PJ in front of school bus

Jazz Drummer James “PJ” Spraggins: Roots in Faith

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James “PJ” Spraggins has toured the world as an award-winning jazz drummer, but he still cherishes his roots and life in the Birmingham area. Spraggins discovered a love for and honed his skill in music by playing in the church at an early age in Bessemer. And today he gives back to the community he said nurtured him by working with children and inspiring people with his jazz creations and performances.

PJ with drumsticks
Spraggins has toured many foreign countries as a drummer with various jazz groups. Highlights include playing on U.S. military bases in Bahrain, and jazz festivals in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Photo Credit: Dokk Savage Photography

A Love for Jazz. If you’re a fan of jazz, you probably know of Spraggins. In Birmingham, he’s played with local icon Eric Essix, just returned from the “Soul Train” jazz cruise where he played with legend Peabo Bryson, and over the years has worked with the most popular jazz musicians in the industry; he’s also released his own solo work, including “The Light of Day” (2006), “Pure Logic” (2012), “Time to Heal” (2015), and his most recent digital EP “Up from Here” (2021). He’s currently writing, producing, and recording an upcoming full album, which has already released a single entitled “Stick it Out.”

“I have a recording studio in my home in Birmingham and that’s where I record all my music, and I also record drums for other artists virtually. Very rarely now do you get together in a studio to record with other musicians,” Spraggins said.  “I’ve had three full length albums and another one coming out in May.” Spraggins’ popularity sometimes even surprises him, referencing his song “Nocturnal Drive,” which currently has more than 5 million views on Youtube. Comments on that video compliment Spraggins’ creation with such statements as: “When I listen to music like this the best parts of me come to life” and “This song by this gifted drummer is a smooth jazz standard for all enthusiasts who love great music.” He says that his “Light of Day” album, recorded in 2006, still remains his most popular among fans, and his music is available on Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, and his website (jamespjspraggins.com) where you can purchase downloads and CDs.

Spraggins with his parents
Spraggins poses with his parents, James and Hiawatha Spraggins, at the Jazz Music Awards in 2022, where his song “Grace & Mercy” was nominated for Song of the Year.

According to Spraggins, jazz is a unique musical genre that appeals to people for many different reasons. “Jazz music is music without lyrics, and the instruments play the melody instead of someone singing it,” he explained. “In jazz, you can be as expressive as you like to be. It’s also just fun to listen to and makes you hear different things when you listen to it. I was drawn to that,” he said. Spraggins said that jazz is experiencing a resurgence, with new bands of young musicians with large followings. It’s a universally appealing form of music that he prays will never go out of style. His own attraction to jazz began at a young age when he discovered the drums at just 8 years old. “I was of course beating on things around the house and my mom and dad saw that and decided to invest in that,” he said. “They got me my first professional drum set at age 8. No one had to tell me to practice. I just did it on my own.” Spraggins is mostly self-taught, and he still remembers teaching himself by listening to the radio and drumming along. He began to ask his mother, Hiawatha, if she thought he was good enough to play in their church, Greater 14th Street Baptist in Bessemer. “She was kind of the gatekeeper of that,” he remembered. “She finally said I was good enough, and I began to do that. In fact, she and my dad always encouraged me to keep working. They have been my biggest supporters from day one, investing time in everything me and my brothers did.”

“Once they knew this is what I loved, they encouraged me to go after my dreams,” Spraggins says of his parents who were both educators in Birmingham. Spraggins attended McAdory Junior High and High School in McCalla. He went on to attend Alabama State University on a scholarship where he majored in broadcasting communications and minored in music. Eventually, though, he focused more on his music. 

PJ with kids at school
Spraggins surprised the students at Bryant Elementary School in Birmingham with an appearance with the Eric Essix band. The children were excited to find out their bus driver was a well-known jazz drummer.

A Community Connection. Today he works at what he calls “the perfect job” for his musical endeavors, as he drives a school bus for the Jefferson County School System. Spraggins worked in the past as a Lyft and Uber rideshare driver, but the more stable bus driving position allows him to build a daily schedule that gives him plenty of time for his music. At Bryant Park Elementary School, Spraggins drives students in kindergarten through fifth grade. His work schedule lets him work and record during the day and also after dropping off students in the afternoon; he’s also able to take off time when needed, including the week he recently took off to play with Peabo Bryson on a musical cruise. 

Until recently, the students at Bryant had no idea Spraggins did anything other than drive a bus. “The group I play with (the Eric Essix Group) performed at the school for Black History Month, and the kids couldn’t believe it,” Spraggins said. “They had no idea that I was a drummer, so it was very cool to do that. They were pretty excited when they found out their bus driver is also a decent drummer.” Spraggins loves living in the same area he grew up in, even when he could live anywhere in the world as a jazz musician. “I love Birmingham,” he said. “It’s always been my home. It’s a great place to live and play music.”

Spraggins playing drums
Spraggins developed a love of music in the church, and still uses his gifts as a drummer at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook.

Roots in Faith. The encouragement he gives the students under his care is just one way Spraggins tries to live out the faith that was instilled in him at a young age. Spraggins grew up in church and credits his parents for showing its value to the entire family. “We were there every Sunday, and of course, we didn’t have a choice as children and adolescents, but when we became preteens and teenagers it was more of a choice for us, but they made it clear that we might want to make the right choice,” he said, laughing. “Dad would tell us if we didn’t go to church, he expected the house to be clean when they got home.” Today Spraggins is an active member of Birmingham’s New Rising Star Baptist Church and also plays drums for St. Luke’s Episcopal in Mountain Brook.

According to Spraggins, almost every jazz musician he plays with has some sort of background in the church. And for him personally, faith plays a huge role in the type of music he writes, records, and performs. “My faith is very important to me, and it’s conveyed through a lot of my music,” he said.  “All of my music is positive. Even the titles reveal how I’m trying to encourage my listeners.” He points to his latest single, “Stick it Out,” which focuses on building relationships even when it gets hard or following through in everything you do. His 2019 song, “Bounce Back,” encourages listeners to be strong amidst struggles and come back from those setbacks. “A large part of my music has to do with my faith,” Spraggins said. “Music is very powerful, and my job as a musician is to uplift people.”

-Cheryl Wray is a freelance writer and coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference. Learn more about the 2023 conference at southernchristianwriters.blogspot.com



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