Justin Young sounds utterly natural when he plays, as if his extraordinary saxophone talent never needed formal training. But those mellifluous lines of soulful notes come through years of study, training and commitment to his love of music, as well as a constant desire to move forward.
Young grew up in a musical household just minutes from downtown Detroit, where his father, Jim Young, led a band called Kaleidoscope, that often times would rehearse in the family’s livingroom.
“I was growing up seeing and hearing drummers, keyboardists and vocalists…hearing how all the sounds meshed together. “It was always in the back of my mind and in my blood, plus Detroit was so eclectic at the time, you know, everything from R&B and Pop to Top 40 and Motown – just a melting pot of different sounds, and I was absorbing it all,” Young muses.
That fertile environment, both at home and all around him in Detroit, gave Young a world-class musical education. He picked up drums in elementary school and started hearing the music that would inform his life and work: saxophonists Maceo Parker, Lenny Pickett and Gerald Albright, along with superstar pop, funk and jazz acts like Earth, Wind and Fire, Boney James, The Gap Band, Herbie Hancock, the Commodores and Michael Jackson. Then his father suggested that he try the saxophone, and a few months later, Young was playing Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” in a 4th grade talent show.
Having found his true musical love, Young practiced three to five hours a day and began playing in his father’s bands as a teenager, performing his first professional gig at a wedding when he was 16. As Young prepared for college, his father encouraged Young to pursue his dreams of becoming a premier saxophonist, but with one caveat, have a backup plan. So, Young enrolled in the mechanical engineering program at Michigan State University and used his musical talents to pay for his college education.
“I put myself through college by playing regular gigs,” he said. “I was playing 20, 30 gigs a month and that’s really where I honed my skills as a player and a performer and was really making it a show.”
Young became a major draw at Detroit area venues such as Signature Grill, Greektown Casino, MGM Grand Casino and Motor City Casino, and he developed the keen business sense that is needed to run a successful band.
“A band is a start-up business,” Young said. “Anyone who wants to obtain a qualified work force may want to check out the local music scene. When you’re in a band, you have to know how to budget, how to get to shows, how to be on time, what the crowd wants, how to look, how to dress and how to market yourself.
“I had to learn how to make money, and I couldn’t do it Monday through Thursday, because mechanical engineering was insanely tough for me. I was working harder than I’d ever worked in my life: I remember being in Calculus and wondering how am I going to afford tuition? I figured I could play Friday nights, Saturday nights and Sunday mornings with a band, so I played gigs with my father’s band and picked up college gigs at hotels and clubs.”
Once he finished his bachelor’s degree and began pursuing his MBA, Young became a music machine, calling hundreds of clubs to pull in a handful of shows, but his determination and talent paid off when he won the Capital Jazz Fest in 2007. This major success, coupled with valuable mentorship from Spyro Gyra keyboardist Tom Schuman, gave Young the courage and experience to move forward with his first official album, 2007’s On the Way.
What followed was a period of great transition. Justin married high school friend and local TV reporter Rachel Calderon in August 2007. The couple moved to Los Angeles shortly afterward when Justin received a job offer from Boeing. His jazz career moved just as quickly with his On The Way release in 2007: Young soon began a year-long residency at Spaghettini, a well-known jazz venue in nearby Seal Beach. In addition, he built a significant following in the West Coast’s smooth jazz community by playing major festivals and events in the area and building relationships with major players such as Gerald Albright, Dave Koz, Darren Rahn, Euge Groove and Jackiem Joyner.
Having established himself in the Southern California scene, Young recorded two more albums, Nothin’ But Love and Home for the Holidays, and he and Rachel started a family with the birth of their son, Tyson. Then Boeing offered Young a transfer to Oklahoma City, an emerging urban center undergoing a cultural and industrial renaissance. Young saw Oklahoma City as a perfect home base to build his music audience
“The best reason to live here is the people,” Young said. “It’s a great place to raise kids and people are willing to help you at every level, especially when it comes time to shape the next phase of your career.”
Young is currently completing his new album, Blue Soul, the long-awaited collection that will take his smooth jazz into deeper sounds and new textures. He said his expectations and standards are much higher for Blue Soul than for any of his previous work, but Young’s determination is paying off.
“I started on this album three and a half years ago,” he said. “There’s probably been about 40 different songs written for this album. In the past, I would write 12 songs and then enter the studio quickly and put out an album, but for Blue Soul, I wanted to take a different approach and put the absolute best songs out. It’s taught me a lot of great lessons about studios, and how certain songs will sound extraordinary on the saxophone.”
Blue Soul reflects Young’s roots in Detroit more than any of his previous music. He is reaching deep into the styles and genres that inspired him to pursue life as a musician, and the result is a personal, deeply felt collection of songs. “This goes all the way back to my love of Jazz and Soul music. It’s organic, played by consummate musicians, and is truly soul music with saxophone at its beating heart,” he believes.
Justin currently lives with his family in Seattle and this is his True North Story®.
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