James Casey, Saxophonist for Trey Anastasio Band, Dead at 40 from Colon Cancer

With profound sadness, we report that James Casey, who played saxophone in Trey Anastasio Band, Lettuce and Billy and the Kids, has lost his two-year battle with colon cancer. The news was shared on James’ social media on Monday morning, August 28.

A statement from James’ family shared on social media and GoFundMe reads:

It is with profound grief and a broken heart that we confirm the passing of James Casey. He died peacefully in the early morning of August 28, 2023, surrounded by his wife and family.

James persevered through his colon cancer battle for two years, and it was the honor of his career to release solo music and perform during that time. James brought joy to everyone around him and his legacy will live on, both through his music and the advocacy work that’s become so integral to him.

It was so important to James to help others avoid his fate – to learn the importance of early colon cancer screenings, know your family history, and be an advocate for your own health. When detected early, colon cancer is almost always curable. He shared his diagnosis publicly and illuminated his ongoing battle to raise awareness and help others.

James was a remarkable human being, beloved for his wit, humility, kindness and generosity. He will be dearly missed.

James Casey was born in Washington, D.C., raised in Phoenix, Arizona, and emerged from a musical family with an insatiable passion for the arts. He enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and later relocated to New York City, where he quickly established his presence in the music scene, joining fellow Berklee alumni in Soulive, and Lettuce and later, Trey Anastasio Band, all as saxophonist. Across North America and stages around the world, Casey was a sought-after musician whose talent knew no bounds.

Among the artists James performed or collaborated with include The Roots, Phish, Meghan Trainor, Anderson .Paak, The Jonas Brothers, Maceo Parker, Carly Rae Jepsen, J.Cole, Leslie Odom Jr., Dave Matthews Band, Sabrina Claudio, Chaka Khan, Wu-Tang, John Legend, Roy Hargrove, Soulive, Lettuce, Shawn Mendes, 5th Harmony, and many more.

james casey colon cancer

James also appeared on albums for artists including Brooke Parrott (Another City), J. Cole (2014 Forest Hills Drive), Jesse McCartney (In Technicolor), Chromeo (White Women), Talib Kweli (P.O.C LIVE!), Brady Watt (Good Medicine), Phish (Big Boat), Michael Kiwanuka (Kiwanuka, Final Days), among many others.

Bandleader Trey Anastasio said on social media:

I’m heartbroken about the loss of our friend and bandmate James. My heart is with James’ mother and father, his beautiful wife Ayla, and with the rest of his amazing family.

James was a magnificent soul. His spirit and personality glowed. His playing was elegant, stormy, soulful and lyrical. He was a powerful and melodic improviser, and spot on when reading intricate charts. His tone was full and warm, his singing voice was beautiful. I loved harmonizing with James. His smile filled the room.

I’ll never forget the feeling of jousting with James on baritone sax and guitar. We would make eye contact and just go for it, diving into waves of sound together. Dark, scary, blues-filled jams. He was a force of nature. It felt like being in a tiny boat together in a huge storm in the middle of the ocean.

It’s impossible to describe the deep connection that James, Natalie, and Jen had as a horn section in TAB. It was a magical, once in a lifetime section. Deep bonds of musicianship and friendship.

James’s connection with Ayla was indescribable. She poured her complete soul into caring for James throughout every second of his battle with cancer. James talked about how much it meant to him. All of James’ friends and family will be forever grateful to Ayla. All of us in the band loved seeing the two of them together. You could feel the deep love they had for each other. My heart is with Ayla today. We love you Ayla.

We all especially loved the nights on tour when James’ incredible family would come to shows. I loved seeing them laughing together in catering, or at soundcheck. James was a kind, loving, talented, and caring person, and a beautiful friend. His family completed that picture. James will be missed by all of us who loved him.
James, you live in our hearts forever

Trey Anastasio

James was also known to perform with Phil Lesh and Friends, as well as Billy & The Kids, the latter of which was a quarantine connection in Hawai’i, with a detailed first-hand account from Benjy Eisen showcasing his innate ability to connect with musicians of any ilk. Said Eisen, “He showed up to rehearsal at a remote little jungle shack in Kauai and before he officially met everyone, he just started playing. Improvising. And he was instantly a full-time Kid.”

Relix notes that it was when Casey crossed paths with Trey Anastasio Band trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick during the 2012 Bowlive run at Brooklyn Bowl, leading to Anastasio recognizing his immense talent, inviting him to join Trey Anastasio Band, forming an iconic horn section of Casey, Hartswick and trombonist Natalie Cressman.

TAB horns james casey
TAB horns – photo by Filip Zalewski

Two years ago, James announced he had been diagnosed with colon cancer, one that disproportionately affects African-American men and women. James continued to perform when he could in between treatments, releasing a Christmas album, A Little Something for Everyone. The first solo work from Casey, the album was created in partnership with the Nancy Langhorne Foundation, with proceeds benefitting the Colorectal Cancer Alliance and Eastern Virginia Medical School’s HOPES Clinic, providing free colon cancer screenings for the uninsured.

Casey began sharing tracks from his still unreleased solo EP, The Kaua’i Project, and released an inspiring short film, Music as Medicine: a James Casey Story, both earlier this year. The film advocates for early colon cancer screening–particularly within the Black community–by utilizing Casey’s music to raise awareness about the disease.

James waged a battle against cancer with humility and grace, fighting valiantly until the end. James made it a point to use his platform and voice as a way to advocate for early colon cancer screenings, taking his battle public and advocating for the lives of others. His absence from the New York City music scene and the stages he would have played upon, will not be forgotten.

Donations made be made in James’ memory through his GoFundMe campaign.

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