Flautist Alexander Zonjic – From Jonathan’s to Middle C Jazz

by Scott Homewood

Not sure if you know it or not, but we at Middle C Jazz are constantly striving to give you the best entertainment experience from the moment you enter the club to the moment the artists or act plays the first note and then to the moment you leave the building.

From our service to the music itself we are grateful you are here and want to give you an amazing time. To that end, we are constantly working on finding and booking the best acts we come across. We scan the Internet, check out magazines, watch Youtube, listen to everyone’s recommendations, look through our own vinyl and CD collections, listen to Playlists all to find the best stuff. From the local and regional up and comers who are trying to build a name for themselves and bringing a new sound to the table, under-the-radar veterans who have found their unique musical voice and who deserve to be more well-known, and especially the well-known headline acts who are known to deliver the goods time and time again.

We even sometimes re-visit a favorite act from our lineage – Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar. As you may know, Jonathan Gellman is a big part of Middle C Jazz and he often refers back to find an artist who he remembers as an incredible performer with whom his audience resonated. Much like Middle C, many of the artists Jonathan’s featured ran the gamut from local performers to the most respected of legends. Some, like Maria Howell, are well on their way to make their name bigger than they ever thought possible.

One artist who played Jonathan’s (actually twice) back in the day who has gone on to become one of the most respected on his instrument is world-reknowned flautist Alexander Zonjic who performed as a solo act when first beginning to make a name for himself and later as part of another famous jazz artist’s band.  

How Zonjic came to perform at Jonathan’s in the ‘80’s is quite an interesting story as he came to Charlotte for the most part to give Jonathan’s father, Burt Gellman, some flute lessons as the elder Gellman was an avid amateur flautist and thought the lessons may help him progress on the instrument.

“I can’t remember if it was Jonathan or Burt but one of them called me and asked if I could give Burt some flute lessons as he was just learning how to play,” Zonjic said. “So if I remember correctly we tied it to a gig so I came down there and stayed with them and they were the nicest family. The reason I have such fond memories of Charlotte and want to play there again in the new club is because of the fond memories I have with the Gellman family. Later I came back as a member of Bob James’ band and played the Jazz Cellar again but I haven’t played here in Charlotte since that time.”

The opportunity to teach the elder Gellman some lessons must have resonated with Zonjic as his own exposure to the instrument was quite interesting. Though he is known today as one of the world’s most prominent flautists, it was purely by luck how he became associated with the instrument.

During his childhood in Windsor, Ontario, Zonjic became interested in music at a young age by picking up his brother’s guitar everyday as soon as his brother’s guitar lessons were over. “No one in my family was musical. But they wanted us to learn an instrument. It became a case of my parents paying for my brother’s lessons but me becoming better at the instrument which was evident right away. Soon I began taking lessons,” Zonjic said. “Very few people know I am an accomplished guitar player, and not a jazz guitar player, either. I play rock guitar. I played in many hard rock bands back in the day before learning the flute. So, I was walking down the street and someone had a flute in a case. Of course the instrument was hot meaning that it was stolen… I even remember what kind of flute it was it was an Armstrong student model 104. I don’t know why I bought it, there was an immediate attraction to it but if that same person would have been selling a banjo or a clarinet I might be playing one of those today instead of the flute.”

Eventually Zonjic became so obsessed with learning the flute the guitar took a backseat and was only a vehicle for Zonjic to make money to survive while he took flute lessons.

“The flute was difficult for me to play at first  and even more difficult to front a band with, so I kept playing guitar in bands so that I could earn the money to take flute lessons. Luckily the flute began to gain some prominence due to players such as Herbie Mann and Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull becoming well-known. At the same time I was beginning to discover classical music so I was applying the flute lessons to that as well and applying that to my own music which was starting to break away from the rock music that I had been playing.”

Eventually Zonjic put the guitar aside and started slowly making a name for himself as one of the world’s most renowned flautists, not only recording many albums but playing with the legends he admired such as Herbie Mann, whose songs he’s recorded on his albums such as Memphis Underground and James whose band he played in for many years. 

“I love all of their music, even the older jazz players like Eric Dolphy and Bud Shank but for me my favorite flute player has to be Hubert Laws. For some reason his playing excited me just a bit more than the others, what he could do with the flute.”

Through his long career Zonjic has made quite a name for himself, recording many albums as a solo bandleader besides playing for James and other artists, but he has also managed to learn the art of reinventing himself. Not only does Zonjic still play regularly all over the world, but he also  has his own television and radio shows in his native Detroit and runs more than a dozen music festivals throughout the Midwest.

“Sometimes I get the feeling that the only reason I have accomplished as much as I have is not by having more talent than others but by simply out working them, Zonjic said. “And that’s one thing I’ve learned from working with Bob James and people like Kenny G who are both my friends is that although not everyone will like your music you can survive by putting the work in and both of those gentlemen have done the same thing. Whether by being successful businessmen like Kenny G. and another friend of mine Dave Koz, or getting into the TV and movie business like Bob James, they have found ways to weather the changes in the music business like we are now where recording albums and CDs may be a thing of the past. My music is urban-based and I’ve managed to keep it up-to-date by using modern effects and modern keyboard sounds. I had a real good run in the 90s when I was signed to Warner Brothers and then after that I moved to the Concord Records label as part of a distribution deal with a label called Heads Up. I felt like I put out really great albums but then the business changed. I don’t really think of my music in terms of jazz I just try to find great melodies but it’s hard to sell physical product these days.”

Despite the changes Zonjic mentions above and the fact that recorded music does not sell as well as it used to, Zonjic mentioned that he has a new album coming out in 2020 that he feels is his best album yet and he can’t wait to debut some new material when he arrives in Charlotte this week. 

Zonjic also keeps an eye out for up-and-coming talent and recently found an amazing 12 year old child prodigy to play keyboards in his band. 

Some people might think I have this keyboard player in my band just because he’s young but I wouldn’t have him in the band if he couldn’t play my music the way I wanted it to be played. This is probably the most entertaining band  I’ve ever been in and I want the fans of Middle C Jazz to know more than anything else is that when Jonathan called me to possibly play there I was so excited to hear his voice and to have a chance to come to Charlotte to play for the new club. I have nothing but fond memories of Charlotte and I would like to come and make some new memories and play for everybody who wants to hear me.”

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