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Local Listens: Elijah Jamal Balbed

We shine an occasional spotlight on area musicians. This week, we talk to a 20-year-old saxophone player.

Photograph by Cammy Termini.

When he was a kid growing up in Silver Spring, all saxophone player Elijah Jamal Balbed wanted to be was a karate fighter. The dream was even somewhat plausible—he got a second-degree black belt when he was 12—but in high school, when he began playing jazz seriously, he decided to change career paths.

Now a jazz-studies major at Howard University, Elijah Jamal has become a well-known staple in the Washington jazz world, playing steady gigs Monday and Thursday nights along U Street, Northwest. Additional résumé highlights include performing at Twins Jazz Club, HR 57, Strathmore, and the Kennedy Center—where he’ll play for the fourth time on November 6 with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble. Amid practicing, performing, and going to school, Elijah also teaches and helps out at local music stores, in the name of getting more people interested in jazz.

In a scene where Elijah is often the youngest musician in the room, he’s snagged quite a few credentials that put him on par with people who’ve been playing longer. In 2007, Elijah earned a Maryland Distinguished Scholar award, an Overall Best Soloist award in the Maryland Band Director’s Association Big Band Festival, and a Best Soloist award at the 2008 Festival Disney Jazz competition. Additionally, he’s been called a “major talent” by Fred Foss, a former saxophonist in Ray Charles’s band.

Still, Elijah hasn’t let all this go to his head. He says his accomplishments are “great, but I still have a long way to go.”

Read on to find out more about Elijah, the Washington jazz scene, and his local gigs.

Name: Elijah Jamal.

Age: 20.

Best local venues:
“Bohemian Caverns and Cafe Nema.”

Best bars to hear music:
“Utopia and 1905.”

First song that made you want to play saxophone:
“ ‘Freddie Freeloader’ from the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. John Coltrane’s sax playing on that amazed me. Still does.”

Favorite local band or musician:
“The Young Lions. They’re constantly pushing the boundaries of music and taking it to the next level. They do the late-night set at Bohemian Caverns on Fridays. Check them out if you haven’t already.”

Best thing about the Washington music scene:
“Lots of places to play and lots of amazing musicians. Also, the vibe. Washington has a certain homely vibe amongst the jazz community that isn’t present when you go to other cities.”

Worst thing about the Washington music scene:
“Not enough people who support and appreciate live music. It hurts to see when there’s great music going on and an empty audience, whether I’m performing or not.”

Craziest gig or tour memory:
“I went on tour in Japan this summer, and in Nagano we performed at a very sacred Buddhist temple that’s only open to the public every seven years, so people had come from across the country. We played our set on a huge stage that sat just outside of the temple, and we had to bow to the Buddha before we played. Between that and the crowd of thousands of people there watching us play, it was crazy. Maybe it was the fact that we were on the complete opposite side of the world.”

Finish this sentence: “When I’m not making music, you can find me . . .”
“ . . . practicing.”

Rolling Stones or the Beatles?

Digital download or hard copy?
“Hard copy all the way—you can’t get liner notes from the downloads.”

Rolling Stone or Spin?
“I like Downbeat magazine.”

Club show or festival?
“Festival. Club gigs tend to not pay as well, and at a festival people come specifically to listen to the music.”

What influenced the band’s name?
“My premier band’s name is the Elijah Jamal Experience. Jamal is actually a hyphenated part of my first name, which comes from my Arabic blood, but I’ve adapted it as a stage name and that’s what people in the area tend to call me.”

If you could listen to only one album for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
“I was going to say there isn’t any single album that I could listen to for the rest of my life; however there’s one album that I think for the sole purpose of attempting to learn the material I could listen to it forever. On John Coltrane’s album Live at the Village Vanguard, he’s playing so much sax that I could probably spend the rest of my life studying it and still wouldn’t master his concepts!”

Do you have a day job or are you a full-time musician?
“I’m currently a full-time student, but I play three to five gigs a week and do part time for work for Middle C and Dale Music, two music stores in the area. And I teach privately a little bit.”

You play at bars Mondays and Thursdays. Tell us what it’s like and how you began playing at these spots.
“I play on Mondays at a bar/restaurant called Utopia on U Street. I play there with my main band, the Elijah Jamal Experience, which features myself on sax, Eric Wheeler on bass, and Nathan Jolley on drums. We play a handful of my original compositions and our twist on standards. The guys there liked my playing, so they asked me to play there on Mondays when the gig opened up. Thursdays, I play at a place on Ninth Street, Northwest, called 1905. From the outside, the yellow awning with a key logo doesn’t look like much, but wait until you get inside. I play there with a trumpet player in DC named Joe Brotherton and his band, the Cricket Fusion Quartet. We play a lot of free jams that eventually morph into melodies and songs, which has started to give us a repertoire. Another plus about the club is that they sell the American version of absinthe, which is one of 1905’s main attractions.”

Is new music in the works?

“New music is always in the works. I’m constantly composing and thinking of new ideas.”

Describe your dream gig or tour.
“Getting paid to play the music I like to play is good enough for me. Of course, I wouldn’t mind traveling the world while I’m at it.”

Most influential jazz musician you’ve played with:
“Charlie Young is my sax teacher, and he’s a master of the saxophone and truly one of the best in the world. He could take a classical-saxophone solo and tear it apart and then go to a jazz jam session and make everybody there want to go home and practice. He has also taught me a lot about life values. He’s a true musical genius and a wonderful human being.”

Something about jazz you wish more people knew:
“Jazz is an intimate art. To play jazz at its highest possible level, you have to completely let yourself go and be one with the music. When you improvise over the chords of a jazz tune, there’s so much information going through your head that if your mind and body aren’t completely connected to the music, there’ll be a very important element absent from your playing. It’s an emotional connection.”

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