The trombone is Keith James’ creative and social outlet
Keith James’ project-management skills are in high demand in the tech industry. Since graduating from Arizona State University in 1991, the 52-year-old has lived in six cities. He’s gone from the Southwest to Japan, and from the East Coast to the Eastside. His trusty trombone always has traveled with him.
“It’s my creative outlet,” James said. “Playing the trombone, I can just be out there and do my thing. The high-tech industry can be very stressful.”
Since January, James has been a senior technical project manager for T-Mobile in Bothell, where he oversees the development of products from idea to rollout. Product visions start in the marketing or business departments, then technicians and engineers turn those ideas into reality.
The process works like a band. Communications, schedules, product requirements, design development, and budgets all must work in harmony if the product is ever to find its way to market, and the person overseeing the process acts as conductor.
“No one can be too loud or too forceful,” James said. “Everything has to be in balance.”
James’ parents met in high-school band class. His dad played the baritone horn, and his mom played the bass drums. Their son started playing in a band at age 10. Little did he know that one day those skills would transfer to his profession and music would become a lifelong hobby. James played the piano, cello, trumpet, baritone horn, and drums before settling on the trombone his sophomore year of high school. He spent $300 on a trombone and played it for the next 30 or so years. It wasn’t until last year that he finally upgraded.
Playing in a band has remained an integral part of James’ professional life. His first employer, Compaq Computer Corporation in Houston, had its own jazz band, so James joined. One of his most interesting community band experiences was in Aizuwakamatsu, Japan, where he lived for two years while he oversaw the development and release of a factory system application. His co-workers directed him to a community jazz band, where he became the only non-Japanese musician in the group.
“I was the only white guy there,” he said. “They were all very nice to me and accepted me. I knew Latin better than they did, so I could help them with that.”
The experience allowed him to develop a different Japanese vocabulary. “I had the business and semiconductor vocabulary down,” he said. “But being in the band helped me build a different part of the language.” James now speaks fluent Japanese.
Music let James access another part of Japanese culture. He could bond with Japanese professionals over their mutual love of music. “Jazz is very popular in Japan, and it’s increasing in popularity,” James said.
James returned to the states in 2009 and landed in Reno, Nevada, where he promptly found a community college band to play with. He made his way to the Northwest in 2011 after landing a job at Microsoft.
It didn’t take long for the Bothell resident to find the Woodinville Community Band, which has about 80 members. There are three bands under the organization: the Pacific Cascade Big Band, the Eastside Modern Jazz Orchestra, and the Woodinville Concert Band. James plays for both the jazz and concert bands and enjoys the differences. The concert band is more musically challenging. “You have to be more precise,” he said.
James compares the concert band’s quality to that of a very good high school or college band. Aside from band teachers, he’s not aware of any musicians he plays with who actually make a living playing music. Still, the concert band is in high demand. Its three annual performances are usually well-attended.
The jazz band has a much looser style.
“You can take more of an artistic license,” he said. “Jazz lets me turn it loose.”
James goes to rehearsal once a week and typically performs about once a month.
The bands are paid for some gigs. When they are paid, the money goes back into the organization and reduces the cost members pay to participate. The organization has a few corporate sponsors, and even holds bake sales to help cover expenses.
“There’s definitely no pay, or glory, or fame,” he said. “It’s just the enjoyment of being out there. Performing is why we do this. We would do it for free.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of “425 Business.”