- Associated Press - Monday, August 17, 2015

HOUMA, La. (AP) - Sporting the traditional navy blue uniform of the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office, Jesse McKenzie Jr. patrols the halls of the downtown Houma Courthouse all day.

At 6 feet 2 inches, the 35-year-old towers over everyone else as the second-tallest out of 14 court-assigned bailiffs, striking an imposing figure to inmates, petty offenders and visitors alike.

But at night, McKenzie trades his tough law enforcement persona for that of “J Soul,” a laid-back man imbued with a sensitive artistic inclination.

“This is a little something I was working on,” McKenzie told a Courier and Daily Comet reporter as he sat surrounded by three electronic keyboards in his Houma studio.

His fingers flew over white keys as he hummed and improvised to a slow, melancholy, yet soulful back beat, occasionally switching tones to an electric guitar style on the keyboard. Behind him, a music production program on his computer tracked the beat and kept a steady tempo.

McKenzie has been playing the keys for more than 30 years but is also proficient on the trumpet and has been teaching himself to play the guitar. He writes, plays and produces his own music, churning out at least two or three original songs a day for himself and other local artists.

“I like them all equally,” McKenzie said. “The composing side of things is natural. It’s easy. It’s like you’re getting ready to cook this meal, so you put all your ingredients in the pot. It smells good, so you just gotta wait until it cooks. When you come back with the lyrics, it’s like adding spice - the last piece of flavoring. When you’re finished, it’s a complete meal.”

McKenzie’s parents, who are gospel keyboardists and singers in their own rights, recognized their son’s talents when he was only age 3.

“The story goes, we were going on some type of family vacation and I was in the backseat of the car,” McKenzie said. “I had a little toy Fisher Price type of keyboard, and a song came on the radio, and I was mimicking the melody of the song. They took it from there.”

At first, McKenzie’s father taught him to play the piano, often putting his son’s hands on top of his own so he could mimic his playing motions. Eventually, his parents sent McKenzie off for gospel and classical piano training.

The rigidity of classical music, McKenzie said, curtailed his freedom to improvise and compose his own music. He ended up taking up jazz lessons in his mid-teens to round out his education.

But while his talents were apparent, McKenzie decided to forego a career in music for one in basketball. When his dreams of becoming an NBA player didn’t materialize, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

“Ironically, I found (music) again when I went to the military,” McKenzie said. “I had a really, really hard time leaving home. I graduated Navy boot camp from Great Lakes, Illinois, on Sept. 10, 2001. The towers fell the next day. So I was on the first thing smokin’. I went overseas for seven months. The whole time I was there, I didn’t have a keyboard. I was struggling.”

A conversation with the chaplain on board convinced McKenzie to take up the keys once again, he said. From that point forward, he started playing for the Navy chaplain services and left the service early to get a recording arts degree at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.

It wasn’t until 2008 that McKenzie decided to settle down full-time in Houma, but not before undertaking a two-year music internship in Atlanta and another two years in the Army.

“It’s taken a long roundabout way, and I’ve been all over the board, but I’m here,” he said.

Over the last seven years, McKenzie has helped compose or produce music for about a dozen local artists and figures, including Hater Proof, Trouble Man, Shantrell Wade and Philippian Mitchell. In the past, he has also been asked to submit tracks for contemporary R&B; and hip-hop artists Trey Songz, Cee Lo Green, Wale and Tamar Braxton, among others. In addition, his tracks were recently selected for play during the Miss Black America 2015 pageant.

“My music is just like the South,” McKenzie said. “It’s a melting pot. I wouldn’t necessarily put it in any particular genre, just because I can do all genres of music out there. I take life experiences and turn them into music.”

And yet McKenzie admits he remains drawn to the “soulful” music he grew up with from the ‘70s to the early ‘90s. He credits BB King, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye and Billie Holliday as his all-time favorites. But he is partial to classic hip-hop and reggae artists as well.

When life as a police officer occasionally takes a toll, McKenzie said he tries to use negative emotions as a source of inspiration for his music. For instance, he wrote a hip-hop tribute in commemoration of Cameron Tillman, a teenager shot by a fellow deputy last September.

“Ninety-five percent of the songs I come up with, I come up with concept-wise at the courthouse,” McKenzie said, adding that he’ll often scribble down ideas before going home to refine them.

His tendency to compose while court is in session has attracted the attention of Division D Judge David Arceneaux, whose courtroom McKenzie is assigned to.

Child support cases, particularly those involving kids without a father, have hit McKenzie harder than the others, he said. For example, his pop song “Overcome” was inspired by a case where the parents were trying to get their child back from the state, despite the hurdles in their way.

“Music is my therapeutic getaway,” McKenzie said, who retreats to his studio every night to de-stress and compose. “Once my day is over, it’s over. But it’s almost like saying: once my work day is over, my real work day starts.”


Information from: The Courier, https://www.houmatoday.com

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