Audiences may think of jazz musicians as solitary creative individuals who live for their art, working out innovative sounds in small, smoky nightclubs and setting practicalities aside in search of that perfect distinctive sound. And so some of them are. The jazz world also has room for musicians whose networking skills form part of the glue that holds the jazz world together. Canadian-born jazz flutist Alexander Zonjic is an example of this second kind of jazz musician. On top of a 25-year career performing and recording in a middle-of-the-road style that has gone by the name of "smooth jazz," Zonjic has branched out into the realms that provide the substructure of jazz, hosting a program on a top-rated Detroit jazz radio station and, most recently, joining with partners to open a substantial jazz club in downtown Detroit.
Zonjic was born in May of 1951 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and grew up near the city's center, a stone's throw across the Detroit River from the American city that gave the world mass-produced automobiles and a slew of innovative musicians, running from "Smokey" Robinson to Eminem. At age nine Zonjic became interested in rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues music, and took up the guitar. He played lead guitar in a band that formed while he was still in high school, and for several years he performed nightclub gigs on both sides of the river. When he was 21, his musical direction was set by an encounter with a man on a Windsor street who offered to sell him a flute for $50.
The flute had likely been stolen, but Zonjic's attention was caught by the look of the shiny instrument in its plush case. His offer of nine dollars was accepted, and he set about teaching himself to play his new acquisition. After a year of study Zonjic had enough skills to audition for admission at the University of Windsor. He was accepted, and the faculty there soon realized that his talent was such that they had little to teach him. They recruited the second flutist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to be his instructor. Zonjic earned a music degree in 1975 and continued his studies, moving up to the Detroit Symphony's first flutist, Ervin Monroe. Attending music classes by day, Zonjic made a living by playing guitar in rock bands at night and by giving flute lessons.
Zonjic's training was in the classical field, and he often performed classical music when he had the chance. He enjoyed playing concerts that moved from classical to jazz and back again, and often performed pieces that stood on the boundary between the two genres, such as French composer Claude Bolling's Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano. He and Monroe recorded three albums together, including The Classical Album (1981), Pipers Holiday (1995), and Night (1997). In the late 1970s, however, Zonjic was also keenly following the new developments in jazz flute that were heard on the recordings of Hubert Laws and Herbie Mann, among others. Zonjic issued a self-titled LP of his own in 1978.
The timing was good, for light jazz was finding a place on commercial radio playlists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in a format first dubbed "quiet storm" and later given various other names, including smooth jazz. Instrumental jazz pieces in these formats would often be mixed with R&B- or rock-tinged vocals, and Zonjic went on to collaborate with, among others, pop-jazz vocalist Angela Bofill, whose agile, technically accomplished and romantic style matched the flutist's own. He also worked with jazz guitarist Earl Klugh, whom he had known since Klugh heard Zonjic playing in a Windsor club, back when the guitar was still Zonjic's instrument. Zonjic performed frequently around Detroit in the 1980s, even making appearances at the city's legendary Baker's Keyboard Lounge.
It was at Baker's in the early 1980s that Zonjic met top-selling pop-jazz keyboardist Bob James, who heard Zonjic play and invited him to join his band. This propelled Zonjic's career to an international level, as he appeared with James or as a leader of his own band, in Japan, England, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, the last of which was the site of repeated Zonjic visits. He gave concerts at such top United States' venues as the Hollywood Bowl, and Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater in New York City. Zonjic's recordings found national radio airplay, and his 1991 album Neon, recorded for the major Reprise label, cracked the top 20 of Billboard magazine's Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. Critics didn't always warm to Zonjic's music—the Washington Post complained that his 1994 album Passion "seems far too commercially calculated and emotionally contained to live up to its title"—but his concerts were virtuoso affairs marked by the use of pedals and other synthesizer sound effects.
Zonjic remained especially well known among Detroit-area audiences, and he built a strong network of connections among national jazz figures by booking them for numerous festivals around Detroit and Windsor. These activities led him to a career move also pursued by middle-of-the-road jazzman Ramsey Lewis: in 1998, although he had no prior experience in radio, Zonjic became the morning drive-time host for Detroit radio station WVMV. Continuing to live in Windsor with his wife, Lorraine, and son, Alex Jr., Zonjic commuted across the river in time for the 5 a.m. start of his program. Six years later Zonjic was still in his announcer's chair—an impressive career run for any radio personality.
In 2004 Zonjic joined with two partners, former Detroit Lions' star Robert Porcher and restaurateur Frank Taylor, to create Seldom Blues, a 300-seat, 15,000-square-foot restaurant and nightclub in the Renaissance Center office tower overlooking Detroit's riverfront. Booking the music was Zonjic's responsibility. On top of these commitments, Zonjic continued to record. He followed up his 2001 album Reach for the Sky, which featured a much-heard instrumental version of the Carole King hit "It's Too Late," with Seldom Blues, an album titled to match Zonjic's new restaurant. "They're running pictures of the restaurant alongside my reviews," Zonjic told Crain's Detroit Business. The move seemed an adept piece of marketing by a musician who, more easily than many others, had succeeded in making a good living from jazz.
For the Record . . .
Born in May of 1951, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada; married; wife's name Lorraine; children: Alex Jr. Education: Graduated from University of Windsor, Ontario, 1975; studied flute with Detroit Symphony Orchestra flutist Ervin Monroe.
Released debut album, Alexander Zonjic, 1978; appeared frequently at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, Detroit, 1980s; joined band of jazz keyboardist Bob James, early 1980s; released Neon, 1986; member, Bob James band, early 1980s-early 1990s; released Passion, 1994; became morning host, WVMV radio, Detroit, 1998–; opened Seldom Blues restaurant with partners Frank Taylor and Robert Porcher, 2004.
Awards: Alumni Award of Merit, University of Windsor.
Addresses: Office—Hi-Falutin' Music, 422 W. Congress, Ste. 303, Detroit, MI 48226. Website—Alexander Zonjic Official Website: http://www.zonjic.com.
Alexander Zonjic, 1978.
The Classical Album, 1981.
Elegant Evening, Inner City, 1985.
When Is It Real?, Optimism, 1987.
Romance with You, Optimism, 1989.
Neon, Reprise, 1991.
Passion, Reprise, 1993.
Pipers Holiday, Royce, 1995.
Reach for the Sky, Heads Up, 2001.
Seldom Blues, Heads Up, 2004.
Crain's Detroit Business, February 2, 2004, p. 18; November 15, 2004, p. 34.
New Voice of New York, August 29, 2001, p. 17.
Washington Post, March 4, 1994, p. N16.
Windsor Star (Windsor, Ontario), May 9, 2003, p. C6; May 6, 2004, p. B8; May 31, 2004, p. B3; October 29, 2004, p. C5.
"Alexander Zonjic," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (December 14, 2004).
"Alexander Zonjic Interview by Jeff Charney 11/2/4," ContemporaryJazz.com, http://www.contemporaryjazz.com/interviews/alexanderzonjic.html (December 14, 2004).
"Biography," Alexander Zonjic, http://www.zonjic.com/bio.html (December 14, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
"Zonjic, Alexander." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/zonjic-alexander
"Zonjic, Alexander." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/zonjic-alexander
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