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James Sanders confidently crosses stylistic borders yet stays true to both the jazz violin legacy and his rigorous classical training, creating music that transcends category yet remains faithful to its multiple inspirations.

When Sanders returned home to Chicago in 1989 after earning a Masters Degree in performance from Yale University, he thought of himself as a classical musician. And while he quickly landed a seat in the Chicago Sinfonietta (which he still holds), a chance encounter with jazz violin legend Johnny Frigo changed his approach to music forever.

Over the next 30 years Sanders has honed his chops as both a leader and collaborator in various contexts: Latin jazz, free improvisation, Gypsy swing, straight-ahead, blues, third stream and more, all the while holding down that orchestra chair. He has performed around the world, including major jazz festivals in Italy, Brazil, Poland and, of course, Chicago. In early 2024, James was featured in Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble as they celebrated the group's 50th anniversary with a new album and tours of Europe and North America.

Drawing on his Dominican heritage, Sanders formed the Latin jazz ensemble James Sanders' Conjunto in 2001. The band, whose membership expands and contracts in accordance with the artistic requirements of any given project, performs regularly at clubs and festivals around Chicago and the Midwest. A 10-piece version plus guests and a dance company performed before nearly 10,000 people at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park in 2011. In 2022 and 2023, Conjunto collaborated with Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to create Stories From the West Side, two projects incorporating music, dance, and storytelling to explore the life experiences of Chicago's historic Latino communities.

In addition to Conjunto, he leads the Blue Violin Quartet. an ensemble dedicated to straight-ahead jazz. He regularly collaborates with members of Chicago’s AACM collective and has played in several groups, including the Harrison Bankhead Sextet, Dee Alexander's Evolution Ensemble, Doug Lofstrom's New Quartet, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, and Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Sanders is also a member of the Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre music ensemble where he has composed original works for dance.


In 2013, Sanders formed Proyecto Libre, an ensemble that pulls equally from free improvisation and Afro-Latin traditions. In the spirit of experimentation, personnel vary from performance to performance. Members have included Joshua Abrams, Harrison Bankhead, Avreeayl Ra, Jean-Christophe Leroy, Edward Wilkerson and Michael Zerang.

In addition to these ensembles, James collaborates with bassist Christian Dillingham, drummer Avreeayl Ra and guitarist Matt Gold in The Dark Matter String Band. The group explores the idea of early 20th Century African-American string band music in a 21st Century context.

James is also engaged in a series of recordings that feature Original Music for Violin & Drums with noted drummers and percussionists from jazz, new music and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, often accompanied by original choreography and released as videos.


James continues to be a classical violinist and has been a member of the Chicago Sinfonietta since 1993. In addition to sitting in the First Violin section, James mentors young musicians through the orchestra's Project Inclusion and SEED programs. He has developed a curriculum for teaching fundamentals of improvisation to classically trained string players.


James also teaches and coordinates the string program for the Arlington Heights, IL school district. He is on the faculty of the Music Institute of Chicago.

Background photo by Mike Baker
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