Jeff Kazee’s Southern Soul
By James Calemine
Jeff Kazee ranks as a versatile musician. Kentucky blood runs through his veins, His great uncle--Buell Kazee banjo virtuoso--taught Kazee’s father how to play music. Kazee absorbed a constant musical diet of traditional country music during his childhood. Kazee’s blending of musical styles reveals his southern influences that transcend all cultural borders.
Kazee cites some of his musical influences as Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Miles Davis, Van Morrison, STAX, Tom Petty, Al Green, Freddy King, Otis Spann, George Jones, Little Feat, Ray Charles and Booker T & The MGs. Now living in New York City, organist-singer-songwriter recently wrote a song called “Give Some More” for Madison Square Garden’s Garden of Dreams Foundation that "make[s] dreams come true for kids in crisis” in the NYC Metro area. Pedal steel phenomenon, Robert Randolph also appears on the song. Kazee and Randolph will appear on various radio and TV shows this week to spread the word for the good cause.
Kazee is a member of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes—a band started by Bruce Springsteen’s band member and Soprano’s star Little Steven many years ago. Kazee was hired by Jon Bon Jovi to serve as his keyboardist on the road recently. In this exclusive Swampland/Mystery And Manners interview, Kazee discusses his musical family, southern roots and his latest song “Give Some More” for Madison Square Garden’s charity Garden of Dreams.
Tell me a little about your Kentucky roots…
JK: All my family is from Kentucky. My father Ned Kazee was from southeastern Kentucky. A place called Salyersville—Ash Fork, Kentucky, actually. That’s where all my family is from. They still live there now. Like lot of Appalachian people they move north to work. We always had music around. I grew up in Ohio. When I got out of high school, he moved the family back down to Kentucky.
How did your musical aptitude begin to take shape?
JK: It was a little like the family business. My dad was a salesman but he is a really good guitarist, singer and he wrote songs.
Wasn’t he related to the great Buell Kazee?
JK: Yeah, that was his first uncle. My great uncle. Buell taught my father how to play the banjo and guitar as well as passing along the songs.
Naturally through the process of osmosis you picked up on music.
JK: I’ve got a brother that’s 8 years older than me that is a great piano player and musician. We always had music around. It was straight country at my house. My dad liked George Jones, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Chet Atkins…that kind of thing.
It could be worse…
JK: I grew up thinking that everyone knew whom Floyd Kramer was-y’know. I didn’t worship at the altar of that stuff but it was just around all the time. I never shied away from it. They were older than me—I’m 41—I was into rock and roll too. Every morning before school it would be on the country station. We didn’t have black music until I started buying records—I was 13 or 14. Then I went crazy. I was going to flea markets and garage sales looking for soul and jazz records.
America’s greatest contribution to the world is music.
JK: I just got back from Europe and that’s the one thing they can’t replicate. It’s one thing we can still export. The way I sing…there’s just a connection between Appalachian white people and Mississippi Delta black guys. It’s the blues. I always fell into that stuff and for a while I tried to imitate it, but that allowed me to really mix it up, as I got older—with straight rock and roll.
Talk about you writing and arranging for TV and Broadway.
JK: Well, I got into New York and I was performing a lot. I like to get up and create stuff. A couple of my friends saw me out playing and they let me know they could use a couple commercial spots, so I’d play and end up arranging them. So, I did that for a while. Then later they had this show—a Brian Wilson Beach Boys show. I love the Beach Boys. They needed a rock and roll guy who could read music and go in and help them out with some arrangements. The music was great, but I was always a Beach Boys fan. Growing up like I did really allowed me to get into a lot of different influences involved in my music. I use it every day.
Talk about your band…
JK: Yeah, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes…it’s a Jersey based band. It came out of the same section as Bruce Springsteen. It’s a white soul band with horns and organ. Southside Johnny is a dynamic performer. We have a loyal following on the eastern seaboard, and in Europe. We just got back from Europe…Amsterdam, Rotterdam…we had a good time. We go there once a year. The band was together long before I got there and I’ve been in the band 11 years now. It was just a bunch of white guys that loved STAX. Little Steven, from Bruce Springsteen’s band and the Sopranos—he and Southside started the band to try and replicate the Motown and STAX sound. Of course, that was right up my ally so they needed a piano player and somehow they found out about me and that’s been my staple. Later on Jon Bon Jovi was a huge fan and he hired me to go on tour with him and do shows. We did a whole thing just dedicated to Memphis soul. I read your interview with Steve Cropper. I’ve been out on the road with him a couple of times. I toured the world with him twice. I was the kid at that time with all these questions.
Talk about your new song for The Garden of Dreams.
JK: Basically some friends out at Madison Square Garden…The Garden of Dreams is a charity organization run through Madison Square Garden. Musicians hang out with athletes and athletes hang out with musicians…to make a long story short, a guy at the Garden who is a big music and sports fans asked me to write a song for this charity organization because they needed a theme song. I’m doing a final mix down tomorrow and I’m going to debut it on The Fan—it’s a big sports-radio talk thing. Next Wednesday Robert and I are going to go on there. I had the riff on the piano. They asked if I’d be interest in working with Robert Randolph and I said I’d write it with him in mind. Robert and I have mutual friends—we’ve hung out at games. I always wanted to work with him. I left a space in the song for him. Lo and behold they loved it—and they wanted to go in and record it the right way. We had a big session a couple of weeks ago and it was great. We had New York’s best players to do the tune. Robert came in and we did it. At every event at Madison Square Garden they’ll do a video about the Garden of Dreams on these big video screens. They own Radio City Music Hall…they own the Garden…the Knicks…the Rangers—they’re resources are huge. It’s a cool thing for me because my local market happens to be the biggest market in the world. To be associated with somebody cool like Robert Randolph is really great. I sing lead vocals on it as well as wrote and produced it. We brought Robert in for a co-lead.
A lot of people will hear that…
JK: The whole process of it energized the organization over there. They are certainly putting the resources—which are pretty formidable—into it. It’s all for a great cause. The Garden of Dreams basically helps out kids in the New York area with everything you could think of. We have talent shows. They’ll get kids who are not doing well health-wise and treat them to memorable nights by bringing them to shows—or whatever it takes…bringing an athlete by the hospital. It helps New York’s kids. So, that’s one way I can help. I've been lucky. Like, point-five percent of people in this business make it. I’ve been blessed and I enjoy giving back.
So, Wednesday the song will hit the public…
JK: Yeah, Robert and I are going on the Boomer Eiason show, which is great because growing up in Ohio I was always a Cincinnati Bengals fan. He has a radio show, which is huge—it’s drive time. Robert and I are going over there and we’re going to talk about it and we’re going to play. We’ll be doing some Madison Square Garden television network on it. It’s been a great thing to be involved with. It’s been a great way for me—because I’m a sideman—to step out.
We look forward to hearing the song. Good luck with it and we’ll check in on you after a while to see what else you’ll have going on.
JK: I really appreciate James. Keep in touch.
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