Ridin’ the J Bus: J.R. and his saxophone

Michael Bloom
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

Back during the Jazz Age in New York City, you took the A Train to get to Harlem. But to get most everywhere in Carrboro, you take the J Bus. In the spirit of Charles Kuralt’s dictum that everyone has a story, Commons reporter Michael Bloom jumped on the J Bus and selected a rider to interview at random.

Jesse “J.R.” Rainey would love to go back to the summer when he was 12 years old.

It was the first time he was introduced to the saxophone, while sitting in church.

Jesse "J.R." Rainey has been playing saxophone for eight years. He's also a jazz enthusiast. He plays a sonata-style Lagara sax (Staff photo by Michael Bloom).

“I told myself then and there that this is what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

Now 19, the Chapel Hill resident is an eight-year veteran of the instrument and considers himself a student of jazz — his favorite musical genre.

He brings his saxophone almost everywhere he goes, especially on the J Bus, traveling to and from University Commons, where he lives. Currently unemployed, Rainey frequently plays on Franklin Street in front of the Varsity Theater with other aspiring musicians.

“Saxophone was all I was ever really good at,” he said. “It allows me to escape. I see myself playing it my whole life. And I want to make it big.”

Rainey said he has grown a lot as a player since he picked up his first sax in 2003. He has seen his craft transform from being an amateur to a respected musician.

“When I started I was just awful,” he said. “I didn’t know which end to play out of. I stepped to the sax because in school I wasn’t really too popular, so I didn’t have a lot going for me. That’s when I said I really want to be serious about saxophone.”

Rainey was a member of the Southeast Falcon Marching Band in high school at Southeast Guilford High in Greensboro as a saxophonist. He plays a sonata-style Lagara saxophone and said his dream would be to play a Selmer Super Action 80 saxophone, which costs around $3,000.

He has played at Zydeco Downtown Restaurant and Jazz Lounge in Raleigh, along with various church bands and nightclubs in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. He started performing at 14 and said he’s moved past his nerves and has dreams of playing in front of a large audience.

“I would love to have a sellout concert at He’s Not Here on Franklin Street,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be nervous. I would be more ready than I’ve ever been.”

Rainey’s favorite living jazz musician is James Carter, saying he admires his old-time, traditional style. He also likes New York rappers Jay-Z and Max B, trying to incorporate hip-hop into his repertoire.

But his all-time favorite musician is John Coltrane.

“He started jazz,” Rainey said. “He was one of the first cats doing his thing, and I really respect him for that.”

Rainey was born in Greensboro, but lived in Brooklyn for seven years. He’s since moved to Chapel Hill and  lives with his grandparents.

He said he loves the peacefulness of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. He loves how music savvy Carrboro is, saying it helped him get acclimated to a new community.

He said he looks for jobs on Franklin Street frequently, but hasn’t gotten lucky yet. He wants to save up to go to UNC-Chapel Hill, but said being a “big-time” musician overseas is his ultimate goal.

Until his next move, it’s Franklin Street’s stage where he will showcase his craft.

“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for this,” Rainey said. “Growing up I didn’t really have much of a social life, so playing saxophone took up most of my time.

“But I think it’s paying off.”

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