One of the most popular saxophonists of all time, Grover Washington, Jr. was long the pacesetter in his field. His roots were in R&B and soul-jazz organ combos, but he also fared very well on the infrequent occasions when he played straight-ahead jazz. A highly influential player, Washington pushed himself with the spontaneity and risk-taking of a masterful jazz musician.
Grover Washington, Jr.'s, father also played saxophone and was his first influence. The younger son started playing music when he was ten, and within two years was working in clubs. He picked up experience touring with the Four Clefs from 1959-1963 and freelancing during the next two years, before spending a couple years in the Army. He moved to Philadelphia in 1967, becoming closely identified with the city from then on, and worked with several organists, including Charles Earland and Johnny Hammond Smith, recording as a sideman for the Prestige label. His biggest break occurred in 1971, when Hank Crawford could not make it to a recording date for Creed Tasylor's Kudu label; Washington was picked as his replacement, and the result was Inner City Blues, a big seller. From then on he became a major name, particularly after recording 1975's Mister Magic and Feels So Good, and later 1980's Winelight; the latter included the Bill Withers hit "Just the Two of Us."
Although some of his recordings since then found him coasting a bit, Washington usually stretched himself in concert. He developed his own personal voices on soprano, tenor, alto, and even his infrequently-used baritone. Grover Washington Jr. recorded as a leader for Kudu, Motown, Elektra, and Columbia and made notable guest appearances on dozens of records ranging from pop to straightforward jazz. He died of a sudden heart attack on December 17, 1999 while taping an appearance on CBS television's The Saturday Early Show; Washington was 56. The posthumous Aria was issued early the following year. ~ Scott Yanow, All Music Guide
saxophonist; jazz musician
Born on December 12, 1943, in Buffalo, NY; died on December 17, 1999, in New York, NY; married Christine, 1967; children: Grover III, Shana
Education: Attended Wurlitzer School of Music; attended Temple University, Philadelphia.
Military/Wartime Service: United States Army, 1965-67.
Four Clefs, saxophonist, 1963; 19th Army Band, saxophonist, 1965-67; Don Gardner's Sonotones, saxophonist, 1967-68; solo saxophonist, 1971-99.
One of the finest musicians ever tagged with the charge of commercialism by purists, Grover Washington, Jr., was one of the founders of the smooth jazz-pop style that gained wide public favor from the 1970s through the 1990s. By the late 1990s he had produced albums in a range of styles and seen his music influence such commercial giants as Kenny G. Music lovers' appreciation for Washington's music was hardly diminished by his untimely death in 1999.
Snuck Out to Jazz Clubs
Born in Buffalo, New York, on December 12, 1943, Washington came from a musical family. His mother sang in church choirs, and his father, who played the saxophone and maintained a large collection of jazz 78 RPM records, bought a sax for his son at the age of ten. "We came out of the ghetto," Washington said in the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, "but despite that fact, and despite Buffalo's cold winter climate, the city had a warm creative atmosphere, as far as I was concerned." His parents encouraged him to study classical music as well as jazz, and these studies proved beneficial later in Washington's career, honing his sight-reading skills and instilling in him a bent toward musical composition.
As a teenager Washington snuck out to jazz clubs and even performed with a blues band. "I'd play in a club until three o'clock in the morning, then be at school at quarter to eight," he recalled to the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul. His brother Darryl became a jazz drummer who backed such stars as Angela Bofill and Gato Barbieri. Washington also hoped for a basketball career, but was frustrated by his small stature (he stood 5 feet, 8-1/2 inches tall). Graduating from high school at the age of 16, he immediately formed a rhythm-and-blues group called the Four Clefs, which toured with some success around the Midwest and the rest of the country.
This phase of Washington's career was cut short when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965, just as American troops were becoming enmeshed in the Vietnam conflict. Washington assumed he was headed for Southeast Asia, but his musical talents came to the rescue: he won a spot in the 19th Army Band. Stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Washington found himself conveniently situated to continue building his musical career. He played with various ensembles in and around New York and Philadelphia, and performed and made friends with drummer Billy Cobham, another jazz-pop pioneer.
Breakthrough as Session Substitute
Discharged from the Army in 1967, the newly married musician worked for a record distributor while steadily gaining recognition as a jazz baritone-sax sideman. His breakthrough in the music profession came in 1971, when he was snared by Kudu record label producer Creed Taylor as a last-minute recording-session replacement for absent saxophonist Hank Crawford. Washington was to fill in on alto saxophone, an instrument he had not played since he had left the Army. Playing a rented instrument, Washington delivered a recording, released under his own name as Inner City Blues, that in the words of New York Times critic Robert Palmer, "sold hundreds of thousands of copies and did much to break down barriers between jazz and pop."
Washington's subsequent albums for Kudu continued his upward trajectory in the 1970s, with Mister Magic and Live at the Bijou meeting with special success. Washington energetically promoted his records on his own, and, in search of stronger label backing, moved first to Motown and then to Elektra at the end of the 1970s. The 1980 album Winelight, his second for Elektra, made him a superstar. It remained on Billboard magazine's pop chart for 102 weeks and was Number One on the jazz chart for 31 weeks. On the album Washington performed a duet with vocalist Bill Withers, "Just the Two of Us"; the two musicians, with their shared sophisticated-yet-earthy styling, complemented each other perfectly, and the recording remains one of Washington's best known.
Washington was not the first jazz musician to adopt pop and R&B influences, but his mixtures were new and convincing ones. Like other instrumentalists he performed jazz improvisations over a rock or urban contemporary beat; his improvisations were musically sophisticated but never lost the directness of the popular forms in which they were based. Washington, who was encouraged by his wife Christine to listen to more pop music, saw his music become a staple of various urban contemporary radio formats through the 1980s and beyond. And he was no temporary pop phenomenon. Most of his 1980s Elektra albums remained in print in the late 1990s.
Recorded Acoustic Jazz
Signing with the Columbia label in 1987, Washington kept up a steady schedule of releases. It was not until the 1990s that he relaxed somewhat in his pace of making new music. While continuing to make music that appealed to his large fan base, he took steps to address the concerns of critics who deplored the commercialism of his style. He made two albums, 1988's Then and Now and 1994's All My Tomorrows, that moved in the direction of straight-ahead acoustic jazz, toning down the popular rhythm tracks that had defined much of his music. "If you don't do things like this every now and then," Washington told Down Beat in 1994, "people think you don't know how. … Most of us are multi-faceted, just like diamonds." Other albums, such as 1992's Next Exit, were more commercially oriented.
His success and celebrity assured–he performed at the inauguration ceremonies for President and fellow saxman Bill Clinton in 1993–Washington branched out into new areas in the 1990s. He collaborated with Boston Pops conductor John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra on a recording of music from the film A Place in the Sun for an album called The Hollywood Sound. And he remained alert to contemporary pop trends: the 1996 album Soulful Strut ventured into hip-hop, acid jazz, and African rhythm. A Christmas album, his first, appeared late in 1997. Many of his concerts, though, continued to feature the jazz-pop instrumentals that brought him his own place in the sun. As a Washington Post critic noted in 1997, "few people have played this music longer or more successfully than Washington."
Washington died on December 17, 1999, following the taping of an appearance on CBS-TV's Saturday Early Show. Jazzman Sonny Rollins told Downbeat: "He was one of the best people we had in this music, both on a human level and as a great player." In 2001 Jason Miles worked with a range of recording artists to put together a tribute album called To Grover, with Love.
Selected: Six gold albums ; platinum album for Winelight; Grammy Award, Best Jazz Fusion Performance, for Winelight, 1981.
Inner City Blues, Mo Jazz (originally released by Kudu), 1972.
Mister Magic, Mo Jazz (originally released by Kudu), 1975.
Winelight, Elektra, 1980 (contains "Just the Two of Us").
Come Morning, Elektra, 1981.
The Best Is Yet to Come, Elektra, 1982.
Inside Moves, Elektra, 1984.
Strawberry Moon, Columbia, 1987.
Then and Now, Columbia, 1988.
Next Exit, Columbia, 1992.
All My Tomorrows, Columbia, 1994.
Soulful Strut, Columbia, 1996.
Anthology: The Best of Grover Washington, Jr., Motown, 1996.
Breath of Heaven, Sony, 1997.
Prime Cuts: The Greatest Hits 1987-1999, Columbia, 1999.
Aria, Sony, 2000.
Contemporary Musicians, Vol. 5, Gale , 1994.
Coryell, Julie, and Laura Friedman, Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music, Dell, 1978.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
Billboard, December 20, 1997.
Down Beat, October 1980; September 1993; September 1994; March 2000.
Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1989.
New York Times, April 24, 1981.
People, May 18, 1981; February 7, 1983; October 29, 1984; April 22, 1985.
USA Today, September 27, 1996.
Washington Post, June 6, 1997.
Grover Washington Jr. (December 12, 1943 – December 17, 1999) was an American jazz-funk / soul-jazz saxophonist. Along with John Klemmer, George Benson, David Sanborn, Bob James, Chuck Mangione, Herb Alpert, and Spyro Gyra, he is considered by many to be one of the founding fathers of the smooth jazz genre.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Washington made some of the genre's most memorable hits, including "Mr. Magic", "Black Frost", and "The Best is Yet to Come". In addition, he performed very frequently with other artists, including Bill Withers on "Just the Two of Us" (still in regular rotation on radio today) and Phyllis Hyman on "A Sacred Kind of Love". He is also remembered for his take on a Dave Brubeck classic, called "Take Five", and for his hit "Soulful Strut".
Washington played on black nickel-plated saxophones including a SX90R alto, SX90R tenor, and soprano.
Washington was born in Buffalo, New York on December 12, 1943. His mother was a church chorister, and his father was a collector of old Jazz gramophone records and a saxophonist as well, so music was everywhere in the home. He grew up with the great jazzmen and big band leaders like Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, and others like them. At the age of 8, with the desire for him to be more than he could be, Grover Sr. gave Jr. a saxophone. He practiced and would sneak into clubs to see famous Buffalo blues musicians.
Washington left Buffalo and played with a midwest group called the Four Clefs. He was drafted into the U.S. Army shortly thereafter, but this was to be to his advantage, as he met drummer Billy Cobham. Cobham, a mainstay in New York City, introduced Washington to many New York musicians. After leaving the Army, Washington freelanced his talents around New York City, eventually landing in Philadelphia in 1967. In 1970 and 1971, he appeared on Leon Spencer's first two albums on Prestige Records, together with Idris Muhammad and Melvin Sparks.
Washington's big break came at the expense of another artist. Alto sax man Hank Crawford was unable to make a recording date with Creed Taylor's Kudu Records, and Washington took his place, even though he was a backup. This led to his first solo album, Inner City Blues. He was talented, and displayed heart and soul with soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. Refreshing for his time, he made headway into the jazz mainstream.
His fifth album, 1974's Mister Magic, was a commercial success, and introduced guitarist Eric Gale as a near-permanent member in Washington's arsenal.
A string of acclaimed records brought Washington through the 1970s, which culminated in the signature piece for everything Washington would do from then on. The 1980s Winelight was the album that defined everything Washington was about. The album was smooth, fused with R&B and easy listening feel. Washington's love of basketball, especially the Philadelphia 76ers, led him to dedicate his first track, "Let It Flow" to Julius Erving (Dr. J). The highlight of the album, and a main staple of radio airplay everywhere, was his great collaboration with soul artist Bill Withers, "Just The Two of Us," which was a huge hit on radio during the spring and summer of '81, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also the final step away from Motown, landing him on Elektra Records and into a new era of jazz excellence. The album went platinum in 1981, and also won Grammy Awards in 1982 for Best R&B Song ("Just The Two of Us"), and Best Jazz Fusion Performance ("Winelight"). "Winelight" was also nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
In the post-Winelight era, Washington is credited for giving rise to a new batch of talent that would make its mark in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He is known for bringing Kenny G to the forefront, but also credited with bringing such smooth jazz artists as Walter Beasley, Steve Cole, Pamela Williams, Najee, and George Howard. His song Mr. Magic is noted as being influential on Go-go music starting in the mid-1970s.
On December 17, 1999, while waiting in the green room after taping four songs for the The Early Show, at CBS Studios in New York City, Washington collapsed. He was taken to St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at about 7:30 p.m. He was 56 years old. His doctors determined that he had suffered a massive heart attack.
1971: Inner City Blues (Kudu Records)
1972: All the King's Horses (CTI/Kudu Records)
1973: Soul Box (Kudu Records)
1974: Mister Magic (Kudu Records)
1975: Feels So Good (Kudu Records)
1976: A Secret Place (Kudu Records)
1978: Live at the Bijou
1979: Reed Seed
1980: Come Morning
1982: The Best Is Yet to Come
1984: Inside Moves
1986: House Full of Love (Music from The Cosby Show)
1987: Strawberry Moon
1988: Then and Now
1989: Time Out of Mind
1992: Next Exit
1994: All My Tomorrows
1996: Soulful Strut
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