By Sabina L. Lilly
Chicago saxophonist Rajiv Halim’s star has been steadily on the rise for nearly a decade. In addition to playing and recording with jazz, pop, and rap luminaries, he is a composer and bandleader in his own right.
Rajiv has been a featured performer on local and international programs sponsored by Jazz Institute of Chicago, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Additionally, Rajiv returns to the Jazz Showcase with his band from June 20 to 23. We think it’s the perfect time to learn more about this young artist.
CJM:Talk about your early exposure to music growing up in Chicagoland. Is your family musical?
I was born on September 15th, 1990, on the north side of the city in the Buena Park neighborhood. My parents are originally from the Central American country of Belize. They went to high school together in Belize, but emigrated to the United States separately, then found each other again in Chicago, married, and had me and my sisters. My parents are both very musical. My mother plays piano by ear and can play any hymn or popular song if she knows it. My father, although not a musician himself, is a big fan of music—particularly live music. I was raised in the Hyde Park Seventh Day Adventist Church on the south side and was exposed to gospel music there. Additionally, my father exposed me to the good music he loves: country, Motown, soul, blues, and of course, Caribbean music such as soca, punta, reggae, calypso, etc. I was also listening to a lot of instrumental pop music as a child/teenager, which includes saxophonists such as Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, and Grover Washington Jr.
CJM:How did you end up playing saxophone, and do you consider yourself primarily an alto player?
I attended North Shore Junior Academy (now known as North Shore Adventist Academy) from first through eighth grade. In third grade, the school allows students to study music. We were at student registration and my parents called me over to the music table to choose an instrument. The teacher listed a bunch of instruments and the last one he listed was saxophone. My 8-year-old self couldn’t remember any other instrument the teacher said before that and my parents both love the saxophone, so they encouraged me to choose it. I perform regularly on alto and tenor saxophones; however, I do consider myself to be primarily an alto saxophonist.
CJM:Was there a specific recording, performance, or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
At Lane Tech College Prep High School, part of our band grade was based on us doing a CD review. In my junior year, I brought in a review I had done of a pop saxophonist’s album. My band director asked, “Is this what you listen to?” At that time, I hadn’t heard of any improvising saxophonists. He then went to his office and handed me a Charlie Parker CD. The rest is history. However, I am still a big fan of pop saxophone!
CJM:You initially majored in chemical engineering at UIC. Can you describe how the switch to a music major went down, and tell us about any significant teachers or mentors?
In high school, my favorite classes were science and math. I received nothing but As in math classes from grade school all the way through college calculus. I also very much enjoyed chemistry. Those subjects came to me pretty easily. In my junior year, I discovered a Jamey Aebersold scale syllabus. I had long since memorized my major scales in all twelve keys, but I did not know how to apply them in solos. Seeing this syllabus made me realize that there are more than just major scales. I had never heard of diminished, altered, whole tone, etc.—not even the major scale modes. As I prepared to go to college, my focus shifted from science and math— which I’m still an enthusiast of to this day—to music. My parents advised me to study engineering or something in the sciences for career/financial security. But, I was obsessed with music and practicing. As a freshman at UIC, I would go to my junior level chemistry courses (via high school AP credits) and then I would go straight to the practice room. After a couple semesters of failing classes, my parents told me, “If you want to study music, go ahead. But we aren’t paying for it.” Little did they know that I had already spoken with the dean of music and was offered a full-tuition scholarship.
Significant mentors at UIC include trumpeter and composer Orbert Davis, flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell, and my private saxophone instructor, the great Ari Brown.I ended up dropping out of school to tour with an eclectic band known as Kids These Days—
which I’ll mention again later on.
CJM: As mentioned before, you have performed on local and international programs presented by Jazz Institute of Chicago. Can you share a favorite memory from one of those events—as well as what the organization has meant to you through the years?
The Jazz Institute of Chicago has played a significant role in my career. One memory is from my senior year of high school, when I was able to take part in the JIC’s Jazz Links Student Council. This is where I met many of my peers, including trumpeters Marquis Hill and Will Miller, pianist Michael King, and drummer Michael Piolet. Another memory is from 2011 when I had the opportunity to perform at a jazz festival in Poznan, Poland that the Jazz Institute presented in partnership with the Polish organization, Estrada Poznańska. It was such a great festival and I had never performed outside the United States to that point. Currently, I serve as a board member on the JIC’s Board of Directors—a privilege I’ve had for the last two and a half years.
CJM: For nearly a decade you have worked with an array of musicians in various genres—ranging from Von Freeman and Bob Mintzer to Jennifer Hudson and Chance the Rapper. Can you talk about one or two artists, as well as a specific experience, that helped define your playing?
Von Freeman has been a great influence and mentor to many young musicians, myself included. I caught Von towards the tail end of his life and career, but he always had encouraging words to say to me when I would sit in at The New Apartment Lounge. Working with Chance the Rapper was also a great experience. Chance and I have known each other since we were teenagers via his association with the aforementioned band I used to be a part of called Kids These Days. I was ecstatic when he asked me to perform on his song “Finish Line” from his Grammy Award-winning album ColoringBook.
CJM: You are a private instructor at several area schools. Did you set out to be in music education, or how did that come about?
To be honest, I did not set out to be an educator. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, my goal was to practice and play with as many people as I could, move to New York, hopefully get a break with a touring band, and tour the world as a sideman, and eventually, as a band leader. Teaching came about as a way to make a little additional income. At first, I was only teaching a couple of students here and there. But as I began to teach more and more, I started to realize the craft that teaching really is and I started to take more of an interest in it. Assisting and guiding young people in learning and appreciating good music is a necessity in today’s society and I am very glad to be able to help students do this. I now have aspirations to open my own music school in Chicagoland, or perhaps even in Belize, one day.
CJM: In addition to playing and teaching, you compose music. How and when did you begin to write, and can you describe your writing concepts and process—as well as how your 2015 CD Foundationtook shape?
I began writing music on my own when I was eighteen years old. I go about writing in a couple different ways. If I hear a melody or chord progression randomly, I’ll try to record it into my phone for later development. I’ll also write using some sort of theme or idea in life as a jumping off point. For instance, “The Hard Worker” was written for my mother. I wrote this tune imagining her getting up early for work every day and what that early morning environment must be like for her. I wrote “The Wise Man” for my dad. It’s a modal type of tune with a few twists to it to reflect his wisdom. “Slim,” written for one of my younger sisters, was developed using the rhythm of verbal phrases she would use around the house, as well Belizean rhythmic themes.
CJM:You’ll be at the Jazz Showcase June 20–23. Who is in the band, and what kind of music can we expect to hear?
It will be my quintet: me on saxophones, Norman Palm on trombone, Kevin Kozol on piano and keyboard, Christian Dillingham on basses, and Neil Hemphill on drums. Pianist Alexis Lombre will be subbing on Friday 6/21 and bassist Runere Brooks will be subbing on Thursday 6/20. We will perform quite a few of my originals. We’ll also cover music by composers such as Roy Hargrove, Ari Brown, Joe Henderson, and more. With the addition of Norman Palm in recent years, the quintet has been tackling quite a few Jazz Crusaders songs—so their repertoire will also appear throughout the weekend.
CJM: What gigs, recordings, and/or projects are on your horizon?
I am still doing a lot of work as a sideman. However, I am also getting back into band leading and composing as a primary focus. I have a project that I’m going to call the “Not So Standard Quintet” that will perform more obscure music from the past seventy to eighty years—basically, the music nobody performs regularly. This quintet has done a couple of shows and will hopefully be performing around town more regularly soon.
Another project I am currently brainstorming is a pop cover project: I would play pop songs on saxophone and post videos of these covers on YouTube. As mentioned before, I’m still a big fan of pop music (and all forms of good music, regardless of genre title). I see this project as a way to broaden my audience, as well as potentially bringing more awareness to the saxophone in general.
I am also slowly, but surely, working on another set of original music to be recorded. I have no idea when that music will be recorded or released, but hopefully by the end of 2020. I consider myself to be a political junkie, so the next couple projects may take a politically critical turn. We’ll see what I come up with...
For album and show updates and show updates, follow Rajiv on Facebook and Instagram, or visit www.rajivhalim.com.