By Darlene Donloe
Kirk Whalum’s personality matches the sounds that emanate from his saxophone. They are both cooler than cool.
Whalum, an ordained minister, is an immediately likeable and personable fellow with an easy-going vibe and a mellow demeanor.
When the Grammy Award-winner blows his sax there are no words, but it still speaks volumes.
On this day in the Crystal Room of the old West Angeles Church of God in Christ in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, Whalum is dressed in all black. A black hat, shirt, pants and shoes. He quickly realizes he’s missing his signature item.
“It’s very rare that I’m seen without a scarf,” he says while pulling an off-black/grayish one out of his bag and placing it counter clockwise around his neck. He’s now looking très chic.
As if he’s on automatic, he picks up a flute and begins to improvise his delicious patented soul-stirring music. It’s clear he’s in his own world. His eyes close occasionally as if he seems to caress every note. It’s obvious why Whalum has had a successful career and why he has such a loyal following.
An influential figure in music, for years Whalum has been spreading his ‘message’ through his acclaimed series, The Gospel According To Jazz, Chapters I – III.
Today Whalum is talking about his latest project, the fourth installment aptly titled The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter IV. It’s been six years in between efforts, but Whalum’s enthusiasm for the project hasn’t waned.
The recently released The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter IV, is a two-disc, 19-song CD and a feature length DVD. It explores the convergence of jazz and gospel infused with rhythm and blues. It can easily be described as a “docu-musical’ saluting the music and individuals, both past and present. Within the project are messages of tribute, tragedy and triumph – musically illustrating God’s radical hospitality.
The part concert film and part documentary features an all-star ensemble of some of the music industry’s elite musicians who have all come together to speak their own language without words. The group includes: Rick Braun, Norman Brown, Kenneth Whalum, Doc Gibbs, Gerald Veasley, Kevin Whalum, Shelea and John Stoddart.
In the film Whalum addresses social tensions and uses a collection of tunes inspired by family, friends, influencers and heroes including Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama, John Coltrane, Paul McCartney, Wayman Tisdale, George Duke, and Curtis Mayfield.
I recently caught up with Whalum to discuss his career and The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter IV.
DD: What is Gospel According to Jazz Chapter IV saying that the other three gospels didn’t?
KW: These projects are a snapshot, more so than the usual because when we do recordings they are done over weeks and months. Gospel is about what night. It’s about where I was on a specific night – spiritually and psychologically. Being in collaboration with other musicians - that’s what it’s all about. We are overtly embracing that God is the author and composer of all great music, especially with improvised music. We are trusting God for the notes.
DD: Is there a lot of rehearsal?
KW: There is all this preparation for months, arranging and practicing. Then it’s all about that one night. We try not to doctor it too much. It’s what happened that night. We can share this moment of connecting and expressing the inexpressible. We know God through his son Jesus Christ and make a connection and then we make the connection with the audience.
DD: How did the series begin?
KW: I was touring with Jonathan Butler, Michelle Ferrell and George Duke. They are so highly refined. You never know what is going to happen. One of these nights we happened to go into Precious Lord or Oh How I Love Jesus. The people went nuts. It was a standing ovation for minutes.
DD: So, it pretty much fell into place.
KW: Well, what happened was when I was dropped from Columbia (Records) unceremoniously after 12 years, I remember being deflated. My ego was on the floor. My wife (Ruby) of 35 years, I met her when she was 15. She caught my attention. She said to me, ‘What can’t you do today that you could do yesterday when you were a Columbia artist?’ I knew what I wanted to do. How was I going to fund it? I don’t’ schmooze. So, we did Chapter 1. George Duke was so sweet to say he’d do it. It was such a huge thing. I was able to build on that. When a person of his stature works with an artist like me, that’s special. That was the big moment.
DD: Will there be a The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter V?
KW: Lord willing. Six years since the last one. You have to start writing and arranging and all the things administratively that you have to do. We have to raise money. Now it’s easier.
DD: So, how do you raise the money?
KW: Big part of it is promoting a concert. People pay to come to the concert. That money helps us to fund the hard cost of making a recording. Mack Avenue (Records) partnered with us and takes care of distribution and marketing.
DD: There are 19 songs on the CD. Talk about how and why you selected the 19.
KW: Part of that is me being a knucklehead and not being able to cut the bunch. We are only going to be doing just 12. It always goes long. At the end of the day you apologize to the musicians. I wish I did a better job of A&R. I go where God leads me. My brother Kevin is really creative when it comes to re-appropriating mainstream songs. We have songs like Let ‘Em In, Keep On Pushin, Triage and Madiba, which is a tribute to Nelson Mandela. We also have Un Amor Supremo, a Spanish style arrangement and tribute to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. There are more of course. We have songs like Motherless Child and Love Is The Answer. All of these speak for themselves.
DD: You’ve said that music is a calling and that it chooses you. Can a musician be taught to be great or do they have to have the calling to be great?
KW: You can absolutely be taught to be great. There is something about the way you learn music. If you’re a musician you have an easier path. You have to perfect one thing first. It’s a special thing. I’d say in order to be an improvising musician you have to get the melodies from somewhere. You have to find the notes. Spontaneous composition. I’m convinced that you come pre-wired to do that. You know when someone’s got it. That doesn’t always mean someone is devoted to it. Someone could be immature or distracted.
DD: Explain the convergence of jazz and gospel.
KW: I don’t consider it a convergence. I look at it a few ways. We can trace it back to its roots in the church. At a certain point some took that music and took it in bordellos and juke joints. One is called blues and one is called gospel. You could say they started together. In blues for instance, you’re expressing the inexpressible. You are addressing something deep down inside. The Gospel according to Matthew is his perspective on it. The Gospel According To Jazz series is the interpretation of this particular musician.
DD: You have some newcomers on the CD. Just jokin. You have Rick Braun, Norman Brown, Kenneth Whalum, Doc Gibbs, Gerald Veasley, Kevin Whalum, Shelea and John Stoddart. That’s pretty impressive.
KW: Music is such a broad thing. There are so many different strings. Rick Braun and Norman Brown and the others are by no means newcomers. What’s nice about artists like that is that I’m able to introduce to someone who is not a Christian artist per se, but is on a Christian journey. They have something to say and express in a spiritual point of view. Shelea is a newcomer. She has been building little by little. She sings I See You. I wrote it for her. I saw her being able to pull it off. She is well versed in jazz and R&B and has a gospel edge to her. She was able to deliver this message. She got it right away. It says, I see you in your madness, don’t fret, you’re good. It’s about homeless people. People who are lonely.
DD: Talk about what we will see in the film.
KW: You will see a lot of great music and great musicians engaging and collaborating with other great musicians. We’re kind of introducing this concept to some folk. Some say, ‘How are you doing gospel music?’ It’s avant garde. We get to address that.
DD: Talk about your musical growth since the beginning. How has it manifested?
KW: The very first CD was Floppy Disk in 1985. It was produced by Bob James. I had just graduated college. I had been playing in Houston with my own band. The growth is almost like a boomerang coming back. It’s exciting because in the radio format we found ourselves in Smooth Jazz.
DD: Does the name ‘smooth jazz’ bother you?
KW: Sometimes it bothers me because it’s limiting. When I grew up it didn’t exist. What I’m able to do with The Gospel According To Jazz is express jazz. I get to go deeper. The thing with any pop format designed for radio is it’s all about selling ads. Smooth jazz gave them a handle. It was very constricting. This is a particular sound they want. For a musician that is like putting a cat in the box. Jazz is the music that gives the individual the right to express what’s deep inside. You were hearing an individual when you listened to someone like Billie Holiday.
DD: You’re an ordained minister and received your Master of Art in religion. Talk briefly about why you did both and how it has influenced your music.
KW: I don’t think my music changed. I always knew I was called to represent God in the marketplace. Growing up in the home of a preacher and pastor, I always saw myself seeing what he was doing. I did the praying before we went on stage with Whitney [Houston]. I would lead the Bible studies. I wanted my music to be accessible to the masses.
DD: You wake up and there is no more music in the world. How would that affect you?
KW: No more music – the world would cease to exist. God speaks the language of music. When we hear music. We all communicate through music. It’s intrinsic to me like breathing. But, I don’t derive all of my joy from playing music. I love life. I love languages. I could be a French teacher. I love people. I’m not convinced it would take all the wind out of my sail.
DD: Tell me about Bible in Your Ear where you read through the Bible in a year. –When did you record this?
KW: There are people like myself who struggle with reading. I like audio books. It take me a long time to finish a book. I thought it was a nice thing to do. I actually recorded them all in one year. I first did the recordings in 2006. I’d do two or three lessons a day.
DD: You’ve been creating and making music for decades. What inspires you?
KW: I’m a people person. I love my wife and kids, nature and being outside. Those are the things that continue to inspire me. God is more real to me now more than ever.
DD: Does the music you create say things to your family, friends and fans that you can’t say verbally?
KW: I think so. By definition it communicates on a deeper level. It doesn’t matter if you’re Japanese, but if I pick up my flute, we are both edified by this. It’s a dialogue that happens. I believe God speaks. It’s a melody.
DD: Talk about the cruise next year on Holland America’s ms Eurodam. Ports Of Call include Ft. Lauderdale to Grand Turk, San Juan, Tortola and Half Moon Cay. Who will be there?
KW: Everyone can go to TheGospelMusicCruise.com to get information. It’s happening March 2016. We have folks like Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, Marvin Sapp, Yolanda Adams, Take 6, Tye Tribbett and Shirley Caesar. Regina Belle is the co-host.
Kirk Whalum’s The Gospel According To Jazz Chapter IV is available at iTunes and on Amazon. The DVD is $24.99; the limited advance DVD with the producer’s cut is $34.99.
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