Multi-instrumentalist James Casey has twin goals of establishing a musical legacy and spreading cancer awareness. Using his experience battling colon cancer and dealing with chemotherapy, the saxophonist and vocalist is encouraging others to test early and regularly in order to prevent what he experienced.
Casey recently released a Christmas EP, A Little Something For Everyone, on12-23 Records, a nonprofit label of the Nancy Langhorne Foundation, to bring some musical joy with its mix of funk, jazz, gospel and R&B as well as use it as an opportunity to raise funds and awareness in regards to colon cancer.
While performing with Billy & the Kids in July 2021 at Red Rocks, Casey sensed something was physically wrong. Upon his return to New York, several hospital visits finally determined that he had Stage 3 colon cancer at age 38 and needed emergency surgery to remove a tumor that was blocking his colon. That and a preventative round of chemotherapy caused his music career to be suspended.
Casey, who is a member of the Trey Anastasio Band, has also performed, recorded, produced and written with The Roots, Anderson .Paak, Maceo Parker, Dave Matthews Band, Chaka Khan, John Legend, Soulive, Lettuce, Carly Rae Jepsen, and in his own project, Animus Rexx.
“The thing about colon cancer, at least in the Black community, is that it’s hereditary, and it hits us 20 percent more than anybody else,” Casey explained. “And once we get diagnosed, we have a 30 percent more chance of dying.” As part of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance (CCA) #TheyDidntSay campaign, he aims to raise awareness for colon cancer in general and change the narrative of how Black Americans discuss medical histories within their families.
The initial vinyl pressing of A Little Something For Everyone, which includes the original tune, “Christmasfunk,” sold out in under 12 hours and raised $6,000 for colon cancer charities. A second run on white vinyl is available for pre-order through Dec. 25 and will ship in 4-5 months due to production timelines. It features an exclusive instrumental saxophone version of “Joy To The World.” All proceeds from vinyl sales will be split between the HOPES Clinic and CCA with an additional 15 percent of all sales from his merch store benefiting CCA.
With a positive personality that outstrips his nearly 17 months of adversity, Casey sums up his 2022 and view of the future, “I just hope next year is as good of a year as this year ended up being.”
JPG: Before we discuss the EP, are you comfortable talking a bit about your health and how you’re feeling these days?
JC: Sure. Today, I’m feeling pretty good. You kind of have to take it a day at a time or at least I have to take it a day at a time because I don’t really know how I’m gonna feel from day to day. But today, I’m doing really good.
Overall, with my health, without getting into extreme specifics, we’re in a holding pattern. The chemo is working and the disease is stable. What that means is, basically, we do what we do until something changes. I’m in a fortunate position and with the doctors I have, everything is looking positive. That’s where we are right now. It’s exactly where it was six months ago.
JPG: That’s good to hear. Let’s move on to A Little Something For Everyone: What led you to record a Christmas release?
JC: The Nancy Langhorne Foundation approached me in December last year asking if I would be willing to do an EP. The vinyl [sales] would all go to charity. And I jumped at it. At the time, they had to get the music in by April 5th because of supply chain issues. When they asked me, I was at the other hospital, and they said that I would be finished with chemo by the end of February. So, I would have all of March to work on a record.
So, I’m like, “We got we got this.” I finished chemo as I thought, and we start working on the record. I write a song. I’m getting everything together. We literally go into the studio, recording, on April 2nd and Patrick [Jordan], Trey’s manager, called me about some dates and I put my phone in my girlfriend’s hand. Then, my doctor called me on her phone to tell me that I need to come back in tomorrow morning because it spread, and we need to deal with it now. It was a lot.
I was literally in the studio recording when I got that call. I had to finish my take because I didn’t have time to do anything else. So, that take, that’s the “Christmas Time Is Here” take. That’s the one. Right after that, we recorded it and then I had to go home and pull myself together because that was a lot. Right after that, the next couple of days…if you look on my Instagram (jamescaseysax), you can see it, I built a vocal booth in the closet of my little studio in my apartment and finished the record there. Had a couple days. We finished the record and sent it out.
When I was in the studio, when I got the phone call, I was at a crossroads. If I stop this, it’ll be fine. Everybody will be like, “I understand. It’s okay.” No one will think badly of me for not doing this right now because everything is just too much, but that legacy kept saying, “If you don’t do this, when will this happen? You won’t be able to do this.” Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not but that’s what I was feeling. That’s why I felt I had no choice.
JPG: Did that legacy idea also lead you to record a variety of music on the EP? It goes from the New Orleans funk of “Christmafunk” to Vince Guaraldi on “Christmas Time Is Here” to more traditional jazz on the two versions of “Joy to the World” as well as “His Eye Is on the Sparrow?”
JC: Honestly, the name, A Little Something For Everyone, came because I was able to do a few different genres. That’s how I hear music. I don’t respect genre in the same way that most people do because it’s still the same 12 notes. So, it’s all inflection and intention.
Music is music is music, so genres don’t matter to me that much. Great music matters much more.
JPG: You mentioned that in the midst of all this you’ve been receiving treatment and you also went on tour with Trey Anastasio Band. How challenging was it for you?
JC: I’ve been doing chemo while I’ve gone on tour. I started this regimen in April. Every two weeks I’m attached to a pump for two days, 48 straight hours. So, while I was on tour, I was going back home to the hospital for two days and then went back out.
JPG: It’s great to hear that they were so accommodating with your schedule.
JC: That part is extremely beautiful. Even on top of that, the love shown from Trey’s camp, and the amount of things that they have to do to make it available so that I can be on tour is ridiculous. And they’re doing it all for love.
I’m new to the embracing of the fandom and all that because coming from the jazz world, the jazz background, you’re pretty much there by yourself. We work really, really hard at practice rooms or our homes for hours and then we go out, and we hope that people like the music that we play. Some people do. Most people don’t listen to it. And then we come back home.
And that was the mindset I had when I first entered the jamband realm when I started playing with Lettuce and Soulive. I kept a little bit of that when I entered the Trey’s world and the Grateful Dead world, but I’ve learned that, basically, opening myself up to being more open has allowed them to embrace me and me to embrace them. So, the dynamics are a whole lot different right now, and I really appreciate it.
The way you approach music in jazz, the way you approach improvising, jazz is more of a language and speaking the language and it’s more about the clever ways you deal with the chord changes. In jamband music it’s more about the release, the story of the solo. The release matters more than it does in jazz.
JPG: I read that you have plans to put out a solo album, Kauai, in the spring of 2023, and I heard you play one of the tracks, “New Bloom” on the WNYC radio show, “All Of It with Alison Stewart.” When did you recording that and how’s the progress going?
JC: I was on Kauai for the initial part of the pandemic, from March 2020 to June 2021. While I was there, my girlfriend and I, we created a livestreaming platform called Aux Chord, and we would have people come on and do shows. Anybody who would come and do a show, I would ask them for some a cappellas and I would make a beat out of their a cappellas for a promo for the show. Over time, I came up with a lot of them and I had to do a show one time on the platform and I needed a lot of music very, very quickly. So, I used some of those songs. I realized I could craft those into some meaningful music. Over the last year, since I’ve been back, I’ve made a lot of those beats into music inspired by my time in Kauai.
JPG: Do you prefer one situation to the other, playing in the studio versus live?
JC: I like to create. Music for me is like being in the sandbox. You get to create and that’s the thing that does it for me. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the studio or live. It’s all about the creation of the thing that we’re doing. So, I’m just as happy in the studio as I am onstage, just as long as we’re making something that speaks to me musically.
JPG: With your Christmas EP and through interviews you’ve used your health situation for something positive, encouraging others to get screened for colon cancer. But you’re human, at some point did that become overwhelming for you? Was there a breakthrough moment?
JC: That’s a really good question. I’ve never been asked that before. I will say that having to deal with this, there’s no part of me that would want any other person to have to deal with it. It’s so terrible. And I didn’t have an extremely personal connection to a lot of cancer. My cousin got diagnosed a year before I did but before that, there was nothing that I knew of personally. It turns out that I had a whole lot of cancer in my family, I just didn’t know about it.
I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I’ve never seen it before. So, having experienced it at all firsthand, knowing that there’s a way to never have to deal with this; at least the test I had is 100% preventable if you go get tested. I don’t ever want to see somebody else go through this. This is godawful.
So, if I can do any one thing with my little platform that I have to at least tell people that, “You don’t have to go through chemo.” I’ll do that. I’ll shout that shit from the roof, man.
Here’s the thing. I didn’t know anything about it. I went to the ER and they sent me home. I go again and they sent me home again, and then, I had to go back three times before the problem was told to me in a way that I could do something about it. And when I say do something about it, I had to get an emergency surgery that day. That’s why I’m so adamant about helping people do this thing because you don’t have to do it. That’s my whole goal going forward. If I can stop somebody else from having to go through the mess that I had to go through in the last year-and-a-half then all that work, all that hell was worth it.
JPG: To get checked, all you need to do is get a colonoscopy or there’s that other method.
JC: It’s a great thing. They can send it to your house. You send it back and they’ll tell you with 90 percent efficiency if you have that.
There’s just a stigma behind it. It’s also the fact that they’re saying no colonoscopies before you’re 45. I wasn’t 45. (Casey was 38 when he was diagnosed.) The way it is right now doesn’t work. So, I started to do a little bit of speaking to different groups, which is kind of weird. That’s never been something that I’ve done, but I feel as strongly about this as I do about music.
When it first happened, the first thing, honestly, I didn’t have this thought for very long but it hit really hard. “What was it all for? What was all this work? What was it all for?” The idea of a legacy. I had nothing to leave behind. Having emergency surgery because your colon is blocked and it’s pierced on the other side is a really, really good way to have you start thinking about mortality and the things that will happen after you’re gone. Putting out music of my own was always something, “I’ll just put it off. I’m not good enough. I’ll get better. I don’t have anything to say” That sort of thing. Once this happened, I had to restrain myself because I felt like I had to throw everything out there because I didn’t know what was going to happen. It took a little bit to calm down and really take real note of where I am, and what this whole situation is.
Going forward, as much as I love playing live, I want to leave a legacy of more than just the fleeting solos that I’ve taken. I feel there’s more to be said and I want to say it. I didn’t think that I had a voice to say anything like that but, now, it seems that I do. And it seems that people like some of the music that I make. So, that’s cool. [Laughs.]