Grover Washington Jr. is top of the tree of the new wave musicians who have merged Jazz and Soul. But he aims to branch out still further. John Abbey reports, on the eve of Grover's return to Britain….
WHEN WE happened upon the phrase 'Funk-Jazz' to illustrate the specific new wave of jazz music that has both merged with soul and yet remained equally isolated, I sometimes wonder whether we simply happened upon a phrase to describe the music of Grover Washington Jr. Grover, you see, is easily the most successful of this new troupe of musicians who have been weaned on orthodox jazz yet have adopted a commercial stance towards their art.
In past interviews with F-J creators, we have commented on how articulate they are in comparison to the average soul act and we have pointed out that this is probably because they have spent years learning to master their chosen instrument and that education breeds thoughtfulness, patience and understanding.
Grover Jr. certainly qualifies on all three counts — plus he has a refreshing humility that is rarely found in an entertainer. He almost apologises for being a superstar — that's my word because I can only imagine the softly spoken gent being embarrassed by its use!
Grover is in his early 30s now and lives in a sober house in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and son, Grover III. He was born and raised in Buffalo, upstate New York, and it was there that he first became interested in music. Coming from a musical family, it was a fairly natural course of events and it was equally obvious that his tenor sax playing father would encourage him to follow suit. Two of his brothers are professional musicians with jazz bands incidentally.
In his mid teens, he left home and went on the road with a band of musician friends, travelling under the name of the Four Clefs. That covered the final four years of his teens before he tried his luck alone and then was drafted into the army — where his major contribution was playing in the band!
Because Philadelphia was traditionally a jazz haven, Grover decided to set up house there on being demobbed. But the proverbial cupboard was empty and Grover turned to regular occupations for a while — including such dynamic jobs as shop assistant in Sears & Roebuck (the American equivalent of Marks & Spencers, maybe), a security guard and working in the mail room for a local jewellery shop.
His knight on a white horse came in the form of a guitarist friend who got him a gig as horn player with jazz legend, Charles Earland. This led indirectly to a recording session with Johnny Hammond and that was the introduction to Creed Taylor — perhaps the first significant step towards the building of the Grover Washington Jr. we know today.
Grover played on Johnny's Kudu LP, "Breakout" and Taylor was so impressed by the young unknown that he immediately signed him to a recording contract of his own. That lead to the recording of the "Inner City Blues" album — although it was perhaps the single of the same name that brought Grover's name to the public's attention for the first time. I may be wrong but that would probably have to be acknowledged as the first F-J single.
Via albums such as "Soul Box" and "All The King's Horses", Grover held his own in the commercial stakes for the ensuing two years but the release of the "Mister Magic" LP catapulted him to the very top. It was a progression that continued to ascend via the "Feels So Good" album, which also topped the American jazz charts for consecutive weeks on end.
OK, so that brings us up to date and you've got a potted biography and history on the man. The future? "Well, I'm about to start work on the next album," the quiet gentleman began. "We're working on the basic format right now and although no tunes have actually been chosen, we have some original material in the pocket which we'll be including.
"The album will be split into two sides — Bob James will be arranging one side and I'll be doing the other for myself. The sessions will all take place at Rudy Van Gelder's Studio in New York and we'll be using the same hard core of musicians. I owe a great deal to Bob James and I hope we'll be able to work together for years to come. With him there are no restrictions and that's so valuable between an artist and a producer. But I also need to progress and that's why doing production work for myself is so important.
"I feel that I have to grow as a musician and to make progress I have to be seen to progress. Eventually, I'd like to expand into all different and varied directions. One of my ambitions, for example, is to score a movie. Other artists? No, to be honest, I've never given much thought to producing anybody else but I wouldn't rule it out if I become successful producing for myself.
"My main thing is to play my saxophone still. That will always take priority above everything else. I'd still like to do more session work but it's fairly impossible nowadays because of pressure of work. But I was able to do all of the saxophone parts for Bob James' next album — or, at least, some of the album.
"On one track — called "Barry Lindon" — I even played a tin whistle solo. But to play on his sessions is more a relaxation. The atmosphere at CTI-Kudu is still very family-like and that's what I particularly like about it. Yet they have taught me so much about the business. I particularly became aware of the significance of the right promotion and advertising because they really are masters at that side of the business."
Now, Grover is on the verge of making his British concert debut although he has been here before. "I'm really looking forward to coming over again," he enthused. "I'm especially looking forward to making contact with the people there because they treated me so kindly last time I was there. Then I was a nobody and I really appreciated their kindness so I'm looking to be able to repay them in a small way this time around.
"And I'm looking forward to going to Dobells Record Shop in London to try to get hold of some old and rare jazz records. There's nowhere like that in the States. I just want to walk around and meet the folks and see what makes them happy."
In many cases, the answer to that last question is simple — the mere fact that Mister Magic and his band are going to be here to play for them will suffice.