*It is rare that one is ever afforded the luxury of speaking frankly to a master of his or her craft without consequence born of inflated egos and pride. That goes especially so for a journalist. Sure, we often score exclusive interviews but the direction of said conversations are comparable to a well-worn propaganda path that is usually laid out by said individual’s representatives, or the terms are dictated by the artisans themselves.
Recently I had the chance to speak with legendary jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum about consumerism and popular music, the direction of jazz music and how he injects his Christian faith and African spirituality into his music. Yes, to say it was an interesting conversation would be a significant understatement. It was easily one of my favorite interviews in quite some time.
“The African diaspora means so much for me,” said Whalum. “First of all, as a Christian who puts that out there and says ‘I love Jesus’, I am very beholden to African spirituality. The particular perspective that we come at faith, whether it’s the Muslim faith or anything else, being African is an amazing thing, spiritually.”
“Musically it’s the same thing. There’s a certain ‘intentionality’ of passing down what was important. Another particularity of being African, is the reaching back where we’re saying the fathers and mothers are still with me. I’m looking to my African ancestors to guide me. It’s like Lion King. That was a very heavy thing that they were getting at and I love when kids go see that. It’s really important to connect that way spiritually and through my music. I know people who say ‘I’m not a Black artist, I’m just an artist’ and I get that. But I would counter by saying we’re not there yet. For me, I don’t feel like I ever have the luxury of not being a Black artist. I feel like you have to know what your place in this whole thing is ‘I’m representing the diaspora, I’m representing this group of people and this is OUR contribution.’ I am an African person, and the more time I spend down there the more I realize that.”
Prior to meeting up with Whalum, I did my research to try and place my finger on the contemporary pulse of this great genre. Sadly, it is at point of virtual irrelevance to many young fans, according to published reports. I asked Kirk his thoughts on the phenomenon.
“I think that art has to have its own courage. Whatever this is that you’re doing, your contribution has got to step into the frame, step into the market place and say ‘This is what I have to offer’, let it stand or fall based upon its intrinsic value in the market place. Not everything is going to be for everybody. Even the word popular, right away that connotes the fact that we’re talking about mass appeal. There’s something very mediocre about mass appeal. That says we kind of have to skid it into that window where enough people can see it and say ‘Yeah, I kinda like that.’ Outside of that window is all kinds of great art. It’s not just jazz, it’s bluegrass, Irish music, African music, world music, there’s all kinds of music that we could say all share that kind of persona non-grata type of a pop scrutinizing, and that is not a bad thing.
“I think the expectations of a jazz musician and right at the beginning say ‘Hey, why’re you doing this? If you’re doing this to get into that pop window then you may or may not make it.’ Kenny G is in there and Dave Koz is in there, and Kenny G and Dave Coz are great musicians, but you need to know that you’re chances of getting in that window wearing Black skin are very slim. Fine, you good? Now, are you going to make art that, spiritually speaking, is a part of who you are and what you’re supposed to represent? If you’re willing do that and maybe not get into that pop window then you’re going to have a good life. You may not be rich but if you’re really good then you will not miss a beat.”
Legendary, transcendent, maestro, these are but a few of the multitude of accolades that are frivolously tossed around the music industry like Tic-Tacs at a garlic eating contest. However, when it comes to Kirk Whalum, all accolades are well deserved. 12 Grammy nominations, a Grammy Award for Best Gospel Song in 2011 for “It’s What I Do” featuring Lalah Hathaway, in addition to performing and touring with several soul music greats. Now, with the release of The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter IV, Whalum is releasing the latest in a music catalog that is long gorilla arms. I asked him of his current mindset at this advanced stage in his career.
“I celebrate my 57th birthday in July. So that, to me, says 60. When you get past 55, in your head you’re 60. So, it happened over night, but I do think about that. I think about Stevie Wonder, Frankie Beverly, Jeffrey Osborne, and all these great artists, they kind of peaked at a certain point to where the audience was not willing to continue to go with them. They love hearing the, but you know what they gotta play. They gotta play the old stuff! If they were to go in the studio right now and just have a good time and order some rally Thai food then cool, but it ain’t about coming out with nothing that’s going to get mass acceptance because people have turned that off. Because, in effect, they peaked at some point. That epoch was sealed and put it in a vault. Then, it’s all old school. I think about that more now more than I ever have. I think ‘Wow, is that going to happen to me too?’
“When I’m on a positive day I think music, especially improvised music, isn’t in the mainstream anyway. It’s still out there on the fringes-which is a beautiful place to be because people pay more attention to the details or it and the nuances of it. But I do think about will there comes a time when I’m no longer relevant in the sense of ‘Hey what’re you doing now? Talk to me with your instrument about what you’re doing right now.’ Who knows, but it is a great question and one of those things to ponder.”
“The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter Series is something that are very precious to me,” he explained. “It’s something that came out of a great disappointment for me. So, I set myself into the wind of Spyro Gyra, Bob James, who I was fortunate to work with, this is the music that fired me up. Instrumental R&B, soul, Grover Washington, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, that’s the music I wanted to emulate as I began to write and arrange for myself. I was fortunate to start that process early on. Right out of college I began to right and arrange when I was at a small club in Houston. I never though then that I would get to the point that I’m at now. “
“The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter IV” is a 28-track live album that features contributions from Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp and Tamala Mann. Though it is technically a gospel offering, all genres of rhythmic music indicative of the African Diaspora are contained therein. For more information on Kirk Whalum, his touring plans, or to purchase his new album log on to www.kirkwhalum.com. In the meantime, check out a selection from the album below.
EUR associate Ricardo Hazell is a journalist based in New York City. Contact him via: [email protected]