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What Makes a Junius Paul-ism?

How the idiosyncratic bassist went from a south suburban church to touring the globe.

Photo: Fabrice Bourgelle

If you’re trying to spot Junius Paul in a jazz ensemble, look for the tall guy wearing a dapper hat, plush scarf, and tights. “My parents always encouraged me, my brother, and my sister to be ourselves,” says the 37-year-old bassist. That freedom of expression extends to his music: He currently records and tours with jazz-improv heroes the Art Ensemble of Chicago and often shares the stage with drummer Makaya McCraven, who coproduced Ism, Paul’s solo debut album, which covers abstract postbop, dusty hip-hop instrumentals, and everything in between. Paul celebrates the new release at the Hideout on December 27.

You toured this year with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. How has that influenced you creatively?

With [composer and woodwind performer] Roscoe Mitchell and [percussionist] Don Moye, it’s a new learning experience every day. Long conversations and hearing old stories about the Art Ensemble. There’s that saying, I’m paraphrasing, but, “to properly go into the future, it’s important to know your past.” But they’re not living in the past. They’re not just caught up in their legacy. Their main focus is still very much about what we are doing today and how we are we moving forward, which is highly inspirational.

The Velvet Lounge is mentioned quite a bit in the liner notes for Ism. I’m curious what you miss most about that venue.

There was nowhere like it. Legendary musicians and artists from all around the world would come there and perform. The AACM performed there numerous times. They had Sunday night jam sessions where we would play standards, and I played in the house band as a very young musician. I learned a lot on those Sunday nights, then I’d go there during the week and hear just about anything and everything. [Drummer] Vincent Davis’s band would get to this really intense level of playing. I remember sitting in the back of the Velvet Lounge the first time I experienced it. They were sustaining it, and it would keep getting higher, and I’d be like, “Wow, is this it?” You ask the question and the answer is no, it keeps going. You can feel the music rise every time. That first time, it blew my mind.

Is that where you met Makaya McCraven?

I did. He would come to the jam session on Sunday, then go to Boston during the week and do gigs there or Western Massachusetts, where he’s from, and then come back to Chicago for the weekends and do gigs. That jam session was the beginning of us playing together. That’s where we developed our camaraderie.

Your new album is called Ism. What informs the title?

It’s something Makaya came to me with. When I’d do some recordings or live stuff that would end up on Makaya’s albums, he would always turn my parts into beats or accents in a song, or motifs that would be repeated. We’d listen back to stuff, and he would always be like, “Man, all these Junius Paul-isms in there.”

I think I know what you mean when you say Junius Paul-ism but, for a reader, how would you describe that?

Man, that’s a tough question for me to answer. I think it comes with not limiting myself to one thing. If you listen to the album, there’s a lot of different approaches to the music. You hear my influences and how they affect me.

Both my parents are musicians — my dad was a DJ and my mom’s a pianist. My dad would play a little piano around the house, but my mom played professionally. My dad used to DJ quite a bit so he’d always have the turntables out and he’d be playing records. Both my parents are music junkies and there’d always be music playing in the car and in the house. My brother and sister and I were in music lessons as children and my mother was my first piano teacher. My parents listened to everything, all styles of music. I came up playing piano, and then got into Jimi Hendrix in high school, which lead me to the guitar. Not long after, I started playing bass in church. I still play at that church to this day when I’m in town on Sundays.

What church is that?

Covenant United Church of Christ in South Holland, Illinois. I’ve been playing there for 21 years. When I got to college I started really studying with a bass instructor and that’s when I began to learn the upright bass as well.

When you talk about the church, it takes me back to your experience at the Velvet Lounge, being blown away by the intensity of the performances onstage, which sounds like a religious experience.

Right, exactly. I can’t take one without the other — my experience playing in church and my experience playing the Velvet Lounge. Both of those things are extremely important in my development as a musician.

Now that the Velvet is closed, where do you feel most comfortable playing?

Vincent Davis’s basement [laughs]. Seriously, you can quote me on that. But as far as a club, the Hideout. I had a residency there, three Tuesdays in December 2016, and every night was special. One night, it was so cold my car wouldn’t start. I had to catch a $75 Uber to the Hideout just to make the gig.

The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events has deemed 2020 the Year of Chicago Music — it’s developing several programs around that. What would you like to see?

That’s a good question. Charles Stepney was a musician from Chicago, worth looking up for sure. He worked as a writer and composer for Chess Records and Cadet, produced for Earth, Wind & Fire, Ramsey Lewis, Minnie Riperton … the list goes on and on. He was huge. In 2020, people need to know who Charles Stepney is. Please include him in there because he’s very special to me as a Chicago artist. Anything that he’s a part of, I try to get my hands on.

I wanted to ask about your personal style, because you have a very unique look with the hats and scarves. And you always wear tights.

A lot of that influence came from the Velvet Lounge, being around the AACM and Fred Anderson, and what the club represented: freedom of expression. That encouragement was very important to me, and I took that spirit with me, so it’s a style that evolved over time.

I started wearing tights regularly around high school when it was cold, and I’ve always loved hats. I started collecting more hats and getting different styles. I posted something on Instagram where I was wearing tights, and this company Cecilia de Rafael saw it and invited me to do some modeling for them and be an ambassador for their company. This was in 2014. I thought it was dope, so they sent me a bunch of tights and I started doing photo shoots for them and wearing them regularly.

And then there’s other things that influence it, like the Renaissance period is a big influence on my style. I love ’60s fashion, ’40s fashion, all those things. You look at old pictures of how clean people were, even the Black Renaissance in Chicago and Harlem. Seeing people in church and how people would come clean every Sunday, those kinds of things, those are all influences on my style. So it’s a mixture of a lot of things. My style continues to evolve.

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