Meet Mr. Isaac

Faculty Profile
by Daniel Mollenkamp

Photography by Emily Jordan

Please use Professional bio for programs and publications

James Isaac is a professional saxophone player and Kansas City native. He performs regularly with several groups including: The People’s Liberation Big Band, which plays free big band jazz; Multiphonic, a dance band; Killer Strayhorn, Kansas City’s premiere jazz quintet; AfterGroove, a contemporary jazz group; and frequently is called to play in area orchestras.

Starting his musical education on flute, then piano, the opening notes of the Pink Panther theme introduced James to the saxophone, and it was love at first listen. From 6th grade onward, playing sax came naturally to him. He was first-chair all-state orchestra in high school, and was attracted to the jazz band for the opportunity to improvise. Before he was done with high school, he picked up bassoon. He learned clarinet as an undergrad and oboe as a grad student, giving him a working knowledge of all the woodwinds.

Through college, playing professionally was James’s main priority. Saxophonist and teacher Bill Caldwell inspired James early on with his musical example of a complete natural, impeccable talent. James led chamber ensembles at Johnson County Community College before Joining the UCM faculty in 2009. Mr. Isaac continues to give private lessons on sax and piano and now balances his time equally between teaching and performing. In addition to saxophone courses, he teaches Jazz Improvisation and the Jazz Rock Combo. He believes one of the strengths of the program is that they not only train future music teachers but also emphasize practical skills for musicians in the professional world.

One of those skills is the ability to jump into some unusual professional situations where you’ve never seen the music before, and had zero preparation. The gigging equivalent of sight-reading, James enjoys the level of uncertainty in these jobs and the chance to surprise himself, calling upon his many hours of practice, and improvisational skill.

Mr. Isaac explores not just the musical possibilities but the professional ones as well. And his openness and networking have led to some interesting and rewarding opportunities including touring with a circus in Puerto Rico in the late 90s, recording in Jimi Hendrix’s former studio in New York, being called to perform in the orchestra for the touring company of West Side Story, playing an alternative version of The Nutcracker with the People’s Liberation Big Band around the holidays, and playing with Quixotic, a Kansas City aerial arts, music, and dance company.

To his students he says simply: be prepared to work. Have diligence and patience because results don’t come immediately. Pay attention to every detail. And explore every possibility.

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