Burdened by the The New England Conservatory of Music’s exorbitant tuition and the high cost of living in Boston, he left school, sold his instruments and took a job as a teller at the Provident Institution of Savings, where he worked for a year.
"I decided maybe this is not for me, maybe I just need to let it go. Obviously God had a different destiny for me," said Najee, whose professional music career is 27 years in the making.
He bumped into a friend on the street from the Conservatory who couldn’t believe what Najee had chosen for himself. The friend, a keyboardist, gave him a spare saxophone and promised to call him up every weekend for gigs. Najee was back.
Had it not been for the chance encounter with the friend, he shudders to think that he might never have picked up an instrument again.
"I don’t know if I would've been able to do it part-time because it meant too much to me. It's like being in a relationship with someone and you love them too much to be their friend," said Najee. “I'm the kind of person who would've had to do it all the way or not do it at all."
As a child growing up in Jamaica, Queens, Najee’s love of jazz blossomed when his mother introduced him to the type of music she was passionate about.
In high school, he participated in programs sponsored by Jazzmobile, a non-profit organization that gives young musicians the opportunity to study with jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
He began playing gigs at 16, and by 17 he went on a European tour with a band he played in. Despite the excitement, success did not come easy, as his experience in college demonstrated, but he does not regret the path he ended up on.
His music career, which includes two platinum records and four gold records, has afforded Najee a wealth of experience, including world travels and collaborations with figures like Prince, Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones.
"Music means something a little different now that I've lived many of my dreams, but it's something I never get bored with because there's always something to do," said Najee.
He lives in California now but performs in New York at least once a year. This month Najee will be conducting a series of workshops with York College, Louis Armstrong Middle School and Bayside High School students in Queens, where he still has family.
"I don't believe you're blessed with something for no reason just so you can teach yourself. Part of what you've gained and embraced has to come back to people who can benefit from your experience," said Najee. "Really, that's what it is, just to really reconnect and shake hands with my past, if you will."
Najee counts himself fortunate that he always had music as a personal outlet to keep him away from the harmful distractions so many teens fall victim to. He expressed concern that when schools face tight budgets, creative programs are often the first to be cut.
"I think the cultural arts in general--not just music, but theater, dance, all those things--add to the overall well-being of society. America, or even in New York at this point, may be going through a phase fiscally where maybe at some point it may turn around, which I pray it will, but I don't think we can lose the things that make us human, make us complete human beings," said Najee.
He admitted that he’s always possessed an inclination for music, but that doesn’t mean individuals who consider themselves “tonally-challenged” should give up their musical aspirations.
"I would say keep at it until you discover if it's for you or not,” said Najee. “Life lets you know if it's for you or not, it just does, and if it's for you, believe me, there is nothing in this world that's gonna stop you from getting it."
On November 16 at 7 P.M. Najee will host a workshop and performance at York College in Jamaica, Queens. The event is free and open to the public.
Najee will also be performing at B.B. King in Times Square on April 3.