Mindi Abair was in the 8th grade when she signed up for the Northside Christian School band. Because her dad played saxophone in the Entertainers, a popular St. Pete show group (“he was that guy that was shimmying and shaking and walking the bar”) she chose the sax as her instrument.
“I thought, my dad looks like he’s having so much fun playing, and I want to have that much fun!” Abair recalls. “It was loud, it was raucous, it was just everything I thought I wanted.”
By the time she graduated from Northside Christian with the class of ’87, bound for the University of North Florida, Abair was an accomplished musician. “No one told me it was odd to be a girl and play a saxophone, until it was just too late,” she laughs.
Dad and Mom, she stresses, were always supportive. “I applaud them, and I think we should tell our kids you can be what you want to be, just work hard and go do what you love. Because I did! I believed them. And it was great.”
Although Abair has released a handful of mostly-instrumental contemporary jazz albums, and landed several hits on the jazz singles, LP and airplay charts, she didn’t start out as a jazz player – and she doesn’t consider herself part of that lexicon today, either.
With her band, the Boneshakers, Abair returns to her childhood stomping grounds tonight (Thursday, March 14) for an 8 p.m. show at the Capitol Theater in Clearwater. Tickets and info here.
Mindi Abair & the Boneshakers play blues/rock – gritty, soulful stuff, rock ‘n’ roll with drama, keening vocals and sax stuffed with grit. This, she explains, is pretty much where she always wanted to be.
“You know what? As a kid, I wasn’t thinking who my role models should be. I was a total child of music. I’d sit and watch MTV, and I would watch the bands around town here in St. Pete. I just wanted to be Tina Turner. I wanted to be the girls from Heart. I could play saxophone like Tina Turner sang, and it made me bigger than I was on my own.”
In the Tyrone Mall record stores, she bought music to learn from – by sax greats like David Sanborn, Maceo Parker and Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band.
As a student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Abair recalls, “they immersed me in jazz, which was something I just didn’t know anything about. I believe I came at this instrument in completely the opposite way that 99.9 percent of anyone else did. They all knew Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis – and I didn’t hear those names, really, till college. And when I did, my whole world just went ‘Oh! Cool! Wow!’”
After Berklee, she moved to Los Angeles. “All I wanted to do was have my own band,” she says. “I wanted to write my own music, make records and tour as me. And that was hard at that point; you had to be signed to a major label or you weren’t in the game. I really thought I was going to go and take over the world. And that didn’t happen.”
Instead, she began dues-paying – touring, one-stop gigging, session work. “It was never my intention to be a sideman for a living,” she says. “But it was amazing.”
A two-year stint in the American Idol house band led to a tour with Aerosmith (singer Steven Tyler was an AI judge at the time); she played Duran Duran’s reunion tour, and joined comedian/singer Adam Sandler’s touring band as a featured player (it’s something she still does, when Sandler feels like going out).
Abair was exposed to millions of people as a member of the Backstreet Boys’ band during their massive Millennium world tour. “I was the pink-haired girl playing keyboards, and taking these long sax solos while they were doing a costume change,” she says. “Which was a lot.”
She remembers playing for oceans of little girls. “Everybody took their daughters. It was a great empowering moment for me, because I never really thought about being a girl doing what I do as much as I thought about it when I was with them.”
Despite a pair of Grammy nominations, the career as a “jazz artist” began to morph into something else with the release of the 2008 album Stars, and came the full 180 with Wild Heart (2014), which included appearances by the likes of Gregg Allman and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry.
Mindi Abair & the Boneshakers debuted in 2017 with The EastWest Sessions. The album entered the Billboard Blues Album chart at No. 3.
In a way, Mindi Abair is still that little St. Petersburg kid, awed by the power of music and watching her dad rock ‘n’ roll the place into submission.
“I think life is a journey, and you make music that moves you,” she says. “And that is different at different points in your life. I don’t see myself going back to that other point in the journey.
“I loved it; but where I am now is a place that makes me super-happy. I stand onstage with my band every night and I just think ‘Wow! I’m so proud to be here. I’m having so much fun. It’s great.’ So I’m making music that moves me. I feel that I’ve come back to my roots in many ways.”