As a teenager living in Memphis during the '70s, saxophonist Kirk Whalum became enamored with the work of two other reedmen: Wilton Felder and Ronnie Laws. Two of Houston's favorite sons, Felder and Laws were trailblazing a new form of soulful R&B/funk-laced jazz that presaged today's popular smooth variety. Whalum absorbed their work and in 1976 accepted a music scholarship from Texas Southern University. Oddly enough, he had no idea Laws and Felder were TSU alumni.
"I think it was a cosmic, serendipitous fluke of nature that I ended up going to [TSU]," Whalum says. "Imagine, I was 17. What do I know? But to find out that the two guys who were my two biggest mentors went to school there, that just blew me away."
Call it fate, call it destiny, call it, as the devout Whalum certainly might, part of the Lord's master plan. Whalum's journey has been filled with unlikely coincidences. Another of his idols is Hank Crawford. Whalum later went to the same school as Crawford's daughter and, through her, met the soulful saxophonist.
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Shortly after arriving in Houston, Whalum became close friends with earthy-toned Texas Tenor Arnett Cobb, who was one of the scene's elder statesmen. "He was just always accessible to us," Whalum says of Cobb. "He made it a point of coming by and talking to us and giving us his expertise, telling stories and all of that. I got a little closer to him because I saw in him such a mentor. I really related to his concept of his playing. Even today I wear a ring that was given to me by his daughter when he died, still sitting here on my finger."
Whalum doesn't really sound like Cobb, because the information he gleaned from the Houston legend wasn't technical and stylistic. The lessons were about life and musical expression. "In terms of playing, [Cobb] played who he was," says Whalum. "It was like an exposé. He was just very transparent when he played. You got to get inside of him. He was constantly telling a story He just could play one note with so much authority and feeling and depth, it made an impact on you."
The first high-profile gig for Whalum came as a member of Bubbha Thomas's group; then in 1979 Whalum joined the Paul English Group, which also featured Scott Gertner on bass. The moment English heard Whalum he knew he wanted him in his band. "From the very first time I heard Kirk, his talent was obvious," English says. "But a lot of people have talent. What was different about Kirk is that he was committed. Not many are."
After playing with English for about a year, Whalum formed his own band. You'd never know it today, but circa 1980, Houston was something of a jazz hotbed. Bands were thriving and even playing original music, not the standards so often blown by rote on gigs today. With his own band, Whalum says, about 90 percent of his repertoire consisted of original tunes. "Houston was kind of a fairy-tale market at that time; because of the oil boom and all of that, you could get away with it," he says. "That's very unusual for a local scene."
During the early '80s Whalum's band was one of the more popular outfits in town. His status allowed him to open for keyboardist/arranger/record executive Bob James in 1984. Duly impressed by what he heard, James asked Whalum to play on his next record and, as an A&R guy for Columbia Records, landed Whalum a contract. The young saxophonist's first solo recording would be on a major label. Floppy Disk, released in 1985, created a stir. Whalum's next four Columbia recordings earned him considerable commercial success. His sax solo on Whitney Houston's 1992 hit take on Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" (from the Bodyguard soundtrack) established his name in pop circles as well. Whalum followed James to Warner Bros. in 1996, and his first recording for the label, Joined at the Hip (co-billed with James), collected a Grammy nomination.
From the start, commercial success was something of a given for Whalum. True to form, three of his albums topped the Billboard jazz chart, and most of his other 11 recordings have hit that chart's Top 10. Part of it was luck. Whalum's penchant for soft R&B and suave production timed out perfectly with the smooth jazz movement's cresting wave.
While smooth jazz has been Whalum's calling card, these days he's also exploring gospel music. The son of a pastor, Whalum grew up in the church, and his first mentor was a saxophonist named Ozzie Smith (no, not the Wizard) who now pastors a church in Chicago. In 1998 Whalum released Gospel According to Jazz, a collection of hymns and original Christian-jazz songs.
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"The wonderful thing about the Christian-jazz marketplace is obviously there are no parameters except that it comes from the heart," Whalum says. "That's not a musical consideration as it were. That's something that flows out of the spiritual part, so musically you can do whatever If I wanted to be funky, I can make it funky. If I wanted to be straight-ahead like on the Hymns record, we do something along with that."
Last year Whalum also released Unconditional on Warner Bros., which, though clearly spiritual, was more in line with his other smooth recordings. The label pushed Unconditional, which performed well on radio and sales charts. Hymns, conversely, was sold only via mail order and at Whalum's concerts, and received almost no airplay. So imagine everyone's surprise when Hymns, not Unconditional, was nominated this year for a Grammy. Hymns got the nod, not in the jazz or gospel categories but in the Best Pop Instrumental Album field. Seeing the commercial potential in a Grammy-nominated album, Warner Bros. will start distributing Hymns this fall.
Perhaps the biggest irony is that Whalum has never been that concerned about success. The fabled brass ring that so many never reach simply fell into the saxophonist's bell.
Whalum says he wouldn't concern himself much if Warner Bros. dropped him tomorrow. For many acts, such a statement seems insane, but Paul English understands. "Being a star is not so important to those who are devoted to the art," he says. "Kirk is devoted. To music. To God. To his family. It is obvious to anyone who knows him. And that hasn't changed over the years. Being a star might be nice, but it's one of those things that is way down on the list of things that are important."