Photo: Trent Johnson

Sax Player Elijah Jamal Balbed Embraces DC Music Scene

Nearly two decades ago, a sixth grader left his saxophone at a Maryland bus stop on his way to school.

Elijah Jamal Balbed was sure his mother had taken his sax with her, and that he would practice upon returning home, but he was wrong. Instead of it awaiting him, it was seemingly lost forever.

What followed were three weeks of music class with no instrument. This incited suggestions from the teacher to switch classes. One day, Balbed was approached by a homeless man at the very same bus stop. The middle schooler had seen the man before, regularly in fact. The man extended his arm, gripping the lost saxophone, and said, “I think this belongs to you.”

“That was an integral moment, as far as me taking music seriously,” Balbed tells me, sitting across from me in a wooden chair in his Northwest DC home.

Fast forward to this summer. Balbed’s pad is clearly that of a serious musician. There are odd instruments lying around, and his record player is one you can’t buy in the stores anymore, including an old Cam’ron record atop a pile of more wax. A John Coltrane poster hangs behind the couch where I sit.

“You’ll be hard-pressed to find a sax player who doesn’t love Trane,” Balbed says. “It’s in large part to him that I picked the saxophone.”

At 27, Balbed is already a fixture in DC’s jazz and go-go music scenes. He played with Chuck Brown before the godfather of go-go passed in 2012, and now fronts his own JoGo Project, a mix of jazz, R&B and go-go established during his residency at Strathmore.

Balbed’s mother passed on her love for music to her son. Like his current living situation, there were constant little musical reminders scattered about – a harmonica over there or a xylophone in that corner.

“She’s from DC, and went to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts where she went through the classical percussion program and hated it,” he says. “When I got interested in music, she wanted to always have it around.”

Apart from the classical genres, Balbed’s first inclination was toward hip-hop. When he adopted the sax, his tastes matured rapidly.

“One of my favorite groups was Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and it makes sense because they were so melodic. When I started playing saxophone, I was in concert band, and there the roles were pretty limited. After a few years, I decided I wanted to pursue jazz.”

The nearly prodigious saxophone player is quick to credit his teachers. He first mentions the now closed Dale Music, which served as a notable institution for 64 years in Silver Spring, Maryland. At the family-owned store, he studied under numerous teachers, including manager Morgan Russell. Eventually, he moved on to Howard University’s jazz program.

“While I was working at Dale Music, I met a lot of educators,” Balbed says. “I ran into Charlie Young while I was there, and he’s a renowned classical sax player. I just kept bumping into these world-class musicians who live in the DC area. I was so close to U Street and Adams Morgan, and I got to sit in with the musicians and get my feet wet.”

Within the scene, Balbed took advantage of as many gigs as possible; he was set on performing all the time. But now as an established performer, he teaches at Suitland High School in Prince George’s County and privately for Washington Performing Arts, and promotes and even curates performances at local venues.

“I used to hate teaching,” Balbed says. “Now, I’m at a performing arts school and I don’t have to get people as motivated, so I enjoy working with them.”

Balbed says that the DC scene has always embraced him, and it seems that he’s embracing it right back.

“Since college, I’ve been able to stay busy doing something music-related. I was in New York for two years, and I love that scene, but every time I went up there, it felt like DC was calling my name.”

Part of DC’s draw was his opportunity to play with Chuck Brown. Though he always heard go-go music growing up, he never really played it before being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Luckily for him, Brown was incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging.

“He was very warm and welcoming,” he says. “He could tell I wasn’t used to it, because I wasn’t playing anything as high energy as go-go. He was appreciative of my jazz background, but was also open to helping me get more of a sound that fits with the genre.”

One message of encouragement came via voicemail.

“He just said, ‘Hey man, you’re doing a fine job in the band, and you sound beautiful, and I can’t wait to play with you again,’” Balbed says smiling. “When he passed, it was really scary. He was such an institution and legend, and when it happened it felt like the city was in a gloomy mist. Less people were out on the streets; everyone was at home.”

As time went on, he felt the need to carry on the legacy. Now, he’s working on standalone projects, which he’s ready to record, and performing regularly with the JoGo Project. The group is set to perform at Jazz in the Garden concert series at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden on July 21. Oh, and that almost lost sax from his childhood?

“I ended up selling it to get my current sax.”

For more information on Elijah Jamal Balbed and his music,