Grover Washington, Jr.: Godfather of Smooth Jazz

Ed Hamilton remembers his encounters with the saxophonist from 1973

How do Johnny Hammond, Curtis Amy, and Grover Washington, Jr. connect with Carole King? Her album Tapestry won her ‘Album of the Year’ & ’Song of the Year’, “It’s Too Late”, containing Amy’s blistering standout soprano solo introduced him to the listening medium; “Breakout”, Hammond’s first KUDU endeavor showcased Grover’s scintillating debut arrival to the jazz scene. And later winning a Grammy for his 1985 album Wine Light and getting an invitation to play with newly elected President Clinton at his inauguration.ball.

In 1999, while rehearsing for the Early Show on CBS, he collapsed from a heart attack Grover Washington, Jr., was the paceseter of Smooth Jazz inspiring Kenny G, David Sanborn, Boney James, Walter Beasley, George Howard, and Dave Koz, and many others, was gone . “Mr. Magi” who entertained as if it were his last performance at every concert was gone and left his legacy---Smooth Jazz. A concept that spread like wild fire across the radio arteries of the US and the world.

Grover adopted Philadelphia, the Saxophone Collussus city of Brotherly Love, home to Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, and Coltrane. He first recorded as part of Creed Taylor’s KUDU house band that included Cornell Dupree, Idris Muhammed, Hank Crawford, and Johnny Hammond. Hammond’s “Breakout” album showcased the greatest solo presentation of any music recorded on KUDU. On listening to and hearing all the raves about Grover’s solo, Taylor signed him to KUDU and 3 albums later, recorded Ralph Mc Donald’s “Mr Magic” which had previously been recorded and sung by Roberta Flack.

On two occasions in 1973 at Concerts by the Sea and the Berkeley Jazz Festival, Grover and I talked about the magic of his sudden popularity in the jazz world.

If you had asked a connoisseur of modern day saxophone playing if they recently heard anyone whom they thought might be using “sleight of hand”’ tricks with his horn, played like a “magician” using his wand, they’d probably say, “Yeah”. Check out Grover Washington., Jr.--- he’s” “Mr. Magic” personified.

He’s a leader and not a member of a group; he chooses musicians by their total attitudes towards playing with each other and towards the music. He then becomes concerned with the musician’s technical abilities.

People who know of Grover’s finesse on soprano., alto, tenor, and baritone sax, say he’s “innovative and creative, very energetic, got lots of drive and the more affluent sax of the day,. Personally, I say you should hear Grover before you categorize him into any bag.

When he appeared in Los Angeles not too long ago at Concerts by the Sea, he was leading a quartet with himself on all saxes, Buster Anderson on bass, Sid Simmons on keyboards, and George Johnson, Jr. on drums. It was a very unusual booking for proprietor Howard Rumsey (as far as attendance was concerned), because Grover packed the house six nights in a row with lines backed to the parking lot . And as many times as I’ve gone to this club, never have there been times like this. Had Grover gotten “that bad” since seeing him with Charles Earland at the Watts Summer festival in 1972? Or was it his latest album, Mr. Magic?

I asked Grover what he thought and he replied, “I think it’s the album. It’s been getting a lot of AM as well as FM play and it’s been getting the proper promotions.” (It’s very unusual for a jazz record to be heard on AM, especially in Los Angeles. The last time probably was Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and his classic “Watermelon Man.”)

Believe me, Grover Washington, Jr. is super badder than he was in ‘72. He shrugged, “Man, do you know this is really something to have to do four sets a night? In fact, I really don’t feel like being interviewed.”

I knew what he was talking about. So we both agreed to rap later in the month at the Berkeley Jazz Festival where he turned the show out the first night and came back the next night to play with “gravel throat” Les McCann and again stole the show. Grover said just before hitting the stage with Les, “Man, I’m full of high energy and I’m gonna lend a hand with Les.” He did more than that. He gave Les some added drive that was well appreciated by the crowd.

Grover was born and raised in Buffalo, New York and he grew up in a musical family. His father was a sax man, his mother sang in the church and his brother played organ and drums. He was introduced to his first saxophone at 10. After some lessons at the Wurlitzer School of Music and two years as a member of the All City High School Band, Grover started sneaking into local clubs taking notes and then going home to practice. He was a tenth grader at the time. The music was different than what he was used to hearing because he had been accustomed to the concert music of the high school band. “This was some new material and something unusual to see someone improvising,” Grover reminisced. ”I got permission to go on the road with a group called the ‘Four Clefs’ and in 1963, we broke up and I went out on my own with various groups playing fender bass and saxophone.”

Playing with these groups expanded Grover’s musical consciousness towards all kinds of music. There were ‘society gigs’ that required a lot of sight reading and transposing, consisting of all types of tunes other than rock or jazz.”

Grover began ‘moonlighting’ while stationed at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, serving a two year Army hitch in the Special Services Army Band. His ‘moonlighting’ led him to Philadelphia which he found to be an excellent place to exercise his chops. He settled in Philly after his discharge, married and had a son.

Things got extremely slow for him as a jazz musician, but he persevered until he received a call from one of his partners playing guitar with Charles Earland. “They needed a horn player for a possible recording session,” Grover remembered. “”After that, I did two albums with Joe Jones and Leon Spencer, and one with Johnny Hammond.”

Johnny Hammond later signed a contract KUDU Records and asked Grover to play on his first album Breakout. If you’ve heard the album, than you know how superbly Grover debuted in his arrangement of Carol King’s “It’s Too Late.” He was immediately signed to the KUDU label, recorded three albums, all well received, and then Mr. Magic.

I asked Grover if he was a Vegetarian because of the way he played his horn with so much energy. He said, “No man! I still like meat too much. I just try to stay in the best of shape.”

Grover appeared the first night of the Berkeley Jazz Festoval and turned out the enitre East Bay set.that included Cannonball Adderley, ‘Hub Cap’ Freddie Hubbard , and the ‘Sugar Man’ Stanley Turrentine. He wasn’t supposed to play the following night with Les McCann. I happened to go backstage looking for Donald Byrd, and by chance , ran into ‘Mr. Black Frost’, running through some scales on the soprano. I asked, “Grover, ‘What’s happening? You playing again?’ He said, “Yeah man! I’m gonna stroke with Les a little.” I asked if his energy level was high and while walking away said “Always.”

After almost taking Les’ show (which is very hard for anyone to do except Grover Washington, Jr.)., I rapped with him once more and asked if he thought there were any sax players better than himself. He modestly replied, “I can tell you that I can play with the best of them.” And you know what? From my point of view, Grover Washington, Jr. is yet to be competed with. He digs John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Oliver Nelson. What a conglomeration!

So until the time comes for someone who does “slight -of-hand’ tricks on all the saxophones better than Grover Washington, Jr., “Mr Magic” will continue his saxophonic chicanery until he is replaced by “Houdini.” Or maybe in this millennium, James Carter. Can that be possible?

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Ed Hamilton