Interview recorded on March 9, 2012
On March 7, 1963, in a studio in New Jersey, sax great John Coltrane and vocalist Johnny Hartman took only six romantic ballads and created an instant jazz classic, simply called JOHN COLTRANE AND JOHNNY HARTMAN. Songs like "You Are Too Beautiful" and "They Say It's Wonderful" resonated with current day sax great Kirk Whalum, who thought the tunes would be a perfect showcase for his brother's (vocalist Kevin Whalum) talent. Born from that idea is Kirk's new album, ROMANCE LANGUAGE, which recreates all six of the lovely Coltrane/Hartman tunes.
In this candid conversation about love and music, Kirk reveals to Darnell Meyers-Johnson, why he was willing to step into Coltrane's shoes, and how his brother's lush vocals inspired him.
Darnell: Good day. This is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m speaking to one of music’s premiere sax men. Many consider him to be smooth jazz royalty, but he grew up in the heart of one of Soul music’s biggest cities, Memphis. He has an extensive history of touring and session work with a who’s who of music: Whitney, Luther, Streisand, Babyface, Al Green, Nancy Wilson. He’s worked with them all, and the list goes on for days. His new album, ROMANCE LANGUAGE, is out. It recreates a John Coltrane classic and reinterprets a few of today’s R&B hits. Today I’m speaking with Mr. Kirk Whalum. How are you, sir?
Kirk: I’m doing great. Thank you for that lovely introduction, and it’s my honor to be here with you.
Darnell: Man, I just want to say, before we start, that we do appreciate the time you’re taking out to speak with us today.
Kirk: It’s my pleasure.
Darnell: When we last spoke with you, it was in 2010 when your Donny Hathaway tribute album came out. Since that time, you’ve won your first Grammy Award last year for best Gospel song. After a dozen or so nominations. What was it like to finally win?
Kirk: You know, it was wonderful, and also, I’ve got tell you, it was also a big surprise. I guess anyone would say that winning a Grammy was a surprise, but for us, in particular, we just didn’t think we had a chance to win that particular Grammy. I’ll be honest and say that we thought we had a shot at a couple of the others that we didn’t win, but it was really wonderful. I have to double back and say that we really--I never wanted to make music for awards. Before I was ever nominated, honestly, you could ask me if I was ever going to win a Grammy, and I would say I’m not really thinking about that. I’m trying to practice. I’m trying to be a great musician. Then, the first time I was nominated, that tends to change. You kind of then sort of watch the mailbox a little bit more. So, in that sense, I regret that, but I was able, I guess, to get back to, really what matters most to me, and that’s to be a great musician. So the idea of winning a Grammy, honestly, is not nearly the rush of being nominated, because being nominated means that your peers have listened to your music; they’ve considered your art worthy of being included in this great pantheon of great art that has been awarded that trophy.
Darnell: As an ordained minister, was it particularly sweet, though, to win in a Gospel category?
Kirk: It was. Again, I just didn’t think we would win, especially because the songs that we wrote … Jerry Peters and I wrote this song for Lalah Hathaway, but we wrote it to superfluously be a jazz song--like as in a traditional jazz ballad. So the style of the the song’s instrumentation, everything says 1950, with upright bass and all of that. The fact that it won best Gospel song is really, truly good.
Darnell: In the introduction, I referred to you as smooth jazz. Is that a label that you embrace?
Kirk: That’s a good question. I don’t embrace it very much. I’m grateful for it because as a radio format, and that’s really what it is, and has always been, it’s a way for people to find the music. So where’s the station? Where’s the smooth jazz station? But you’ll notice, there’s artists that get airplay on those stations--there’s not a lot of them left, but those are artists from really a divergent group of backgrounds.
You’ve got people like Joe Sample, you know, you’ve got Bob James. These are people who are known for being great jazz musicians, some were great classical musicians. It was, more or less, a way to kind of get in front of a lot of people as a radio format, and it absolutely afforded us an opportunity to be in front of those people, but I think what it tends to do is to kind of narrow the field and kind of also narrow our creative output so that it began to be like … well, in order to get played on these stations, you have to sound sort of like this. And we’re like, that’s kind of putting the cart before the horse. So it’s a love-hate relationship.
Darnell: I was going to ask you if you thought that that label, or that category was a little limiting, in terms of how you are perceived by jazz fans, in general. Just yesterday I heard a jazz radio program director refer to smooth jazz as elevator music and not real jazz, and I was wondering how you felt about criticisms like that?
Kirk: Right, so it depends, again--you lump a whole lot of music in one basket and say it’s all elevator music; well, of course that’s ludicrous, but I can say there’s a lot of it that is elevator music, and by the way, some of it is purposefully elevator music. It’s traditionally created and recorded to be sort of in the background, and to kind of set a mood or tone, and to relax people, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But if you lump it all together, you’ve got Ray Carlson, you’ve got Spyro Gyra, on and on; these are great musicians, so none of us got in this business to be elevator accompaniment, so I think it’s important to specify what artist, or what song, that you’re talking about. And again, that’s the downside of having lumped everything into one category.
And by the way, there’s a lot of music that is smooth jazz, like Dave Brubeck, Take 5, Paul Desmond, Miles Davis—“Kind of Blue.” There’s a lot of music that was absolutely smooth that never got played on smooth jazz radio, so it’s kind of a non sequitur to even deal with that category.
Darnell: You grew up in one of the world’s capitols of soul music, Memphis, Tennessee. Describe for me what life was like for a young Kirk Whalum growing up there.
Kirk: Oh, man, music was everywhere, seriously. I can’t even tell you all of the different kinds of music that we were exposed to. I mean, everything from, obviously, Gospel, to blues, to Rhythm and Blues, which, by the way, when you talk about soul music, that’s really what we’re talking about. It’s blues music that you put a compelling groove or beat to. That’s really what it started out to be, and you know, there was rock and roll, there was Elvis, there was, you know, it was just everything.
Darnell: At which point though, for yourself, did you decide that you didn’t just want to enjoy great music, but you wanted to create it as well?
Kirk: That wasn’t a decision I made. As we say, Mama Whalum, congratulations, you have a baby musician. That’s just the way it is, man. It’s not that you choose music; it’s that music chooses you. Although music can be enjoyed, and people can participate on so many levels, and not everybody is called to be a musician. I think that most of us, though, in this conversation, were called to do it.
Darnell: Every great artist has a discovery story--in other words, the story of how they were "discovered." Can you briefly tell me yours?
Kirk: Yeah, it’s pretty quick. I opened a concert in Houston for Bob James. I was playing, going to school in Houston at Texas Southern, opened a concert for Bob James. He heard my band and I got a call the next day from his manager saying he wanted--Bob James wanted me to come to New York and play on this record called BOB JAMES 12. I was like, yeah, I think I can fit that into my schedule.
Darnell: You weren’t intimidated at all?
Kirk: I was absolutely intimidated, but you know what? You know when that thing happens, you’ve got to show up. You’ve got to be ready, and that’s the thing that we teach kids … I’m involved with the Stax Music Academy here in Memphis, and that’s what we teach them. That moment is going to happen, absolutely. It’s not a question of whether or not you’re going to get a break, the question is going to be are you going to be ready?
Darnell: Your new album, ROMANCE LANGUAGE, throws us all the way back to the 1963 recording, JOHN COLTRANE AND JOHNNY HARTMAN. In fact you recreated that entire album, all six songs. What made you decide that you wanted to do that as opposed to just covering a tune or two?
Kirk: You know, every time I would hear that record, which was a lot, because I love it, I would think of my brother. I said my brother Kevin would kill this if we were to do this record together. We would have so much fun, and I just kind of put it on the back burner. But, eventually, I said I’m going to ask him, and we’re going to do this record, and we did.
Again, the reason it took so long is because it’s such a seminal record in history and in the annals of his music that you don’t just want to do it lightly. Not only that, you know there will be scrutiny because it’s such an important record. But I just said, you know what? I’m going to do my best and I’m going to try to, I guess, put the same passion in my version of these songs that I feel that John Coltrane put into his version. Whose is better? It’s not a question—his. But I’m so grateful to--like all of us--to be able to enjoy his music and, in this case, to actually have been able to participate in it.
Darnell: You just made reference to your brother Kevin. He played Johnny
Hartman to your Coltrane. How would you compare his vocals to that of the original recording?
Kirk: Honestly, I’m such a fan of my brother’s, and I, again, when I first heard that record it just reminded me of him, because it’s the same resonant, beautiful, lush sound in his voice, and it’s very pure and the pitch is just perfect. It’s the sound of the voice. I think that’s the thing, is that it’s like talking in a sense that it’s not so much, many times, what you say as how you say it, you know. It’s the sound of his voice that just reminded me of Johnny Hartman. It’s that same beautiful, lush sound.
Darnell: Will your brother release his own projects in the future?
Kirk: He actually has two records out at KevinWhalum.com. The latest one is called ONE LIFE TO LOVE.
Darnell: There you go. We learned something new just now. We talked about him, but what about yourself? Again, getting back to that question of intimidation. Did you feel any of that trying to step into Coltrane’s shoes?
Kirk: Oh, yeah. Again, this is not … no small deal. We’re talking about the saxophonist’s saxophone. He is the man and yet, I still consider it to be … you have to be careful of putting people on a pedestal. I mean, I think he would really be flattered and honored that we redid this record. Again, how good a job we did is absolutely up to the listener, but it’s sincere, and I think that’s the most important thing--to just put forth something that you believe in and that you’re passionate about.
Darnell: Although that original recording only had six songs, there were six really great, well-written songs. And I was curious: of the six, which do you think you did the best job of recreating?
Kirk: That’s a very good question. I think my brother really did a beautiful job of “You Are Too Beautiful.” I think I was particularly inspired by his performance, and I think I probably played better because we did it all together, at the same time. So maybe it was that one.
Darnell: There’s four other songs on your CD. They are more current-day R&B hits, if you will. The stand out, for me, obviously, is clearly the cover of Brandy’s “Almost Doesn’t Count,” which features your uncle Peanuts; I hear that's what they call him, right?
Kirk: That’s right.
Darnell: He’s 83 years old, right?
Kirk: That’s exactly right.
Darnell: Tell me about Uncle Peanuts, because he really had a great way of taking that song and really interpreting those lyrics. I’m a big Brandy fan; I loved that song anyway, but when I heard him sing it, I got so much more from that version. I never knew that song was about all of that … what I was feeling when he was singing it.
Kirk: Wow, that’s great! Yeah, you know, it’s funny, right? It’s such a strong lyric, and sometimes you can miss it when the production is so cool in this 21st century way of listening to things, sometimes the message can get lost. That’s a very good point you bring up. And I think that really does justify, in my mind, juxtaposing that song, and I think, the other three as well, with these classic songs.
You know, the last great, awesome lyric was not written in 1955; there are great songs being written today. And yet, there are also some really lame songs being written today, from my point of view, when it comes to poetry. I think that those songs had poetry to them, both lyrically and melodically. It was just poetic. That’s what I hear in that song that Brandy did, and my uncle was able to bring that out. I’m glad you heard it.
Darnell: Just like I asked you about your brother, does Uncle Peanuts have any projects out, or will there be any future projects with him?
Kirk: Yes. There’s an album that’s been out for a while now; it’s available at KirkWhalum.com. It’s called INTRODUCING HUGH PEANUTS WHALUM.
Darnell: Okay. So everybody who hears this and likes that song as much as I do can go and check that out, as I will.
Kirk: Yes, sir.
Darnell: From beginning to end on this album, listening to it, even with the newer tracks and the older Coltrane stuff, it is one of the most romantic albums I’ve heard in a long time, and I wanted to know how much of that romanticism is in Kirk Whalum?
Kirk: Well, yes, I’m glad you said that. And to start with, let me say that I am in love. There’s a different way you feel about love when you’re in love, and I met my girlfriend when I was 15, and she was 14, and she became my wife when I was 22, and I’m 53 and I’m still very, very much in love with her. She rocks my world today, no less than back then, a lot more so, actually. So I think it was important for me to put this out, from that point of view--that people could have one more testimonial of love, and how powerful it is, and how long-lasting and eternal, even, it can be … but also, the romantic aspect of it.
I think there are people who are married that say, “Yeah, yeah, I love them,” but this is like, “Oh, no, I love her. You don’t hear me.” That’s the kind of thing … there’s that passionate love that--you can’t contrive it. You ask a singer or a musician when are you at your best? It’s like man, when I’m convicted about something. When it’s real, and that’s what this was about.
Darnell: Since we’re talking about romances, and the music on the album is about romance, you just spoke about your own relationship with your wife, and I guess it was 30-some years you guys have been married now, how do you keep that sort of passion alive after so long? I know a lot of people talk about, as you just said, they still love their spouse, but having kids and this, that, and the other … they don’t necessarily speak about them with the same passion that I’m hearing you speak when you talk about your wife right now.
Kirk: Right, well, there’s different answers to that question, but for me, you really have to realize what you have. That’s one big thing. There’s lots of songs, especially soul songs, that have been written about that. The great William Bell, “You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Til Your Well Runs Dry),” and so a big part of it is realizing what you have. And then there’s a part that said, “blessed is the man that doesn’t have what he wants, but wants what he has.” That’s some wisdom. You begin to see different aspects of beauty of that mate, of that partner when you really look at that person from that vantage point.
Darnell: You’ve worked with some amazing vocalists, besides the ones in your family. I know that you’re a great fan of vocalists. Is there anybody out there that you would still like to work with that you haven’t had the opportunity to work with yet?
Kirk: There’s a lot of them, but let’s just say Brandy. Brandy’s one who I know, and I’ve had a chance to kind of hang out with a little bit. I recorded on a record for her dad, who’s now deceased, and I did a few things with her with Whitney on the live productions, but I’ve never recorded with her, and I’m such a fan of her voice. She’s such a sweet lady, but yeah, she’s an artist that I really, really love.
Darnell: Well, speaking of great vocalists, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Whitney Houston. You’ve toured with her extensively for years, and it’s your sax that we hear on her biggest hit, “I Will Always Love You.” First, I would like for you to share with me how you became a part of that classic recording, and, if you could, I would like for you to give us a glimpse into the Whitney Houston that you knew.
Kirk: Sure, I’m happy to. First of all, the story of that record, “I Will Always Love You” is, you know--it was a part of the soundtrack for the Bodyguard, but what you may not know--that when she recorded it, she sang it live to the film. For anybody that’s in the film industry--they know that’s an amazing feat; that’s not something they do.
The fact that, not only did she do it live, but she also recorded it live with her band playing right beside her, actually behind the curtain. She insisted that we be there to play this with her as she recorded. The fact that my saxophone is included, in fact, the saxophone solo, the one that’s been heard by more people than any other saxophone solo … the fact that we did that was because Whitney Houston insisted. They literally fought her on it … not literally, but they fought her on it. And she said "well okay fine, you can do it whatever way you want to do it, but you’re going to find another singer, because if I do it, this is how it’s going to be done." So, the fact that we’re on that record is because of her.
Darnell: And give us just a glimpse into who she was as a person.
Kirk: Yeah, sure. Well, you know, I’ll give you just a little vignette. She loved the Lord with all her heart. I would do Bible studies with the band, and when she was available, with her. Again, as a superstar, they’re always pulling on you to do interviews, this and that, or you’re just trying to rest.
But this one particular one was in Barcelona, and they would just come to my hotel room, or we’d meet in somebody’s room and do a Bible study, and we would sing sometimes, and just kind of share, not only that, but sometimes purge from just all the madness of being in that industry, and we were a family. She was very much dependent on us, which is why she wanted to make sure we were there when she did that song for the movie. We depended on her and she depended on us, and that’s just what families do. So that’s a window into the kind of person she was.
Darnell: And I do thank you for sharing that. I really do. Let’s just put some information out there. The album is out right now. Are you touring in support of it?
Kirk: We are, actually, and if people will go to KirkWhalum.com, we always list our tour dates, and they’re stacking up, so please go and check it out. And, hopefully, if you’re a promoter and you’re listening, and we’re not coming to your town, please, we’d love to come and bring this romance. It’s an amazing show. It’s something that especially couples will really, really dig.
Darnell: And what about Facebook and Twitter? Are you a part of either of those?
Kirk: Oh yeah. @KirkWhalum … just do “Kirk Whalum” and you’ll find me on Facebook and Twitter.
Darnell: You’ve done tribute albums to Donny Hathaway and Babyface. You’ve done several of your GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JAZZ projects, you’ve talked R&B and pop, and you slayed the jazz beast that is Coltrane. What’s next for Kirk Whalum? What would you like to do next?
Kirk: I have a couple of projects in mind. One is a project called SAY IT and “say it” is a phrase that we used to hear growing up in church. When the preacher was really, really going for it, man, you’d hear deacons or somebody say, “Say it!” And so, in musical terms, to me, that’s like when you’re really playing with conviction; you’re saying something. You’re not just playing something. So it’s a project that I’ve started writing for, that kind of conjures images of the great Hank Crawford, the great Cannonball Adderly, the great Wilson Felder, and others who--they didn’t just play; they were talking. You could hear them saying something, almost.
Darnell: Is this a CD project or a musical?
Kirk: Oh, a musical--that would be nice. But no, I’m not in that deep yet, so it is a CD project.
Darnell: Okay, and you said there was something else you were also working on?
Kirk: The GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JAZZ, Chapter 4; we have Chapters 1 through 3, and we won the Grammy for Chapter 3, so we’re really excited about doing something for Chapter 4. We’ve got some things already written, some other ideas to put in the pot. So those projects feature the likes of George Duke, Jonathan Butler, Paul Jackson Jr., Lalah Hathaway, Doc Powell, my brother Kevin, my uncle Peanuts, my son Kyle. So it’s a real event when they happen. It’s always live and we make a video so that’s something I’m looking forward to doing. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JAZZ, Chapter 4.
Darnell: And do you know approximately when that might be available?
Kirk: I do not. I wish I could say, but all these things have to do with time and ...
Darnell: ... everyone's schedules.
Kirk: Yeah, it’s wacky, but please go to KirkWhalum.com and just stay on it, or hang out with me on Twitter and Facebook. You will know the moment it happens.
Darnell: I was just about to let you go, but before I do that, let me ask you real quick: the Stax Museum--I know that you’re the CEO there. We did ask you about that when we talked to you in 2010, but is anything going on there that you would like the public to know?
Kirk: Well, people who haven’t been to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music need to go. And it’s a must see. Much like the Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis. It’s just, you know, Graceland--it’s this place that you have to see, especially if you’re down south. The Stax Museum, Stax Records, S-T-A-X, is music that everybody knows, but sometimes they may not know that it came from Stax.
They may think it came from Motown, but you know, Otis Redding, “Sitting On Dock of The Bay,” The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There,” Sam and Dave, “Hold On I’m Coming,” “I’m a Soul Man,” … speaking of your industry. These are all Stax songs and this is music that was recorded right here in Memphis, at the corner of McLemore and Collins, and the Bar-Kays and all these great artists that came from this place, when they closed in ’75, they didn’t go away, and that music didn’t go away.
We were fortunate to have it rebuilt as a museum, and it’s the only full-fledged soul museum in the world. I mean, yes, there’s Motown and these other places, but this one was built from the ground up as a museum to celebrate, not just Stax music, but all soul music, including Soul Train and all the great stories.
And you think about people like Maurice White who went and formed Earth, Wind and Fire--he cut his teeth right here in Memphis, around the corner from Stax. He and David Porter were in a Gospel group when they were ten.
Stories like that, and stories like Aretha Franklin being born about 5 blocks from Stax. Those are things that we celebrate at this museum, and you come, and I guarantee, you will not be able to leave. But, as well, it’s attached to what I think is the premiere Soul Music Academy for high school kids, and we’re giving them the legacy of this great music to push forward into the future.
Darnell: And I know there has to be a website for that, so go ahead and give us that information as well.
Kirk: Yes, sir. Staxmuseum.com. Or you can go to Soulsville.com
Darnell: Oh, man, Kirk Whalum, it’s been a pleasure. I’m so glad, again, that you took time out to speak with us. Anytime that you have anything going on, our doors at SoulMusic.com are open. Feel free to come through and let us know what you’re doing, or let us know what’s happening at the museum, and we’ll be more than happy to share it with the public.
Kirk: Awesome. I’m going to tweet something about you guys right now.
Darnell: That’s awesome, as well. Thank you very much, sir.
Kirk: God bless you.
Darnell: Alright. Be blessed.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.