A musician’s life unfolds in waves.
There are the quiet times – no gigs, no recordings, no playing late at night. And then there are the weeks where everyone is a stage.
So it is with contemporary jazz, R&B and alto funk, tenor and soprano saxophonist Tony Exum Jr. for a weekend in February.
But right now, the soft-spoken Colorado Springs native is nestled in a couch at Art111 Gallery & Art Supply, where he often comes to relax and connect with friends. This is a marked difference from the musician who can often be seen at jazz shows and festivals wearing his derby or Kangol flat cap, and strolling off stage to mingle with the crowd while he plays solo.
“I’m an introvert, but I have to be an extrovert in this business,” said Exum, who is also an on-air host for Jazz 93.5. The newly signed artist to BSE Recordings, best known in the music industry for the distinctive sound he exudes from his soprano saxophone, is a wanted man.
On Friday and Saturday, he’ll be seated with reggae band Lion Souljahs to celebrate Bob Marley’s birthday at Herman’s Hideaway in Denver. Saturday morning he has a recording session. Later in the weekend, he will travel to Boulder, where he will perform at a benefit night for people who lost their homes in the Boulder County fires in December. And next weekend, he’ll help usher in Valentine’s Day with a “Sax and Romance 3.0” concert at The Gold Room, alongside singer and labelmate Omar Wilson.
“On stage, I’m this 6’5″ 300-pound dude, and then I cower as soon as I put my horn away,” Exum said. “As soon as I hit the stage or pick up the horn and start to play, that personality comes out. I had to learn to reconcile the two.
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In January, it was announced that the lifelong musician had achieved what many of his peers dream of – a record deal. After years of scratching his life as a professional — releasing singles and two albums, playing gigs and festivals around the country, and playing on recordings by other musicians on the national smooth jazz circuit — he was on his way. agreement to remain a freelance artist for the rest of his career. That changed after a few conversations with BSE Recordings CEO Lou Humphrey, though Exum tried not to get their hopes up. Until one morning in September, when he woke up with a record deal in his email.
“It was very disappointing for me,” he said. “I lay in bed for another hour staring at my phone, thinking I had a record deal. I read it and I reread it and I reread it one more time. was funny. It’s an adjustment to your mentality when you’ve been an independent artist for so long.
Humphrey, who was looking for a smooth jazz artist to add to his label’s roster, had heard Exum’s music five months earlier. They are currently working on a new single, due out in the spring.
“When I heard it, I was blown away,” Humphrey said. “I know a lot of saxophone greats, like Marion Meadows, Najee, Dave Davis. When I heard Tony, he was up there with these great legends. He was the one we needed. »
Raised on jazz
Thanks to his mother and uncle, Exum’s childhood was steeped in jazz: David Sanborn, Ronnie Laws, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, the Earth, Wind and Fire horns. Saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., in particular, fascinated him as a child.
“It was a big part of our household,” Exum said. “I took a liking to it very early on. My mother wanted to make sure that I was cultured, that I had a wide path through music.
One summer of 1986, when Exum was 11 years old, he found a true muse: his uncle. He was back in the Springs for a visit after his family moved to Biloxi, Mississippi when he was 5. The family was gathered at her grandmother’s house, when her uncle started moaning on his sax in the garage. Later that summer he heard him play again, this time in the Army Band on July 4 in the Acacia Park bandshell.
“He set that scene on fire,” Exum said. “I want to be him. I want to do this.”
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His uncle handed over the old sax he played during his Harrison High School days, along with army band music books, and sent his nephew back to Biloxi. After Exum and his family returned to the Springs years later, the teenager, then a largely self-taught musician, attended and graduated from Mitchell High School, where he decided music was his calling. , and headed to the University of Denver, where he earned a Bachelor of Music degree.
“When he performs, there’s a spiritual connection to it — his music serves people,” said his father, State House Rep. Tony Exum Sr. “I’m not saying that in a religious way. it’s going on in that person’s life, if they’re going through a tough time or struggle, you can put their music on and they’ll take care of your predicament, sometimes if you’re having a good day, it makes you happier.
Build a career
If you’re wondering how one tackles the beast of making a living playing music, you’re not alone. Exum wasn’t entirely clear on that either, although it helped, he was asked to play on a few local projects during his senior year of high school.
But a few recordings don’t make a professional career, and after college he moved back to the Springs and got the same job a lot of people had in the late ’90s – working in a call center. From there, he turned to insurance, where he spent several years, but it was always only a means to an end: “I was always a little distracted because I wanted to be a musician . I didn’t know how to get into it full time.
In 2009 he was back to work in a call center, and not with pleasure, although by then he had released an album and was working on concerts as a solo artist and with his band. He was fired, and on his way home he decided he couldn’t take it anymore – he would pursue music full-time. It was not an easy choice. He was no longer a young kid out of college with no responsibilities. Now he was the father of two young girls.
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But the same evening, he received a call from a man from an entertainment company asking him to be his manager. He said yes, and the marketing machine kicked into gear. Soon Exum was doing interviews and radio shows, performing in Washington, DC, and taking advantage of a new thing called social media. In 2011, he went on tour.
“My name was starting to build a bit – here’s this kid from Colorado with a nice record,” he said. “I become this national artist. My life is changing. It felt like I could really do that. I get paid to be an artist. People come to see me play my music.
Since then his career has been touring, performing, recording, rehearsing. He released a second album, and because smooth jazz is a singles market, he regularly releases new songs. His latest song, “Get at You,” dropped in October and reached No. 66 on the charts, a number he likes. Things are about to change with the new label taking over her career – a third album is on the way, and a new single with label mate, singer Arika Kane, will be released shortly.
“His game appeals to everyone,” said Wayne Jahkama, founder of Lion Souljahs. “He has that healing tone. For reggae, once you add that sax, and the way he plays it, with love and care and divinity, because God is always there, and he’s a church-going guy, it brings a spiritual essence.
Unfortunately, his beloved uncle and his muse never got to see Exum’s career blossom. He died two decades ago. Exum was on his way to a concert in Steamboat Springs four days before his death, and he still remembers the last words his uncle said to him.
“He looked me in the eye and told me you had a lot of talent, don’t let anything or anyone take that away from you,” Exum recalled. “When he died, I couldn’t touch my horn for a month. It was heartbreaking. Then I said you know, he wouldn’t be happy with me right now. You promised him that you would never stop.
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