Dena DeRose Remembers Kevin Mahogany

Singer/pianist pays tribute to vocalist (7.30.58 – 12.17.17)

KevinMahogany

Kevin Mahogany (photo by Ailene Mahogany)

I first met Kevin in New York City back in the 1990s. The first thing he said to me, even before he said hello, was that he loved my swing and touch as a pianist. That meant a great deal to me at that time, as I was just a budding jazz musician striving to make my way in the big city. Kevin was always supportive of women musicians, and he made a point to have women in his bands when performing around New York, even though he had performed and recorded with greats like Elvin Jones, Benny Golson, Michael Brecker, Victor Lewis, Bob James, etc. He once said that it’s a different thing to have female musicians in the band, as they seemed to have a kind of sensitivity that was hard to find in male musicians.

The first time I played with Kevin was at Sweet Basil in the late ’90s, and I was thrilled and honored he asked me. We had no rehearsal, and I was a little nervous because he didn’t even have many charts or lead sheets. Instead, he called standards from the Great American Songbook, in the original keys the instrumentalists used. I thought it was so cool that he could make these songs his own without any arrangements or charts. He just led the music with his amazingly rich and smooth swingin’ baritone voice! His way of leading was clear and strong, but without commanding anything from the band other than a high quality of musicianship, deep listening and an in-the-moment kind of creativity. He was a very open-minded musician, willing to go where the music led him but also very determined to keep the foundations of jazz in his music—swing being number one in his book. Blues was the second, and he loved the ballads. Kevin could also keep an audience in the palm of his hand with the storytelling aspect of his singing. He had me with him every second…

After doing a few more gigs together in New York, we talked about traveling and touring in Europe, but nothing ever transpired. Every time he called me to do a tour, I was already booked with my own projects. It wasn’t until this past summer at the San Javier International Jazz Festival, in Spain, and the St. Moritz Jazz Festival, in Switzerland, that we had our first European gigs together. And what gigs they were! He wowed the audiences and really put together an amazing performance at each festival. We celebrated his 59th birthday in St. Moritz.

I will miss Kevin dearly. It seemed we just began our reconnection and musical conversations again since those days in NYC. The world has certainly lost one of its most genuine jazz musicians, a force-of-nature vocal instrument and a sincere, authentic and super-sweet human being.

Read Lee Mergner’s obituary for Kevin Mahogany from December 2017.