As the story goes, in 1973, Alexander Zonjic was a twentysomething aspiring rock guitarist with dreams of selling out arenas some day. All that changed one fateful day when a stranger on the street sold him a secondhand flute.
"When I saw the flute in the case, I fell in love with it. I asked the man how much he wanted for it. He said $50. I told him I only had eight bucks," Zonjic recalls during a dinner at Seldom Blues, the upscale RenCen restaurant he co-owns. In other words, the eight bucks ended up being one sound investment.
Wearing a gray silk-and-cashmere blend blazer, a custom-made white spread collar shirt and perfectly creased black wool slacks, the flutist munched on mango salad and salmon while reminiscing about boyhood dreams of rock stardom — and describing the sort of smooth jazz success he has indeed achieved.
Zonjic is 58 years old and 6-foot-4, with the build of a Big Ten small forward; and he's charming, with matinee-idol good looks.
Instrumentally, Zonjic is no copycat, although his technique is, in some ways, comparable to Hubert Laws and Herbie Mann. And while he's not one for dazzling exploratory flights as a soloist, he can spin engaging variations and riffs from the melodies at hand. On ballads, for example, Zonjic sounds as if he's whispering intimate secrets into the flute. On up-tempo material, he can sound as if he's playing two flutes simultaneously. Likewise, his career can seem more like a conglomerate than a single artist: he leads a busy band, does a weekday radio program, puts out records (12 so far) and books jazz events in the Detroit area and Ontario. And that's not to mention his involvement in the upscale restaurant with its commanding riverfront view.
Zonjic grew up across that river in Windsor, the son of a Serbian father and a Greek mother who came to Canada after World War II. He started playing guitar at age 8, and started hooking up with rock 'n' roll bands in his teens. His mother was encouraging. His dad was a pragmatic jack-of-all-trades, and who thought all the fantasizing about a musical career was a waste of time. He wanted to ship Alexander off to a military school.
"My dad thought my interest in music would take me away from something more practical. It took longer for him to buy into me becoming a musician," Zonjic recalls.
After he graduated high school, Zonjic pursued his rock dream in earnest for a couple years. Then he bought the flute, which he found out a few weeks later had been stolen from his former high school. Zonjic kept it anyway, purchased some how-to-books, and practiced every day until he was proficient. Then he auditioned for a spot at the University of Windsor School of Music, was accepted, and had his first serious introduction to classical music. A passionate convert, he put his rock 'n' roll dreams on hold. He commuted weekly to Detroit to take private lessons from Ervin Monroe, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's principal flutist, who recalls vividly his initial impression of Zonjic. "I considered myself a high-energy guy," Monroe says. "Compared to Alexander, I was a slow-moving train. When I first met him, I knew right away that he was going to be something special. He was the type of person who set goals and worked hard to achieve them. He wasn't afraid to jump into the water." (One sign of Monroe's regard for Zonjic's talent is that he's recorded three classical albums with his former student.) Zonjic also became interested in smooth jazz. A friend gave Zonjic an album by pianist Bob James, one of the biggest and most influential names in the field. The flutist says he loved James' playing and compositions for their classical feel. Flutist Hubert Laws, who performed on the album, impressed Zonjic as well, and Zonjic subsequently checked out other jazz flutists, such as James Moody, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Herbie Mann. And in 1978, just five years after buying his first flute, Zonjic got a bank loan, and cut a self-titled smooth jazz album. A career was born. The album got airplay in Detroit. Zonjic started to gig more in the city. Then the flutist got his first big break.
Pianist Bob James was in town to do a Royal Oak Music Theatre concert, and Zonjic recalls his manager convinced James to check out the flutist who was performing at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. James was so impressed that he offered Zonjic a job after listening to a set.
"I'd made a few records with flutists, but I never had one in my touring band," James said during a telephone interview. "That night at Baker's, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I didn't know if he would be interested in joining my band. It was a chance for me to bring a new sound to the band."
James added: "We toured Japan. On the bandstand, he had a certain spark and an energy that was contagious, and it spread to the other guys in the band."
Zonjic toured with James steadily for eight years, at the same time establishing a name for himself as a Detroit bandleader. He became one of the most recognized musicians in Detroit music circles, gigging regularly at such hot spots as Baker's and Alexander's (a now-defunct Woodward Avenue club in Detroit that bore his name). He also found time to perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Windsor Symphony Orchestra.
After Zonjic made a couple small-label releases, Warner Brothers Records signed him in 1982. There he recorded Neon and Passion. The albums sold modestly, although the company did not renew his contract. And eventually, he felt he needed to make some career adjustments.
"There came a time in the early '90s when I needed to reinvent myself," he says. "I had to do so out of necessity. I had to spread myself thinner than I liked. "
He wanted to have a long career in Detroit. If he wanted fans to stay interested in him and his music, he felt he had to offer them something new. Zonjic landed a gig as the morning radio personality on Detroit's smooth jazz V98 (WVMV-FM). He founded Hi-Falutin' Music, a management company, and he began promoting jazz concert series and festivals such as Jazz in the Garden and the Birmingham Jazz Festival. In addition to his other pursuits, he signed with the indie label Heads Up International, which released Reach for the Sky (2001), Seldom Blues (2004) and Doin' the D, his new album. The latter recording is his homage to Detroit: "When I look across the river from Windsor, I see a great music city. I never thought about abandoning Detroit to move to L.A. or New York."
Doin' the D is packed with such A-list smooth-jazz luminaries as keyboardists Jeff Lorber and Bob James, vocalist Maysa, and saxophonist Kenny G, to name just a few. Of the 10 tracks, the Freddie Hubbard classic "Little Sunflower" is the most engaging. Zonjic and Kenny G's version is a mid-tempo, friendly affair. Classic Dexter Gordon meets Wardell Gray, or John Coltrane meets Sonny Rollins ... this isn't that sort of showdown. G sticks close to the melody, and Zonjic offers a variety of countermelodies. It's simply an exchange of melodic ideas played beautifully by two smooth pros. About the overall approach on Doin' the D, Zonjic notes: "I'm at a stage in my career where I have a lot of fun making these kinds of records."
Asked if so-called jazz purists are too hard on his style of jazz, Zonjic gets salty, maintaining that smooth-jazz artists shouldn't be dismissed just because they don't play the music of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. (And he just recorded a Freddie Hubbard classic.) Smooth-jazz musicians, he says, are just as dedicated to mastering their respective instruments as any jazz musicians. Moreover, accomplished musicians such as Kenny G shouldn't have to apologize for their success, he says.
"Don't get me wrong. I love and respect jazz. But my preoccupation has always been about mastering the flute," Zonjic says.
One last inquiry: Has he ever regretted not returning the stolen flute? "Yeah, it ruined what could've been a million dollar rock 'n' roll career."
Alexander Zonjic performs with an array of guests (including Maysa, Jeff Lorber and Ken Navarro) for the Doin’ the D release party Tuesday, July 14, at Seldom Blues, 400 Renaissance Center, Detroit; 313-567-7301; $75 admission includes dinner; seating at 6 p.m.
Charles L. Latimer writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]