Jez Graham is one of Atlanta’s musical treasures. If you enjoy music and fine dining, you may have heard him solo, with a trio or accompanying one of Atlanta’s popular vocalists like Francine Reed or Theresa Hightower. Graham has played at the Intercontinental Hotel, the St. Regis, Rays on the River, the Ritz Carlton and many other Atlanta venues. One of his current gigs is at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport providing musical solace to the travelers on Concourse A.
He will be performing solo this Friday, Aug. 17, at the First Existentialist Congregation in Candler Park. The Congregation is handicap accessible, parking is free and plentiful on Candler Park Drive and it is a 10 minute walk from the Candler Park Art Station at 470 Candler Park Drive. Sponsored by the Art Guild, the concert begins at 7:30 and is free. A donation is appreciated.
Some of Graham’s most notable work was with the late musical iconoclast Col. Bruce Hampton. Graham played all over the country with Hampton, from BB King’s in New York to Elvis’ front porch in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Graham also loves trio work, performing often with bass player Ramon Pooser and drummer Bill Hinton. He is also part of a family band featuring his son Bill on bass and his daughter Janna on drums.
How did you become a musician?
I never really thought about doing anything other than being a musician. I always loved listening to records and reading the credits for information about all of my favorite music. I spent lots of time as a kid at the library at Lincoln Center reading books about my favorite musical artists and show business characters.
Why did you choose the piano as your main instrument?
There was a gold upright piano in the living room of the apartment I grew up in. I naturally gravitated towards it and learned to play chords and get through some songs around age 6 and eventually started lessons, first with my Mom’s cousin, Bee Walker, who I called Aunt Bee. I took singing lessons with her and we worked on show tunes. My favorites were “If I Loved You” and “Soliloquy” from Carousel. A few years later, when I started getting more into rock, I went to a teacher named Steve on 200th Street. We worked on reading lead sheets of songs by Leon Russell and Elton John, who I got to see perform in concert at The Fillmore East. I was 10. Elton was the opening act. My brother and I saw so many amazing shows at the Fillmore when I was 10 and 11. I just always loved the piano and things always seem to be okay in the world for me when I am playing one.
Who were your early inspirations?
My earliest musical inspirations were Harpo and Chico Marx. There was something about the space they created during the musical interludes in those madcap films that really got to me. I was also influenced by my father, who worked in radio when I was growing up and the D.J.’s on the stations he was affiliated with. Around the age of 12, I started taking jazz piano lessons with Mike Schiffer and used to love listening to him play standards at different venues around The Berkshires. He taught me jazz history, shared his record collection and knowledge and inspired and influenced me in so many ways as did my other teachers out west, Art Lande and W.A. Mathieu.
What are some of the special moments from your musical career?
Most recently a very special moment was a gig at The Apple House in Decatur, which was a reunion of our family band. Both of our kids make us so proud as human beings as well as musicians. Bill is a jazz pianist/composer/and teacher and Janna is a New York-based drummer, songwriter and teacher, She also has a great band in Brooklyn called The Unified Field Orchestra. For the reunion concert, we played interpretations of rare Brian Wilson/Beach Boys music that they grew up on in our house and it was such a blast. One of my favorite sessions I’ve been a part of was in 2010 when I played with original Beach Boy David Marks for his “Live on Sunset” album, which was recorded at the site of the legendary Western Studios in Hollywood. I also loved the gigs with David Marks and The Summertime Blues Band that we played at Eddies Attic and at The Endless Summer Quarterly Pet Sounds Safari near Charlotte in 2009. I have also enjoyed several collaborations with poet and Beach Boys/Motown Lyricist Stephen Kalinich and I’m still blown away at how effortlessly our song “Surrender” came together, He sent me the lyrics and the song just materialized right away, I’d always wanted to write a song for Francine Reed and it means so much to me to hear her sing it.
You have worked with many wonderful musicians including Francine Reed and Col. Bruce Hampton. Can you share a few memories?
I first played with Francine in ’95. She is a dear friend of our family, we love her and her family so much and are grateful for our time together. The gigs we do at Eddie’s Attic every February for Black History Month have always been highlights. I think I’ve only missed one year. It’d be hard to top playing with her at her induction to the 2014 Georgia Music Hall Of Fame, but that same year she sang “Surrender” in concert with The DeKalb Symphony Orchestra along with my Trio and our daughter Janna on percussion. It’s hard to pick just one or two moments with Bruce. Our friendship goes back to the late ’80’s but it was around 2008 that we started our weekly Tuesday lunches which soon became legendary. We miss him so much but he is always with us and around us and it’s important to keep practicing the lessons he taught us, one of which is “Every gig is Carnegie Hall”.
What challenges/inspires you now?
The challenge is also the thing that keeps us on out toes and in the moment. To create something from nothing is such an awesome gift and responsibility. So to answer your question what challenges/inspires me now, it’s the moment of creation at the piano. I’m challenged every time I play to go a little further and explore different places.
For more about Jez Graham, visit jezgraham.com.