Saxophonist Saxappeal Introduces a New Project and Recalls His Rise

Photo by Keith Estep Photography

LaDarrel Johnson – better known by his stage name Saxappeal – began playing the saxophone before his time. Inspired by Lisa Simpson on an episode of The Simpsons at the young age of 7, he knew that he wanted to make the same sweet sounds Lisa made on his TV screen. Growing up on the east side of Detroit he attended Fleming Elementary and, when he went to school the next day, he was determined to get a spot in the band. 

His teacher explained students did not begin band until third grade because children his age were not focused enough to learn music and practice. Hearing that didn’t discourage Johnson. He wasn’t taking no for an answer. He begged and begged until his teacher gave him a plastic white recorder and told him if he learns three songs he can join the band. 

He says, “It wasn’t even a week later I brought the recorder back like, ‘Here’s your music. Now can I please play?’ I was able to learn saxophone in second grade, and I never put it down.” Since then, he has traveled the world on tours with Bruno Mars, Charlie Wilson, Dwele, K’Jon and others. He has been a part of two jazz bands and was Grammy nominated. Check out more of his story below. 

You were inspired by Lisa Simpson playing the saxophone on TV, tell me about your first experience performing.

I was 7; I had maybe five songs under my belt. I was a young pup, and my aunt asked me if I could play at her wedding. There’s me, this 7-year-old kid in a black-and-white tux with a red bow tie, nervous as all get out playing the wedding song. I remember finishing that gig and feeling a huge relief. I said to myself, ‘I could do this. I like this feeling.’ That was the test for me. That was the only time I remember being nervous for a performance. 


What was your time at the Detroit School of Arts like?

High school was interesting for me. I wasn’t doing anything in comparison to what the kids there were doing. These kids were talented. At the end of my ninth-grade year I was in the worst band in the school – the concert band and I was last chair. When we were talking about summer plans, my teacher pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, if you don’t practice, this is as good as it’s gonna get for you. I would hope you don’t consider yourself someone who is going to let this opportunity pass you by.’ 

I took that as a chip on my shoulder. I was working a summer job at a church and they had a summer program. While the kids were asleep I would go down to the boiler room, and I would practice. I was listening to all the oldies – Kenny Garrett, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, studying the greats, trying to get better. I always think of that time like a movie, ‘Eye of the Tiger’ playing in the background.

I came back 10th grade and I wanted to be in the wind shyphy band. They got to travel and perform around the world. I auditioned for it and I became the first chair, and I had to battle every week for my chair position. Senior year we performed at Carnegie Hall. It was a mind-blowing experience. 

You went from last chair in the band in your freshman year to performing at Carnegie Hall your senior year. How did you get on your first tour? 

I took the first semester of college off thinking I would get more gigs. When that didn’t happen, I registered at Wayne State and studied jazz for two years. Then I got the opportunity to go on tour with Dwele, the Some Kinda tour. My cousin was Dwele’s landlord at the time. She said, ‘I can set up an interview with him for your class.’ As I interviewed him he was telling me about the tour and he said, ‘Hey man, you should come sit in.’ I was like OK, and that was my first ‘audition.’

He liked what he heard and the rest was history. After that it was word-of-mouth. I would hear, ‘so-and-so is looking for a horn player.’ The ball kept rolling. I did Keith Washington (and) K’Jon after Dwele.  The last four years I toured with Charlie Wilson. That was with no audition. They called me and said, ‘You come highly recommended by the band.’

What is touring the world like?

Touring is an iceberg. It’s beautiful, it’s great to travel and it’s a lot of fun. But it is a job – it’s tedious. On the internet, people see the glitz but what you don’t see is the three o’clock lobby calls and six o’clock flights and two hours of sleep, and that you never see your hotel room. You have to go into touring in a certain mindset; it gets tiring. I learned that very early on.

On Dwele’s tour, I was the young guy, 19, who couldn’t go to the after parties. The next day, while I was meeting them in the lobby bright-eyed and rested, everyone would look like zombies. It used to make me mad. I wanted to see the world, too! I wanted to party. They called me Black X because I was the young one and every gig we did they would put a big, black ‘X’ on my hand. 

What’s your creative process like with your own music? 

Like most creatives, my process varies. Sometimes I do my best thinking, mediating and writing when I am high up in the air. Since I haven’t been flying due to COVID I do meditation, and I will hear a skeleton of a song or the drums or the melody. After touring for years, I wanted to create my own music. My wife and I at the time felt like we had a story to tell. We had music we wanted to share. We had it in our hearts, and we wanted to spread it to the world. We had a lot of success, we toured and released projects.

We disbanded the band when we disbanded as a couple. Because of what our mission statement was, we didn’t think it was right. Now, I have another band, Saxappeal and the Cru, we have been doing shows together for about three years. 

Where did you get the name Saxappeal?

My name was given to me by my mom. It was senior year of high school, and I was in my room taking pictures and selfies. They didn’t have front cameras then – you had to twist your wrist a certain way. I was taking photos to post on Myspace and BlackPlanet. I had a striped button-up shirt on with it opened so you could see my little chest.

My mom walked in like, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I am taking pictures.’ She said, ‘Oh you saxxy, hunh?’ You think you got sax appeal?’ I said to myself, ‘That’s it!’ The next day I went to school they said, ‘Hey, Darrel,’ and I said, ‘Nah call me Saxappeal.’ Everyone laughed at me. I didn’t care. I felt it and I rolled with it.

Tell us about your latest project, Black Gold?

Black Gold came from a lot of inspiration, culturally as Black people and as a country. The name came from wanting to let Black people know who and what they are. We aren’t just the slaves or the minority they wanted us to be. We have a voice; we are the greatest commodity on Earth. We are Black gold – we are greater than gold. The project has 15 songs. The first song has a hip-hop, soul, jazz vibe; it hits you in the face with the drums. It’s an evolutionary version of jazz – it’s what jazz feels like to me.

I have some songs dedicated to family members, Kobe Bryant, and I have turn up songs. The very last one ‘She is Beautiful as the Sunrise’ is dedicated to my ex-wife. I believe in giving people flowers while they are here. Even though she’s not my queen anymore, she’s still a queen. I will pay homage to her. When listening to my music I want you to feel all of the feels – happy, sad, majestic, love, quiet storm vibes and adult time vibes. With my music, you are able to feel all of those things. There is a song for how you are feeling. 

What has been the greatest advice you have gotten? What advice do you give to creatives?

The best advice I have gotten over the years is to practice the art of public speaking. It’s important as a musician to feel like the audience is hearing and receiving the music. I want to be as great as Barack Obama. When he speaks there is emotion – it rises and it falls. The best advice I can give is that people are going to laugh at your vision, because no one can see your vision like you can. Do not give up. Say to yourself, ‘This is my talent and let’s get to work.’

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