A love of jazz took root early in life for Tony Exum Jr. Raised in a military family, Exum spent his childhood living abroad, but his summers in Colorado. That was when he would watch his uncle practice and perform for a U.S. Army band at Fort Carson. Now the Springs-based jazzman has three of his own albums, performs across the country and has worked with renowned jazz artists around the globe. Listen in on our conversation with Tony Exum Jr.
Springs: How did you discover your passion for jazz?
Tony Exum Jr.: I was introduced to jazz mainly through family, particularly an uncle—Larry Francis Jr.—who was also a saxophone player. When I was 11 or 12, he gave me my first saxophone. Once I decided I was going to get a saxophone, he came in and said, “If this is what you want to do, this is how you should approach it.” So he was an early mentor and teacher.
I played in a middle school band, and a few years later we moved back to Colorado. I started playing in jazz band at Emerson Junior High School and Mitchell High School, and my senior year is when I began to learn or realize that my passion in life was music. I went to a David Sanborn concert, and I think that’s what got me. That concert is when I finally made the decision that music was going to be my life, or at least a big part of it.
How did you pursue a music career?
My idea was to major in music at college, graduate and then start gigging. Ironically that whole process started the summer before my freshman year of college. I just happened to be playing at some kind of outdoor festival, and a young producer saw me and told me, “You’re very talented, and I’ve got this song I want you to record.”
So the first time I was actually in the studio, I was about 18 years old. It kind of snowballed from there. I started getting calls to do recording sessions and demos, and I started getting gigs. My very first paid gig was ironically for my principal at Mitchell High School for her 25th wedding anniversary. I was paid a whopping $75.
What artists have influenced you?
I grew up listening to all types of music. My mother had a very eclectic taste in music, so I took a lot of influence from her. I grew up listening to everything from hip-hop to R&B at that time. So I kind of had a fusion of influences. Once the saxophone was my main voice, then I got more serious about listening to jazz voices.
What motivates you in making music?
Because you have such a strong love for it, the love of music supersedes the pitfalls of the music business. I love sharing my gift and bringing it to people in different ways. I just can’t see myself not doing it—that’s a nightmare for me.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on my new album. It’s tentatively called New Beginnings. It’s a great record. I’m working with some really stellar cats in the music world: Marcus Anderson, Joel Del Rosario, some guys out of Tulsa who came up under Wayman Tisdale. This one is going to be my best record to date, I think. I’m doing a lot more writing and production on the record. I’m looking for a spring or early summer release.
Why the title New Beginnings?
It’s been about four and a half years since my last CD release. I had some major changes in my life. I was married and then divorced, and that was a rough situation. I had to regroup and refocus and regenerate not only my career, but who I was as a person. I watched my daughters grow up. This is a new era for me; this is a new time.
What are you involved in here in the Springs?
It’s funny because although I live here and this is my hometown, I tend to play a lot more in Denver and abroad. But what I do try to do here is lend my talents to different community functions. For example, with the African American Youth Leadership Conference coming up, I’m doing a couple of sessions on leadership in the music world. It’s natural for me to give back in as many ways as I can. I do concerts here periodically and reach out to local radio stations. If it’s just me showing up to support another artist or making a guest appearance, I don’t have a problem doing that as long as it’s for a good cause and it’s something that’s positive.
Hear Tony Exum Jr. at these upcoming shows. Follow his complete performance schedule at tonyexumjr.com.
May 20, 4th Annual Nothing But the Sax, Soiled Dove Underground, Denver
May 27, Tony Exum Jr. with Avant & Keke Wyatt, Pikes Peak Center
June 30, Jazz in the Garden Concert Series, Grace and St. Stephens Episcopal Church
Motif Jazz Cafe has reopened in the Cheyenne Mountain area, bringing a dedicated jazz club back to the Springs scene. Catch fine dining and live contemporary jazz Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from a rotation of local and national musicians like Triple Play and Brad Bietry.