Christopher James performs his song Shining in the dark.
Through his music, Christopher James hopes to bring people together and offer comfort and hope. James plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, harmonica, and Native American flute.
“Music has a way of healing people,” said James, of Westminster. “It gives you a chance to express feelings everyone shares.”
James said he heard a lot of music as a kid and always liked to sing and perform. He got his first guitar at the Union Mills Homestead Corn Roast when he was 6.
“I banged around with that and played alto sax in middle school,” James said. “In eighth grade, I got an electric guitar and was playing a lot of Hendrix, Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
James said he got hooked on the blues at the River Blues Festival in Philadelphia.
“B.B. King was the headliner,” James recalled. “His playing was very direct, personal and honest. With some music, it’s very clear that it’s a performance but it really felt like his music was from the heart. There was a communication and expression in it.”
James attended Westminster High School and started a band, performing gigs around town. He also started teaching at Coffey Music.
“Music is an essential human thing,” James said. “I always liked to teach people and help them pass the stumbling blocks.”
He graduated in 1994 and enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He studied classical guitar but realized, after two years, that it was not his calling.
James packed his bags and moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, a hub for the blues.
“I was 19 and showed up with an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, an amplifier and a little bit of money,” James said.
The day he got to town, he heard blues music coming out of a building. It turned out to be a music class. He walked in between songs and introduced himself. After the class, the teacher introduced James to Terry Williams. He happened to be looking for a bass player and second guitar player.
“That night, I played onstage with them,” James said.
After a little less than a year, James returned to Westminster and started the Christopher James Band. In 1998 they put out their first album, “Introducing the Christopher James Band.” The whole thing was recorded in just two days and music for the horn section was written the night before.
“We cut the whole album live in the studio because that’s how a lot of blues and jazz we were listening to was recorded,” James said. “It did well. We sold our first pressing.”
In 2000, the Christopher James Band won the Baltimore Blues Society Battle of the Bands. In February 2001, the group competed in the International Blues Competition in Memphis, Tennessee. James said they made it to the top eight out of more than 50 bands from around the world.
The band took a hiatus and James continued teaching and playing solo. Wanting to try something new, he decided to try his great-grandfather Alfred Sassano and cousin Michael Sassano’s instrument, the mandolin.
“I explored Italian, Irish and Bluegrass music and eventually found my voice in Blues on the mandolin,” James said.
James released “Out of Wooden Boxes” in 2008 and “When The Moon Gets High Tonight” in 2011. He often plays with percussionist Jon Seligman. Recently, Ting Westminster licensed his songs for their commercials.
He also teaches at Common Ground on the Hill and has had the opportunity to play “with a lot of great musicians.” While at Common Ground, he met Grammy-nominated Guy Davis and began touring with him. He’s also featured on Davis’s record “Kokomo Kidd.”
“Whenever I play, I want to bring life and freshness to every performance,” James said. “ I try to bring the spirit of jazz to every performance by always improvising and being in the moment. Being in the moment is a very meditative thing. In order to really play well, you have to really just be doing what you’re doing.”
Bob Coffey, the owner of Coffey Music, described James as “an awesome musician, educator, and performer.”
“He really has a way of communicating with his students,” Coffey said. “He breaks it down and people can learn from him. He’s very passionate about what he does.”
Walt Michael, Common Ground on the Hill executive director and founder, said James “has a knack for teaching and he enjoys it.”
“He’s really good at getting people to play in a group which is something that’s a rare commodity,” Michael said.
Guitarist Guy Davis called James a “musician’s musician.”
“He is able to complement me on anything I play and he has a heart and spirit that is as big as a building,” Davis said.
Sandy Oxx, Carroll County Arts Council’s executive director, said James’ voice transcends ethnicity.
“It has age, richness, and experience in it,” Oxx said. “I respect that he continues teaching and that he’s trying to pass on the gift. He’s getting some regional and national gigs, which are certainly well deserved.”