A musician’s life comes in waves.

There are the quiet times — no gigs, no recordings, no playing late into the night. And then there are the weeks when all the world is a stage.

This is how it is for contemporary jazz, R&B and funk alto, tenor and soprano saxophonist Tony Exum Jr. during one February weekend.

But right now, the soft-spoken Colorado Springs native is tucked into a couch at Art111 Gallery & Art Supply, where he often comes to relax and connect with friends. It’s a marked difference from the musician who can often be seen at shows and jazz festivals wearing his signature derby or Kangol flat cap, and strolling off the stage to mix in with the crowd while he solos.

On Friday and Saturday he’ll sit in with reggae band Lion Souljahs to celebrate Bob Marley’s birthday at Herman’s Hideaway in Denver. Saturday morning he’s got a recording session. Later in the weekend he’ll head to Boulder, where he’ll perform during a benefit for the people who lost their homes in December’s Boulder County fires. And the next weekend he’ll help usher in Valentine’s Day with a “Sax and Romance 3.0” concert at The Gold Room, alongside singer and label mate Omar Wilson.

“On stage I’m this 6’5”, 300-pound dude, and then I shrivel back down as soon as I pack up my horn,” Exum said. “As soon as I touch the stage or pick the horn up and start playing, that personality comes out. I’ve had to learn how to balance the two.”

In January, it was announced the lifelong musician had achieved what many of his peers dream about — a recording contract. After years of scratching out a life as a professional — putting out singles and two albums, playing gigs and festivals across the country, and performing on recordings by fellow musicians in the national smooth jazz circuit — he was fine with staying an indie artist for the rest of his career. That changed after a few conversations with BSE Recordings CEO Lou Humphrey, though Exum tried to not get his hopes up. Until one September morning, when he woke up to a record contract in his email.

Humphrey, who was on the hunt for a smooth jazz artist to add to his label’s roster, had heard Exum’s music five months earlier. They’re now working on a new single, due out in the spring.

“When I heard him I was blown away,” Humphrey said. “I know a lot of saxophone greats, like Marion Meadows, Najee, Dave Davis. When I heard Tony, he was right up there with those great legends. He was the one for us.”

Raised on jazz

Thanks to his mother and uncle, Exum’s childhood was well-steeped in jazz: David Sanborn, Ronnie Laws, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, the Earth, Wind and Fire horns. Saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., in particular, entranced him as a little kid.

“It was a big part of our household,” Exum said. “I took a liking to it early on. My mom wanted to make sure I was cultured, that I had a wide path through music.”

One summer in 1986, when Exum was 11, he found a real- life muse — his uncle. He was back in the Springs for a visit after his family moved to Biloxi, Miss., when he was 5. The family was gathered at his grandmother’s house, when his uncle started wailing away on his sax in the garage. Later that summer, he again heard him play, this time in the Army band over Fourth of July in the Acacia Park bandshell.

“He lit up that stage on fire,” Exum said. “I want to be him. I want to do that.”

His uncle handed over the old sax he played during his Harrison High School years, along with some music books from the Army band, and sent his nephew back to Biloxi. After Exum and his family arrived back in the Springs years later, the teen, by then a largely self-taught musician, attended and graduated from Mitchell High School, where he decided music was his calling, and headed to the University of Denver, where he earned a bachelor’s in music.

“When he plays, there is a spiritual connection to it — his music ministers to people,” said his father, State House Rep. Tony Exum Sr. “I don’t say that in a religious way. Whatever’s going on in that person’s life, if they’re having a difficult time or a struggle, you can put his music on and it ministers to your difficult situation. Sometimes if you’re having a happy day, it makes you happier.”

Crafting a career

If you wonder how one tackles the beast of making a living playing music, you’re not alone. Exum wasn’t altogether clear on that either, though it helped he’d been asked to perform on a couple of local projects during his last year of high school.

But a couple of recordings does not a professional career make, and after college he came back to the Springs and got the same job many folks did in the late ’90s — working in a call center. From there, he moved into insurance, where he spent a number of years, but it was always just a means to an end: “I was always kind of distracted because I wanted to be a musician. I didn’t know how to get into it full time.”

In 2009 he was back to working in a call center, and not happily, though by that point he’d put out an album, and was working gigs as a solo artist and with his band. He got laid off, and on the drive home decided he could take no more — he would pursue music full time. It wasn’t an easy choice. He was no longer some young kid out of college with no responsibilities. Now he was a father to two young girls.

But that very night he got a call from a man with an entertainment company asking to be his manager. He said yes, and the marketing machine rolled into motion. Soon Exum was doing interviews and talk radio shows, playing in Washington, D.C., and taking advantage of a new thing called social media. In 2011, he started touring.

“My name was starting to build a little bit — here’s this kid from Colorado who has a nice record out,” he said. “I’m becoming that national artist. My life is changing. It was like I can really do this. I’m getting paid to be an artist. People are coming to see me play my music.”

Since then his career has been tour, perform, record, repeat. He put out a second album, and because smooth jazz is a singles market, he releases new songs regularly. His latest song, “Get at You,” dropped in October, and hit No. 66 on the charts, a number that pleases him. Things will change with the new label taking hold of his career — a third album is underway, and a new single with his label mate, singer Arika Kane, will be released shortly.

“His playing gravitates to everyone,” said Wayne Jahkama, founder of Lion Souljahs. “It has that healing tone. For reggae, once you add that sax, and the way he plays it, with love, care and divinity, because God is always there, and he’s a church-going guy, it brings in a spiritual essence.”

Unfortunately, his beloved uncle and muse never got to see Exum’s career blossom. He died two decades ago. Exum was on his way to a gig in Steamboat Springs four days before his death, and he still remembers the last words his uncle said to him.

“He looked me in the eye, and said you have a lot of talent, don’t let anything or anyone take this from you,” Exum remembered. “When he passed, I couldn’t touch my horn for a month. It was heartbreaking. Then I said you know, he would not be happy with me right now. You promised him you would never stop.”