What is smooth jazz?
I put that question to one of the stars of the genre, Kirk Whalum, who appears with fellow smooth jazzmen Rick Braun and Norman Brown at Chrysler Hall next Tuesday, November 5th.
“That’s a good question,” he replied. “It’s a convenient way of letting people know this is the kind of ballpark of what you’re gonna get when you listen to a particular station. In a perfect world, that ballpark would definitely include a lot more variety.”
Whalum then proceeded to tell the story of his post-college days playing in Houston in the early ‘80s to flesh out his definition:
“During that period, the music that I played was basically rhythm and blues with saxophone as the lead. It was rhythm and blues, it was funk, it was fusion sometimes and other times we played straightahead jazz. The main thing is that it was entertaining, and I think that’s something that you can relate back to an era way before the be-bop era, more like the swing era, when jazz was the music of entertainment.
“I think that, actually, is what we really do.”
44-year old Kirk Whalum grew up in Memphis, the son of a Baptist pastor. He started playing on the piano in his dad’s church, played drums for a while, then fell in love with the saxophone in junior high school. He received a music scholarship to attend Texas Southern University in Houston, and began leading his own band while still in college.
When his group opened for Bob James in 1984, the pianist was so impressed that he invited Whalum to play on his next album, 12, and helped him get a recording contract with Columbia records. James produced his first three albums, and the young saxophonist began building a name for himself in contemporary jazz circles. When the smooth jazz radio format began to spread, Whalum’s music was among the best to be included in the mix.
“Our music grew out of the Crusaders, David Sanborn and Grover Washington, Spyro Gyra and the Yellowjackets,” he notes. “We were all listening to CTI and Bob James.
“We said, ‘This is great. It’s a way to introduce people, on a level that’s accessible to them, to Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton, Cannonball Adderley.’
“But to be honest,” he continues, “when I listen to smooth jazz in its iconoclastic manifestation, I don’t hear that continuum. It’s very empty to my ears. But then you’ll hear Norman Brown, Jonathan Butler, Joe Sample, and you can hear the connection.”
Kirk Whalum wants to be a part of that jazz continuum, an artist who builds on the past and extends it by including the musical influences of his life, his times and his surroundings.
“I feel myself connected to the Lester Youngs and Dexter Gordons,” he says. “I don’t want to be discussed apart from them. Jazz is always reinventing itself.”
Whalum says that Texas tenorman Arnett Cobb was his “primary mentor.” Other saxophonic influences include Hank Crawford, Stanley Turrentine, Ronnie Laws, and Wilton Felder of the Crusaders.
It’s also clear that his religious grounding remains a crucial part of his life and music. He lives in Nashville with his wife and children, where he is an elder in his church. He recorded The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter 1 in 1998, with Chapter 2 scheduled for release this week.
“How much of a joy it is to play music that’s inspired and that has a purpose,” he shared with me. “Either people will get it or they won’t. We found out on the first record that they did get it, that they were hungry for it. But it doesn’t fit into a conventional marketing category.”
Also out this week is a collaborative recording with Braun and Brown, released under the moniker BWB. The disc is called Groovin’, and it’s a collection of mostly well-known songs from the nonpareil ‘60s and ‘70s rock and soul days, revamped and reinvented by these three modern masters. The title track, a remake of The Rascals’ classic, is already getting airplay in the smooth jazz radio world. Other covers include Booker T and the MGs’ instrumental hit, “Hip-Hug-Her,” the Isley Brothers’ funk cornerstone, ”It’s Your Thing,” and Parliament’s “Up For the Down Stroke.”
Kirk Whalum is looking forward to this tour with his BWB partners.
“Put it this way---It’s like the difference between a doughnut and a handmade croissant,” he explains. “With real croissants, each one is different; each one is made with somebody’s hands. Doughnuts come off an assembly line. Krispy Kreme not withstanding, they don’t compare with a real croissant.
“And that’s really what we’re all about. When people come to hear us play, they’re going to experience something totally unique and different. And we don’t have any idea what that’s going to be.”
“I didn’t get into this business to make or promote records,” he continues. “It was about playing saxophone with great musicians. And that’s what this tour is about. It’s really what the record is all about. It’s fun, it’s like going to a really good party.”
That party comes to Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall next Tuesday night, and the search for definitions and genre limits will be left on the bus. Three of the best instrumentalists of their generation---saxman Kirk Whalum, trumpeter Rick Braun and guitarist Norman Brown---will join together for an evening of musical interaction, inspiration, improvisation and funky grooves.