Orange Julius On His Journey To Jazz

By Chioma Nwana

Knowing who you want to be early on and spending the rest of your life pursuing it is a love story in its own right. Internationally acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and jazz musician, Julius “Orange Julius” Rodriguez, has been chasing his first love since childhood, and it shows. Julius has already traveled the world, gone on tours, played on some of the most internationally renowned stages, and performed alongside many of the biggest names in music, and he just turned 21 today. Earlier this year, we sat down with Julius to ask him about his journey to jazz, and here’s what he had to say:

What’s your name, where are you from, and what do you do?

 My name is Julius Rodriguez, I’m a musician, and I’m from White Plains, New York.

When did you start making music?

 Since I was a baby, my parents always took me to church. I would go home and bang on pots and pans, trying to mimic the drummer. I played my toy keyboard, trying to mimic the organist. When [my parents] noticed I had some sense of rhythm, they got me a drum set. We had a family friend in Baltimore—her name was Audrey McCallum—she was the first African-American to study at Peabody. She was a piano teacher, so whenever I went there, she would give me piano lessons. Things got kinda serious, and she was like, “You guys need to get him a keyboard.” She gave me my first keyboard, and [my parents] got me piano lessons. They were told that if I learned the piano, I could learn the fundamentals of [music] theory, and then I can choose whatever instrument I want.

And you chose all of them.

 Haha, yeah. [At the time], I stuck with piano and continued to play drums on my own. Then they bought me a real piano. I kept practicing until I finally got my first piano teacher when I was six—that was John Senakwami. I studied with him for a couple years, until it got to a point when he was like, “I can’t teach you anymore, but I know this guy can teach you better.” I studied with him, and then he referred me to a teacher who [taught] at Manhattan School of Music Precollege. That teacher helped me get into the precollege at MSM for classical. I did their jazz for non-majors thing, and then I got into the jazz program on piano. A couple years later, I got into the jazz program on drums, and I dropped the classical.

This is all still precollege?

 Yes, this was all precollege. You go, you pick an instrument, and you pick classical or jazz. I did classical first. I was one of those rare students—there were only three or four—who did both classical and jazz. People did multiple instruments in classical, but no one ever did classical and jazz. Usually classical people are afraid of improvising jazz, and jazz people are not as technically trained as classical musicians.

As all of this is happening, you’re also performing in the city. Your father talks about it all the time—driving you into the city for your shows late at night when you were younger. You were the youngest person there, sometimes technically not even allowed to be in the club that you were performing in.

 My dad was very active in my musical career. We had gone to some jam sessions in Westchester just for me to play around. When I first got into the jazz program at MSM, my dad found out who my teacher was going to be—his name was Jeremy Manasia. He looked at his website to see if he was playing anywhere, and he said, “Oh look, he’s gonna be playing at a jam session at Smalls Jazz Club. Maybe we should go.”

 So this is the beginning of the Smalls era.

 I was 11. My dad drove me to Smalls at 1am to watch this guy play. I introduced myself, my dad talked to him, and he let me sit in at the jam session. From then on, every time I had a day off from school, I was like, “Dad, can we go to Smalls? Can we go to Dizzy’s?”

Talk to me about high school and the role it played in your development as a musician.  

I went to Masters, and I’m glad I did because I really couldn’t see myself going anywhere else. Most of the schools in Westchester were pretty sports-heavy, and I couldn’t go to LaGuardia because you had to have a New York City address. Masters was a special place because they had a whole different way of learning: they were really flexible about students being individuals. They gave me lots of time to practice—they gave me practice time as extracurricular. They were very lenient about me missing school to do extracurricular activities, traveling, and things like that.

You mentioned traveling. Are you starting to get gigs at this point?

 I met a bunch of people at a jazz camp the year before high school. They all lived in the city, so I would go to the city to play with them at different jazz clubs, jam sessions, and recording sessions. One of the big pivots was this program called the National YoungArts Foundation. There, I met two great jazz musicians named Javon Jackson and Benny Green. They both introduced me to many people in the professional world. They told people about me, and I learned a lot from them too. They’ve played with some of my biggest influences, which was really cool. Next was GRAMMY Camp. The GRAMMY Foundation has an educational program: they select a group of students to go to the GRAMMYs to perform, do a little tour, and record an album. I got selected as a drummer my senior year of high school, and I got to go to the GRAMMYs. I did another program called Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead. That was a residency in D.C. at the Kennedy Center. It’s more of a program for people older than me—I was definitely the youngest my year. It’s for musicians up to age 29. To get in, you have to be a composer. They pick one song for you to do, and you do three of your own original songs. Once you get in, you get to go to D.C. They pick three groups, and you all work on your music for a week. You work with these master teachers. It was started by the singer Betty Carter. The whole idea is that they continue the spirit of her teaching and the way she brought up younger musicians. She was a famous singer, but she was known for introducing younger musicians into the scene. The last program was the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. The Monterey Jazz Festival has an educational program—they do basically the same thing [as GRAMMY Camp]. They take a band, but this band usually tours internationally. My year, I got to go to Japan for a month. We did the Monterey Jazz Festival that same year, in September. This is all senior year of high school.

Did you ever find it difficult to balance being a musician who was always on the road and also being a regular teenager? Did you ever feel like you were missing out?

 If I were to say that I missed out, that started long before teenage years, you know? In middle school, all my friends would be out playing, but I would be home practicing. I don’t want to say it was a social divide—I just grew up differently. I knew I was different.

Let’s move on to college. How did you decide where you wanted to go? What was the decision process like for you?

 I feel like my parents kept me at a safe distance from stardom early on. You hear about all of these child stars, and life ends up happening to them, so I feel like [my parents] did that for the right reasons. I had a few opportunities that would have allowed me to go on huge tours early on or go away to do a program, but they were like, “Stay here, and do things in a more natural way.” I applied to MSM, which I had an in on because I did the precollege. I knew I wanted to be in New York, so [I applied to] MSM and Julliard. I got into both, but I had been at MSM for seven years and thought it was time for a change of scenery.

So Julliard. What was Julliard like?

 Julliard is a very structured program. You take theory classes, study classical music, you have an improv class. In your ensembles, they choose all the music for you. Most of the stuff you’re figuring out on your own is in your private lessons, talking to your teacher about what you want to work on. Julliard has a ton of great resources; they bring in some incredible special guests to work with us on the music. My theory teacher, Kendall Briggs, was a genius. He taught me so much about harmony, Bach, and other things.

 Have you ever felt Imposter Syndrome at Julliard? Or at any point in your career?

 I haven’t felt that at Julliard because of the way I view institutions and what I think of judging art in general. I will say that I’ve felt that in certain professional situations and playing music with other people. It’s like, “This person’s incredible. How am I even in the same room as them? This person appears to really know what they’re doing.”

What do you do when you feel like that?

 When it does happen, it’s really just inspiration for me to work harder and get better. That’s in more ways than just being technically good on my instrument. 

As you’re at Julliard, how is your professional life evolving?

 I’m living in the city, so I have more time to go out to jam sessions, network, meet people, play gigs at later times. So I’m doing just that. I’m making sure that people see my face regularly and hear me play regularly, and, as a result, my name will bounce around more. There was a jam session at the Zinc Bar, and I would go there every week, whether I played or not. I would just go to the hang and meet people, and the bartender took a liking to me—I think he heard me play. One day, he texted me and said, “One of the artists for our 7pm slot for today just dropped out. Would you like to fill in?” I did this a few times, so the owner recognized me and gave me a steady gig there. I worked there for about six months. Things like that kept happening. A similar thing happened at Smalls: I’d be at Smalls regularly. I’d fill in for people when they were out. The owner realized, “Hey, this guy Julius is pretty good. Maybe we should give him a chance.” So I ended up getting a regular gig there, too. That’s what was happening the first couple years. I did a short tour with this band called the Onyx Collective—went to Japan for a week. That was pretty awesome. We were doing events for New Balance, Stüssy and Supreme. We opened for Flatbush Zombies one night. Another big pivot point for me: most Julliard ensembles end up going on an international trip at least once throughout the year. My first year, I hadn’t been on any until the beginning of April. I get an email saying, “Congratulations, you were selected as part of a group to go to Australia.” Now, Australia is one of the last places I thought I’d ever be. To be able to go there and play music was pretty insane, so of course, I went. I loved every second of it. I loved being there, I loved the people there, the musicians there were great. The guy who was hosting us—he’s a Jazz musician named James Morrison—he and his people took my info, and we kept in touch, and the next year, they invited me back. I came back to Australia, and that’s when it became a close tie I have with musicians from another place, so I went back to Australia pretty frequently. So yeah, things like that. In New York, meeting people, the ball keeps rolling.

Who’s been your favorite person to work with thus far, and why?

 That’s a tough one. I’ll say that the person who intrigues me the most is Gabriel Garzón-Montano. I think he’s such a genius in music, sound and orchestrating. I love his work flow and the way he does things. It’s very unique. He’s so knowledgeable about music, too. His music is super unique, but when you realize who his influences are, it makes so much sense. He’s into Prince, he’s into modern classical music, he’s into Colombian music because of his roots. It was really cool to be around him and work with him. There’s this singer, Hailey Knox, that I met recently. She’s also super, super talented. [With] some people, you can feel it when they open their mouths or touch an instrument. She’s one of those people. It’s always magic.

Tell me a little bit about Orange Julius and the Big Beat.

 I’m gonna be honest with you, that’s kind of a dead thing now. The group started because I was really big into Art Blakey, and I had a group called New Jazz Messengers. We played a few Jazz Messengers arrangements, but we mainly wrote our own music and arranged music with our contemporaries. Someone who knew Art Blakey warned us that we shouldn’t be calling ourselves Jazz Messengers for legal purposes. So that’s when we became Orange Julius and the Big Beat. “The Big Beat” is actually the name of an album by Art Blakey, and Orange Julius is a nickname I got in middle school. We played festivals in Westchester and made a little album to put out all original music. It was super fun. But we haven’t done anything since 2017, maybe. 

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Recently, you made an announcement that you’re leaving Julliard to officially pursue your music career. What was the decision process like for you? Leading up to it, what were people telling you? How were you feeling in the moments before the decision?

 This is something that I started thinking about before school. People would come up to my parents and say, “You know, he doesn’t need school. One day, someone’s going to ask him to go on tour, and you’re going to have to choose.” We said, “You know what, we’ll get there when we get there and see what happens.” [At first], I’m in school and getting more opportunities, but it’s [manageable]. I think it’s my second year of school when I started to think, “This might become a real issue very soon.” I’d get asked to do tours—three week tours, tours in China, whatever. I’d turn most of them down because I thought I should be focusing on school. Then touring throughout the summer, I realized that I was learning so much from being a professional. I ended up taking off my first semester of junior year to tour with A$AP Rocky. So much popped off for me in those six months. I was doing things that I dreamed about but didn’t think would happen for at least another five years. They were literally happening right in front of me. I was like, “I could stay in school and miss out on more of these opportunities, and it could be holding me back from getting as big as I could be.” We talk about how the degree is important for getting jobs in the future, but at the same time, there are people who don’t get a degree but they’ve done so much with their career that they don’t need it to secure a job. That’s what I’m aiming for. When I went back to school this semester, I found myself turning down and canceling things that I didn’t think I should have canceled and turned down. During those six months [on tour], I was able to take whatever gigs I wanted and turn down whatever I didn’t think was worth it, and I’d still be in good standing in my professional career. But within the first month [of the semester], it got to the point that I had to take any gig that came my way that didn’t interfere with school because I wanted to stay relevant on the music scene. So I said, “You know what? Maybe I should just go focus on it. School will be there later if I need to go back.” That’s what made me decide to leave.

What were people saying to you when you made the decision?

 I got support from pretty much everyone. They noticed that I was getting a little bit stressed about it, but after I left, [they noticed] how much lighter and happier I felt.

Since then, you’ve been doing things all on your own. You’re your own manager, your own publicist—you play all the roles. As a young person working with a lot of older people in the music industry, do you ever feel intimidated? Have people ever tried to take advantage of you? How do you stand your ground?

 Sometimes. I have a lot of people who are on my side and don’t want that to happen, so they help me out. I’ve never had a manager, I’ve never had a publicist, I’ve never had a booking agent. I find everything on my own, pretty much. People recommend me for things, but ultimately, it goes directly to me. It can be overwhelming sometimes. I have my own gigs, so I have to make sure I got all the musicians lined up and know where they’re going and how to get there. [I have to] make sure they all get paid. I have to talk to the club and make sure everything is set there and that they have all the information they need. I have to promote it myself—I pay for ads on Instagram and Facebook. On top of that, I have to worry about the actual music. Most people, they’ve got someone communicating to the band for them, they’ve got someone communicating to the club for them, they’ve got someone doing all their ads, so they just focus on the music. Hopefully, one day, I’ll get there.

What are the different types of pressures that you’ve experienced as you’ve grown within the music industry, whether it be academic, musical, or self-inflicted? What forms has pressure taken in your life thus far?

 Jazz is a very traditionally-based music, so it’s very important to stay connected to elders and people who have been a part of it for a while. There’s the pressure of being able to play to the standards that have been set by the people who came before you. But there’s also the pressure of staying relevant to the music scene and human culture in general. What I’ve noticed is that there’s a divide between not just generations of people, but also different types of music. Some people will say, “Oh, they’re not playing swing, so it’s not real jazz.” Some people will say, “Oh man, they’re not playing anything that was made before 1960.” I want to be someone who encompasses all of those things. I don’t want anyone to look at me and say, “Oh, he doesn’t know anything about jazz history,” or “He’s staying behind in the history and not really doing anything to push the music forward.” That’s one pressure that I continue to deal with. There’s a pressure of plateauing. Some people end up playing the same kinds of gigs and stay there all their lives. There’s nothing wrong with it. Some people have their weekly gig at a certain restaurant, and they don’t go up from there. That could be for whatever reason—it could be hard to deal with another setting, they don’t know how to reach bigger audiences, things like that. I’m just trying to figure out how to not be stuck doing the same gig for the next 40 years. There’s another pressure of being able to connect with audiences. Jazz is not the most mainstream type of music nowadays, so you have to get creative in the ways that you reach people and grab attention. You also don’t want to sacrifice the integrity of the music. That all comes through experimentation and feeling around to see what people respond to and what people don’t respond to. I’m learning all I can about music and the different ways to craft it.

What have you done, as an artist, to provide the platform for other artists just like you or artists coming up under you?

 I’m not the first to do this: one of the things I pride myself on is being a multi-instrumentalist. A lot of people ask me, “Are you going to pick one?” I don’t think I need to. People say that you’re the jack of all trades and master of none, but you don’t need to be a master of anything to create great music. You can spend all your life working on one instrument, but you’re never going to be the best. Someone else is always going to get ahead of you somehow. I’m trying to make people unafraid to explore other options and not just stick to one instrument. They should just do what they feel is truest to them. What have I really done? I like to not be afraid of my roots and where I came from, musically. I play a lot of church and blues-influenced music, and people love that. Sometimes people are afraid to bring those things out in their artistic endeavors, but if you grew up on a certain kind of music, then play it. If people see something about me, I want them to know that I push forward the music that I grew up on.

Chioma NwanaComment