Houston Music

Kirk Whalum's Humanité Shines Like a Beacon on a Hill

Kirk Whalum: a son of the Civil Rights era.
Kirk Whalum: a son of the Civil Rights era. Detail from album cover

Kirk Whalum is a son of the Civil Rights era. He was just nine years-old when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, only blocks away from the Whalum family home in Memphis. His legendary and prolific career, which began in earnest in Houston four decades ago, has allowed him to see the world and know its people. He’s personally experienced King’s vision of “The Beloved Community” and Whalum’s new album, Humanité, is his chance to promote that vision.

Whalum will be performing in his old hometown this Sunday at Miller Outdoor Theatre, the headliner for the inaugural Jazz on the Hill concert. He’ll be playing songs from a career which launched in local haunts like Rockefeller’s and Cody’s and went on to include more than two dozen albums, multiple Grammy nominations and a Grammy win and session and touring gigs with artists like Barbra Streisand, Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross and, most notably, Whitney Houston.

The free show will also feature Poncho Sanchez and His Latin Jazz Band. The concert opens with the Houston High School All Stars featuring Derrick Hodge, presented by a collaboration of the Monterey Jazz Festival and Texas Southern University, Whalum’s alma mater.

The mix of young talent and musicians from all backgrounds is a perfect fit since those elements are at the heart of Humanité, which released earlier this month.

“It’s the collaboration with 14 artists from eight countries, that’s the main narrative,” Whalum said. “To take that journey, basically to just get on planes and go back to Indonesia, back to South Africa, back to these places where I had encountered these emerging artists and some established artists who I know were not a thing in the States, not so much, except for sort of the cognoscenti, to be able to make that connection and show our common humanity, that’s kind of where we live on my side of things as an artist and entertainer.

“We live in that world where we’re not afraid of each other. We’re, in fact, curious about each other’s faith traditions and food traditions and cultures – everything. And obviously about the music.”

The album allowed Whalum to team with artists who share that vision but live miles away and worlds apart. It was produced by Whalum’s longtime friend, British jazz trumpeter James McMillan, and includes renowned artists Japanese jazz pianist Keiko Matsui and iconic bassist Marcus Miller from Brooklyn. The record gives Whalum a chance to introduce listeners to talents like bassist Barry Likumahuwa, singer/songwriter Grace Sahertian and pop singer and actor Afgan, who all hail from Indonesia. Singers and jazz guitarists Andréa Lisa and Zahara, from New Zealand and South Africa, respectively, contribute to the album. Percussionist Kasiva Mutwa of Nairobi and Liane Carroll, one of the U.K.’s top female jazz vocalists, also appear on Humanité.

Recorded over a three month period last year, the project had Whalum globetrotting to studios in Jakarta, Tokyo, Paris, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Hastings. Some of the music was even recorded in Whalum’s living room at home in Memphis. The extraordinary projected was filmed for an approaching documentary.

It's not lost upon Whalum that this weekend’s show features music on a hill. As he sees it, music is the beacon which gives light to the world and ensures that this city on a hill won’t be hidden by regressive forces.

“I came to the realization that this was the perfect time to put that message out because we’re in this sort of xenophobic, weird age. We wanted to show people how it’s done on our side of the fence,” he suggested.

“Finally, I’ll say that when I was looking at 60, you know it sort of hit me all at once, man, last time I was looking at one of these landmarks I was 40 and it seems like that was a week ago. If that happens again in a week, I’m gonna be 80, so I need to take this week and get busy.”

Whalum said the xenophobia in the world today isn’t new, it’s never gone away and some of it is fueled by the world’s governments. As in the 1960s, he believes young people – particularly young artists – will be key to getting things back on track.

“Martin King kind of lifted off into this area, in terms of his rhetoric, of the global beloved community and that was both his revelation and sort of his undoing from the standpoint of our government sort of taking issue with what he was doing and the level he was doing it on,” he said. “They didn’t mind him being a civil rights leader if he just sort of stuck with that. Now all of a sudden he’s out talking about the Vietnam War as a travesty. That’s the kind of stuff that gets you in trouble with the powers that be because, as you know, there’s a whole lot of bad business going on, bad behavior that’s systemic and global in governments. That stuff is just really insidious.

“All of that is so far away from music but it’s that time when young people, especially artists of all stripes, are taking the lead. They’re speaking to the realities of who they are,” he continued. “We’ve always led the way, in one sense, artists. I think it’s because of the fact that in our world there’s this great leveler called art. It humbles us."

His own son, Kyle (named after Houston jazz saxophonist and longtime Whalum protegee Kyle Turner) is living out this vision, too, as a musician.

“We have two boys and two girls, they’re all grown, and two of them were born there so Kyle’s one of the ‘Houstonians’ in our household,” Whalum laughed. “Kyle ended up touring with Kelly Clarkson. He was touring with Lee Ann Rimes and some other country artists because he was in Nashville.

He moved to Los Angeles, “which is funny because when I left Houston that’s where I went,” Whalum recalled. “You see him every day on The Kelly Clarkson Show. He’s also playing with Katy Perry so he’s kind of bouncing a little bit. But he has an interesting parallel story, playing with a big star, female singer as I was with Whitney.

"Now he’s getting to see what it actually is like as a touring musician, and as a dad. He has two beautiful kids, a boy and girl, so he and his wife are getting to see all of the responsibility that his mom had with me being on the road.”

Whalum continues to play anywhere music fans live. In December, he’ll hit the road with old friend Bob James, for shows in Japan. But, he said, playing in Houston will always feel special. Mostly he visits his friends and family here, but he did admit, “The first word I’m gonna say is ‘Tex-Mex,’ you know? That’s item number one.”

“We thought that we would always live there," he said of his adopted hometown. "When we got there it was such an incredible, transcendent (place). It’s hard to describe, growing up in a town like Memphis is so microcosmic, like it’s its own little world. Once you step out of that world into Houston, which is an international world, it blew our minds.

“It was the launchpad to my world,” he said. “I have a really big world now and I’m grateful for that.”

Kirk Whalum headlines Jazz on the Hill, 6 p.m. Sunday, October 27 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park. Free.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.