Fifteen year-old Rodney James-Spann gives credit to his mother for his cool. “My mom is basically dedicating herself to my career and to what I’m most passionate about—my music,” he says. Sesame James, Rodney’s mother, admits, “If it was up to me, he’d be a pianist.”
The Brooklyn teen started his journey in music at 7 years of age with piano lessons—a gift from is godmother. Ms. James continues, “I realized I had to let him choose the instrument he wanted to play.” Rodney plays the piano, but in the end, his choice was the saxophone.
Introduced to the sax in middle school by his music teacher, Mr. Wayne, Rodney hasn’t put the woodwind instrument down since. “I also started listening to a lot of John Coltrane,” Rodney says. (That’ll do it.) “I love Coltrane, his ideas and compositions are unbelievable.” Saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin are also among his musical inspirations.
Outside of attending Talent Unlimited High School on New York City’s Upper East Side, Rodney spends his time practicing the sax, listening to jazz, studying vintage jazz footage on YouTube, going to auditions and practicing.
“My son is gifted,” says Mom. “So early on, getting him to practice was a challenge.” She warned Rodney that practicing was important because he’d run into young musicians one day who are as good or better. At high school, he finally met the kids his mom was talking about, and there was a shift in Rodney. “Something clicked, and he started practicing like nobody’s business!”
Auditioning for the Music Advancement Program at The Juilliard School, Rodney was accepted to this prestigious curriculum for high school students. “I wish I’d found Juilliard earlier on for him,” says Ms. Jones. “His music has elevated so much since he’s been there.”
One of the best pieces of advice Ms. James got from another parent at Juilliard was to take her budding musician to live jazz shows. Sesame says, “There are lots of elder musicians Rodney likes. I said to myself, it’s imperative for Rodney to see these artists now.” Through his mother’s efforts, Rodney has experienced live jazz shows and met musical heroes like Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redmond and Najee—who is now a mentor to him.
“Rodney decided he wanted a soprano saxophone for Christmas,” shares his mom. “I really couldn’t afford it because I just bought him his tenor sax previously. I was clueless as to which one to purchase. I emailed Najee, and he said he wouldn’t allow me to waste money on the wrong sax, so he sold me his. He’s also taken Rodney under his wing.”
Rodney appreciates the benefit of exposure and connection to the seasoned musicians. “I love my mom for taking me to live jazz shows like Ron Carter and Jimmy Heath. Jimmy Heath is one of my favorite people.” Living out his dreams, he’s also met Wynton Marsalis, Esperanza Spalding, Lalah Hathaway, Gerald Albright and Jason Moran.
Rodney doesn’t waste the gift of meeting musical genius. “I ask them questions like, ‘When you were my age, how many hours did you practice? What music school they went to and why?’ I ask [for] advice.” The wisdom he received from saxophonist Kenny Garrett informs his practice. Rodney recalls, “He said, ‘Play what you feel and always be versatile. Don’t get stuck into one thing. Expose yourself to different kinds of music.’ ”
Aware that jazz music is a dynamic part of African-American culture, it saddens him that there aren’t more Black people present at live concerts. “I have a lot friends that aren’t fortunate enough to be exposed like I am. I am really thankful that I am,” says Rodney.
Sesame opens up on the most challenging aspect of supporting her son’s goals: “It’s only me. And if not me, then who?” She goes on, “I love what I do for him. But I’m a single mom, so there are a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure it all out.” As a working mother in law enforcement, she does it the best way she knows how. “No matter what financial difficulties I’m going through, I’m determined to keep him in music.”
Rodney was recently accepted to two coveted music camps. Each costs $5,000. So that he can at least attend one, his mom started a gofundme campaign. “I thought it was crazy for me to do at first. I’m determined for him to go to one or the other.”
Tia Fuller (formerly Beyoncé’s saxophonist in her all-girl band) was so moved by Rodney’s talent, she nominated him for the Vail Jazz Foundation’s workshop in Colorado. Only 12 high school students are chosen for the program, to be mentored by musicians like Grammy Award winner Bill Cunliffe. “Rodney is a good kid,” she says, “but I am overwhelmed by the support and how highly he is regarded, especially by his teachers and the musicians he’s met.”
Laid-back Rodney believes the coolest thing about being a sax player is the intuition and freedom of expression in improv. “Being able to improv is a wonderful thing,” says the young jazzman. “Just being able to play something perfect at the exact moment, not planned, that makes me feel good.”—Joicelyn Dingle
If you’d like to donate in support of sending Rodney to music camp, please go to https://www.gofundme.com/7dgw30.
Cool List From the Coolest: Rodney James-Spann
Jazz Saxophonist: Hank Mobley
Bass Player: Thundercat
Vibraphonist: Roy Ayers
Jazz Trumpeter: Freddie Hubbard
Singer: Erykah Badu
Jazz singer: Lalah Hathaway
Pop Singer: Michael Jackson
Jazz Band: Joshua Redman Elastic Band
Pop Band: The Jackson Five
Music video: “A Long Walk” (Jill Scott)
Book: I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath
Quote: “Funk is making something out of nothing.”—Bootsy Collins
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @editorialgenius.