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    I had never heard of violinist James Racine, who goes by the stage name Maestro J, until I was looking online for a band to play at my wedding and saw a video of him jamming with funk group the Gap Band at Cole’s Place in the Parkland neighborhood. The next clip I clicked on was Racine playing Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow.” The instrumental/synth-beat version sounded just as catchy — if not catchier — than the original. I was sold. 

    “The fun thing about the violin is how society sees it as this classical instrument,” Racine says. “You’re waiting to hear Mozart, and I can come out with Nirvana or something out of nowhere.”

    The 35-year-old musician leads a double life: He’s the director of the music department at Kentucky Country Day School in the East End; he’s also a contemporary jazz violinist who has played gigs from the Derby Gala to Joe’s Palm Room to the Kentucky State University homecoming concert to the Richmond Jazz Festival in Virginia (where headliners have included Herbie Hancock and the Roots).

    I visit Racine at KCD one afternoon during his break. Violins fill shelves on a wall in the orchestra room. “Strings are the meat of it,” he says of the program he has led for the past 11 years and has grown from about four students to more than 100. He also incorporates wind instruments, guitar, drums. “Instruments you wouldn’t find in a typical orchestra,” he says. “I love teaching kids. I love seeing them benefit from learning music. It’s pretty much proven that music can improve your child’s abilities in learning and other non-music tasks.” His next class, a group of seventh-graders, will practice an arrangement of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” as well as Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.” “The way I teach, I reach them through the music they are passionate about,” Racine says. “My performance career is all about ear, improvising, jazz.” 

    From his desk, he picks up a violin and bow that are lying on folders and papers and cords. He scans a playlist on his computer and selects the hit song “Closer” by the Chainsmokers. He bobs his head to the beat, feeling out the melody and rhythm. Holding the violin like a guitar, he plucks out the notes and gets a better feel for the song. Then he pauses it, lifts the instrument to his chin and begins playing his own version, a jazzed-up violin solo, which he embellishes with glissandi and alternating bow strokes — punchy staccato and deep legato. 

    Racine grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. His flutist/composer/conductor father and educator/violinist mother had him learning the violin, mostly by ear, at age four. As a kid, scholarships and competitions would sometimes bring him to the U.S. Haiti’s political climate, along with Racine’s parents’ desires for him to go to college in the States, led the family to move to his mother’s native Louisville when he was 16. While at the Brown School, he met Keith Cook, who had just founded the West Louisville Talent Education Center, which provides lessons to kids for little or no money. Cook helped Racine polish his skills and apply to the University of Kentucky’s music program. There, Racine did a project working with kids on the weekends, which led to his desire to become a music educator.“Traditionally in an orchestra, as I’ve done, you don’t have creative leeway; you’re more of a re-creator,” says Cook, a former Louisville Orchestra violinist. “Maestro — James Racine is all I know him as — he gets to do both.” Racine has helped Cook with his intermediate students from time to time, giving them the opportunities that he had.

    After landing at KCD, the rock/hip-hop/neo soul/jazz/Latin fusion artist needed another outlet. So he pulled a band together, reaching out to friends in the community he knew could play the keys, bass and drums. He hooked up with Omega “Trey” Latham, a classmate from Brown School who’s now a keyboardist in Racine’s band. “His energy is so high,” Latham says. “He’ll take a song that doesn’t take a lot of energy, a slow song — he’ll take it to a rock ’n’ roll sound. Such as (Mint Condition’s) ‘Pretty Brown Eyes.’ He makes it sound almost like Van Halen.” Racine and his band have shared a stage with Lalah Hathaway and Dru Hill. One time they opened for Chaka Khan. “One of the best ones was performing with George Duke before he passed,” Racine says of one of his favorite jazz musicians. Racine and the band have a show at Butchertown brandy distillery Copper & Kings this month. (In February, they’ll play at the Palace for Louisville Magazine’s Mad Masquerade.)

    Teaching and performing aren’t enough for Racine. He lives music. When he’s not teaching, he’s playing. When he’s not playing, he’s recording. (He has released several albums, including Stages Of Love, a compilation of originals.) When he’s not recording, he’s composing. And when he’s not composing, he’s listening. “I love how music can heal,” he says. “That’s such a corny word, but it’s therapy. It makes me happy.”

    This originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Cover Image: Mickie Winters


    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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