Grover Washington Jr. has a special bond with Houston; specifically, with Houston's big-band leader Conrad Johnson. During the '70s, when Washington would come to Houston, the saxophonist who originally wanted to be a teacher until "the music got in the way" would spend his days at Kashmere and Sam Houston high schools. He met Johnson when the latter was a music teacher and director of Kashmere High School's internationally acclaimed jazz stage band.
"When he first started touring, he met me and, boy, we just hit it off," says Johnson, who has since retired from teaching but still leads one of Houston's finest big bands, the Big Blue Sound. "I had written out about five of [the music] charts that he had just recorded, and he came out there and played them with us. We've been tight ever since."
Adds Washington, "I still learn a lot from that man. He was the one who really reinforced my own ideas on being flexible with the music and learning how to play the melody like you're singing: You have to memorize the words. Even though you aren't a singer, you are a singer, because you're singing through your horn. That's how you grab your audience's attention -- when they can feel the rhythm of the lyric going by."
Lyricism and flexibility are two assets that have long been associated with Washington. Those, combined with his elegant, identifiable tone and insatiable quest to expand his musical horizons, have made the classically trained journeyman one of the most successful and influential saxophonists of the past 20 years. Six of his albums have reached either gold or platinum status, a rarity in jazz circles. His 1980 masterpiece, Winelight, a contemporary jazz landmark, is also one of the genre's most successful crossover efforts. Washington has already ventured into soul, R&B, rap, rock and classical music, and his next album will incorporate African influences.
Yet, for all his commercial success, Washington has never missed a chance to silence jazz purists by proving again and again that he's an excellent straight-ahead player -- and one who is deeply rooted in tradition. "Part of my musical education was to be prepared for any kind of gig that came down the pike," notes the two-time Grammy winner. "At first, I was playing with a lot of big bands, and we played a lot of standard big-band charts. But then the next night we'd be called in for a blues gig. So we'd go play some blues with a small group. Then we'd go play with an organ group the next night."
Back then, says Washington, versatility was a mandatory part of the package: "There was a lot of different kinds of music, and I was always taught to try to enhance what is already there no matter what genre you're dealing with. That has stuck with me."
Washington's rise coincided with a time when jazz's boundaries were being blown apart by the fusion movement on one side and R&B-influenced jazz on the other. In 1970, saxophonist Hank Crawford failed to show up for a recording session, a lucky turn of events that led to Washington's first gig as a bandleader. The result was Inner City Blues, a collection of standards and R&B covers that proved Washington was ready to help redefine jazz. Inner City Blues became a huge success, and subsequent albums landed him in concert halls.
As the '70s trends shifted, so did Washington, refining and redefining his style to fit smoother parameters. Albums such as Reed Seed, Skylarkin', Winelight and Come Morning are prototypes for the smooth jazz style that would become popular in the late '80s and a radio staple in the late '90s. (Ironically, Houston is one of the few major markets that doesn't have a full-time smooth jazz radio station.) And though Washington's releases are indeed wildly popular within that jazz format, he is more versatile than the tag suggests -- and his soloing is far more adventurous and involving than that of most who have followed in his footsteps.
"I am grateful for the attention," Washington says of his status as a smooth jazz pioneer. "But I don't try to dwell on it. I am one in a long string of artists. Look at Cannonball Adderly; I think he was playing every kind of music. He was playing the smooth contemporary thing. He was also getting into the third stream, playing hard bop, playing swing. If you look at folks like Louis Jordan, Ike Quebec, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, the lineage didn't start with me. I try to tell people that all the time."
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Washington emphasizes that to really appreciate the form, you have to go back further than the '70s. "That's what I really loved about Conrad Johnson," Washington says, bringing the conversation back to his good friend. "He'd say, 'Now this guy here plays good, but if you go back and check out some of those earlier musicians, they were all playing the same kind of thing but they didn't get the notoriety, because smooth jazz wasn't smooth jazz yet.' Conrad gives you a foothold in the history of the music." It's obvious Washington holds Johnson in high regard -- and that the feeling is mutual.
"I think Grover is one of the finest artists out there," Johnson says. "His show is just top rate. He programs that thing so when he gets through, you call him back."
Indeed, of his upcoming show in Houston, Washington says, "I just hope they give us enough time to play, because I like to play for a long time."
Grover Washington Jr. performs Friday, August 7, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$40. For info, call 629-3700.