this album.

JAMES: The mission statement is party and politics. To me, that summarizes the late '70s. You know, people knew how to get down, and I feel like socially, it also took a stand for something. So that's - the album is divided into those two parts.

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MARTÍNEZ: So tell me what parts - when it comes to party and politics - how that is kind of applied to the '70s 'cause I think most people think of the '60s when they think of, like, politics in music.

JAMES: When I think of particularly Black music and artists like Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, you know, they really were some of the most popular artists of their time, and they were some of the first to really put it out there. So it was more like that. It was more like let's slide it in in that way where it still feels accessible. You could still dance to it like a song like "38th & Chicago," but there's that social message embedded within it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "38TH AND CHICAGO")

JAMES: (Singing) How long, Lord? How many times? How many years? How many dying?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, so I wanted to ask you about that song, "38th & Chicago." It gets its title from the cross street in Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered. You grew up in Minneapolis. Is it safe to say that you know that spot?

JAMES: I do. That intersection is about three blocks from my mom's house...

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, wow.

JAMES: ...And two blocks from where I had my first show. And yeah, I've walked by what was then called Cup Foods a million times. That was the local bodega, local grocery store. Yeah, I always had a bad feeling going by there and tried to avoid it as much as I could, to be honest. But when I saw the news happen, I was abroad, and it just broke my heart because that's my neighborhood. That's my neighborhood.

MARTÍNEZ: What did you want to convey with that song?

JAMES: When something like this happens, it gets sensationalized and polarized, and people sort of take sides and kind of start yelling at each other. And I think for me, it's this idea of, this is not a one-time occurrence. You know, this is a reality that Black people and brown people live. This has been my reality consciously since I was 14, when I was first pulled out of a car at gunpoint by a cop for being brown. And it really changes your perspective. And I think it's just this question, something that Marvin would have asked, just how long, Lord? How long do we have to endure this until we can recognize each other as brother and It's really that simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "38TH AND CHICAGO")

JAMES: (Singing) How long, Lord? Those flashing eyes. A father's scream. Your name divine. Streets running red. Bodies chalked in white. And we're all alone. We don't want to die.

MARTÍNEZ: When I listened to "38th & Chicago," I had the lyrics in front of me, too, so I could definitely read what was going on in the song. Very serious song, very heavy song - but I'll admit, I'm, like, tapping my knee...

JAMES: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: ...You know? And I'm, like, you know - how do you mix those two together?

JAMES: (Laughter) It goes back to Marvin, who I love. I've always said...

MARTÍNEZ: Marvin Gaye.

JAMES: ...My three big...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

JAMES: Yeah, Marvin Gaye. My three biggest influences are Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. And they were all very serious artists but very accessible. And when you hear Marvin saying, (singing) mother, mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Mother, mother. There's too many of you crying.

JAMES: (Singing) There's too many of you crying.

It's a serious statement, but it also is so beautiful with that kicking bass line that you're kind of grooving to it, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON")

GAYE: (Singing) There's far too many of you now.

JAMES: And I think that's the right way to convey a political message or a serious message, you know, for me. Make it still danceable because it is about celebrating life at the end of the day, you know? Musicians are not usually sad, morose people. Like, we want to get the party started. We want to make people feel good, and that certainly was the message and the mission of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET IT")

JAMES: (Singing) Higher. In ecstasy, desire. Get next to me. I'm going to give you everything you need.

MARTÍNEZ: Another thing I wanted to ask you about - because as I'm listening to all the songs on your album, and I know that - I've seen you being described as a jazz singer all the time. I was thinking, like, this guy could, like, be dropped into Earth, Wind & Fire or Santana or Bloodstone and not miss a beat, you know?

JAMES: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: If you could, like, take a time machine, I think you'd fit right in with those bands, and I don't know if anyone thinks of those bands as jazz bands.

JAMES: Right. Well, if you find the time machine, let me know 'cause I'm ready.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter) I'll go with you.

JAMES: You know, all those guys - they all played jazz. They all knew jazz. I mean, that's the sort of secret Quincy Jones knew. All these musicians were trained in jazz. When I think of jazz, it's not always, you know, sha-ba-ba-do-bop (ph), you know, swinging. It's...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

JAMES: It's off the wall. You know, it's sexy. It's fun. And, you know, it goes even further because, you know, like, disco bands, you know, funk bands, you know, they would go - come home and listen to Miles Davis or John Coltrane, you know? So it's all in there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATURDAY NIGHT (NEED YOU NOW)")

JAMES: (Singing) Saturday night, I'm thinking of you, baby.

MARTÍNEZ: The song "Saturday Night" - OK, so we're talking, you know, party and politics. "Saturday Night" sounds like pure party music, though, right?

JAMES: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. That is my tribute to Michael Jackson, who I saw in Minneapolis when I was 8 on the "Bad" tour. I had the BPM and the beats per minute. I knew where I wanted it to feel for the dance floor, and I came in to them for a writing session. I was like, guys, I want this just to be like - I want this to feel like "Lovely Day" or, like, "Off The Wall."

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

JAMES: You know? I want it to be fun. And boy, did they deliver.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATURDAY NIGHT (NEED YOU NOW)")

JAMES: (Singing) It'll save me. Oh, I can't fight this feeling, something in my soul that comes to me when I feel your body rocking with mine.

I think this album is a summation of everything I've done, and I think it sets the direction for everything I'm going to do.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Jose James. His new album is called "1978." Jose, thanks.

JAMES: Thank you, brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATURDAY NIGHT (NEED YOU NOW)")

JAMES: (Singing) ...Body all through the night. Oh, I can't fight this feeling. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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