Black Men In America.com Exclusive Interview
By Gary A. Johnson
Most artists would be daunted at the thought of remaking a classic work of art made by legends, but not Grammy winner Kirk Whalum. The multi-dimensional saxophonist adeptly steps into the role of John Coltrane and tapped his brother, vocalist Kevin Whalum, to fill the shoes of Johnny Hartman on an unabashedly romantic collection of duets originally recorded in 1963 by the seminal artists. Romance Language, due to be released on Valentine’s Day by Rendezvous Music, consists of all six songs that comprise the Coltrane/Hartman recording along with a handful of modern ballads to complete the disc produced by Kirk Whalum and John Stoddart.
Romance Language is Kirk Whalum’s 19th album as a front man since his 1985 solo debut, Floppy Disk. He topped the Billboard contemporary jazz album charts twice (And You Know That! and Cache) and amassed 11 Grammy nominations. Whalum took home a coveted Grammy earlier this year for a duet with Lalah Hathaway that appeared on his The Gospel According to Jazz: Chapter III. An ordained minister who earned a Master’s degree in the Art of Religion, Kirk Whalum has forged an unparalleled career path in both the secular and the non-secular music words, garnering hits, awards and accolades for his jazz, R&B and gospel recordings. His soulfully expressive tenor sax voice is unique and has appeared on literally hundreds of recordings by Barbara Streisand, Quincy Jones, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Michael McDonald, Stanley Clarke, George Duke, and Larry Carlton as well as on collaborative albums with Bob James, Rick Braun and Norman Brown. When not recording or performing, he educates and mentors the next generation of musicians in his role as president/CEO of the STAX Music Academy and the STAX Museum of American Soul Music.
Earlier this month, Black Men In America.com Founder & Publisher Gary Johnson conducted an exclusive interview with Kirk Whalum. This is Part I of that interview.
BMIA.com: Hey Kirk. How are you doing?
Kirk Whalum: Hey Gary I’m doing great Gary. Thank you so much.
BMIA.com: I’m really excited to talk to you, so let’s get right to it. Let’s talk about your new CD “Romance Language.”
Kirk Whalum: I want to talk about this. This is unlike any project I’ve ever done. For someone like me to take the music of the great John Coltrane and doing my own version of his music is kind of scary. I’ve studied John Coltrane’s music and his life. I wrote about him in my seminary final project. I believe he would be happy with this effort because the spiritual focus of his life would dictate that his music be shared with new and expanding audiences.
BMIA.com: That’s great. Kirk, at what age did your musical journey begin?
Kirk Whalum: That’s hard to say. I can remember being about 3 or 4 years old and seeing my grandmother as the organist for a pretty high brow baptist church. She played the pipe organ. For me to be there and see her was a good experience.
BMIA.com: You’ve played with a lot of people. Who would you consider to be your musical influences?
Kirk Whalum: We can start with Hank Crawford on saxophone. He was my biggest influence. There’s a guy who pastors in Chicago named Ossie Smith who plays the saxophone. He is an amazingly well rounded musician. He was the first one to pull me aside and begin to show me different things such as jazz theory and improvisation. I owe a lot to him. In terms of big names, there’s Arnett Cobb who is a famed saxophonist. I wear a ring on my finger given to me by Arnett Cobb’s daughter. I missed his funeral because I was in Japan. When he was alive he was a very big part of my musical development. Those were my biggest influences. In terms of the people I played with, I’d have to say Bob James was the first big one. He was the one who really discovered me. I played and toured with him. He got me signed to Columbia Records and produced my first three records.
BMIA.com: You mentioned that you’ve been to Japan. I know you speak more than one language. What languages do you speak?
Kirk Whalum: I speak Spanish and French.
BMIA.com: Let me shift back to music. What was it like playing with your brother and your Uncle who is affectionately known as “Peanut?”
Kirk Whalum: I’ve recorded with both of them quite a few times. I keep creating ways for us to collaborate. These are two world class talents. These are people who deserve to be heard. I also work with my nephews and my son.
BMIA.com: How long have you been married?
Kirk Whalum: I have been married for 32 years in August 2012.
BMIA.com: What is the secret to being married?
Kirk Whalum: I trust God for that relationship. I know that it’s his Grace that he saved my life. Marriage is about forgiveness. We have to constantly be in forgiveness mode and nurture the relationship.
BMIA.com: What advice do you have to help young people who want a career in the music business?
Kirk Whalum: One important thing for them to know is that they can control their destiny. There’s so many aspects of the music industry that are out of their control, but the most important aspect of the business is within their control and that has to do with being diligent and pursuing your craft.
BMIA.com: Is that you playing the saxophone solo on Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” from the soundtrack of the movie “The Bodyguard?”
Kirk Whalum: Yes sir.
BMIA.com: What was it like working with Whitney Houston?
Kirk Whalum: I played with Whitney for 7 years. The movie “The Bodyguard” was completely unique. I was touring with Whitney and I was living in Paris. She had insisted to the Director that she wanted to sing that song live to the film. They were against recording music live to the film because there are too many things that can go wrong. Whitney gave the producers an ultimatum. She put her foot down and insisted that she sing live with her band or she would not sing the song.
BMIA.com: You’re President/CEO of the STAX Music Museum. Is that correct?
Kirk Whalum: Yes.
BMIA.com: What’s going on with the legendary STAX?
Kirk Whalum: If it’s a raw funky groove, chances are it’s not Motown, its STAX. STAX was known for. Booker T & the M.G’s, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, The Staples Singer, Albert King and Rufus Thomas. STAX music was organic and raw. In 1989, the building was torn down. A few years later the building was erected and the STAX Music Academy is up and running. The Academy has a charter school providing kids with a world class education, and music is a part of the curriculum. The STAX Music Academy is an after school program of about 75-80 kids who come from different backgrounds. The kids are talented and incredible.
For more information you can visit Kirk Whalum’s official web site at www.kirkwhalum.com. Part II of our exclusive interview with Kirk Whalum will be posted next week.
Special thanks to Juanita Stephens for arranging this exclusive interview.
Gary A. Johnson is the Founder & Publisher of Black Men In America.com a popular online magazine on the Internet and the Black Men In America.com Blog. Gary is also the author of the book “25 Things That Really Matter In Life.”