Good Is What He Was
A tribute to James Casey
James Casey, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist with Trey Anastasio, the Grateful Dead splinter groups and a dozen other acts passed away on August 28, after a two year fight with colon cancer. He was just 40 years old. Social media exploded with expressions of grief and sympathy from all of us with a multi-measure hole in our lives.
It is rare to find someone with that much talent and creativity who is equally kind, humble, caring, and supportive of everyone. When you see photographers, venues, part time band mates, and fans equally miss his smile, musical abilities, and friendship, you have seen the halo of someone who is truly good.
James landed with Trey Anastasio’s solo project through New York musical friend Jen Hartswick; that horn section with James, Jen and Natalie Cressman stands up with any in the business as the tightest, funkiest, and most close knit. I started following TAB shortly after James joined and he packed every dynamic of musical expression into the last decade.
Through saxophone, vocals, percussion and keyboards in Grateful Dead, Phish, TAB, and even the Five Stairsteps (Oooh Child) songs, James put his imprint on them and made them better. “Fire On The Mountain” with Phil Lesh was magic and inspirational.
James singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” to close the TAB show on the beach in Asbury Park, just a month ago, taught us all that hope is an active verb.
He played with musicians carrying decades of experience and commanded their praise, their respect, and their appreciation for his craft, while always competing with and for his own view of “good.”
I didn’t think that I was good enough, or it was good enough, or I had enough to say — James Casey in the short film “Music as Medicine”
He made everyone with him and around him more expressive, more soulful and more in the moment. In “Something For Everyone,” his EP of Christmas songs released in late 2022, James takes those songs we learned in school band and re-infuses them with love and light of the season.
A favorite band director used to say that music, especially jazz, is just a perpetual train, and we hop on, contribute, then hop off. When James hopped on, he did so with a playful vengeance — so many people mentioned his grin that told you he was bringing a melodic fierceness and daring you to go note for note. His ability to listen deeply and intently and then echo back drove creativity and collaboration that would make the canonical jazz musicians smile. Trey highlights that musical courage and capability in his memorial message, and you see it in this “joust” (what the jazz cats would call “trading bars”):
Two of the smallest crowd interactions give you insight into the humble, gentle, kind and caring man he was: Early in the pandemic, I set up a Cameo with James for a baritone sax-playing younger cousin who was lamenting the cancellation of his first concerts. In two minutes James recognized and reflected that feeling, and shared the story of tearing his ACL in high school and having to miss a football season. (Full details of that backstory are in the Andy Frasco podcast below). Around the same time, James and other musicians were giving Zoom lessons to fill the gaps in tour schedules, and I connected him up to my saxophone playing father — who became a TAB fan and now couch tours. My father got more theory and improvisation insight in that hour than he had in years of formal music education, creating aspiration equal to admiration.
It’s wonderful when we meet our heroes and they’re good people. It’s life changing, in small increments, when they leave us with some of that magic.
James made my father, my cousin, and me all want to play more and better. Bands are a team, but they are frequently more like family, and the ability to invite others into your family for even minutes or hours is the strongest force of nature holding us together.
A source of joy and wonder has been suddenly removed from our lives. James was not only good enough, his good overflowed and showered us. In his memory we should all redefine “good” in our contexts as musicians, fans, team and band mates. We grieve not being able to hear what comes next but are better people for having been warmed by the light of his soul.
Memories and Memorials
Instagram announcement on James’s account:
Relix magazine’s memorial with thoughts from Trey Anastasio, Oteil Burbridge, Bill Kretuzman, Billy Strings, the Dave Matthews Band and Lettuce.
Relix announcement of James’s passing.
Music as Medicine, a short film about James and his colon cancer treatment:
The video for New Bloom, one of the last pieces James wrote was accompanied by loud shout outs and bright spotlights to the dancers to share some of his halo and reflection:
Andy Frasco’s World Saving Podcast Episode 193 calls their hour with James the “best interview the podcast has had.” James is authentic and frank about enduring chemo while on tour, calling out his chemo fog when he asks for questions to be repeated. He talks through his short lived football days, and his feelings of “not being good” when he arrived at Berklee College of Music.
A seven year old piece on James touring with Meghan Trainor, on singing lead, getting his breaks and playing in a stadium — saxophone, not football.
Good is everything that he was, in every facet of his life.