CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Kenny Washington’s Slow Rise to Vocal Stardom

An Overdue Ovation for the late bloomer

Kenny Washington
Kenny Washington (photo: Jim Dennis)

Kenny Washington, the jazz vocalist (not to be confused with the drummer of the same name), has always taken his time. After a 35-year career in which he has often been a featured guest on others’ records, this summer the 63-year-old singer is finally releasing his first studio album under his own name.

The album is called What’s the Hurry?

“I’m originally from New Orleans, the Big Easy,” Washington says. “The people are laid back. I’ve never been in a hurry to do anything.”

For decades, he mostly stayed close to home in Oakland, California, content to be a local Bay Area jazz star. Eventually, however, word about him spread, and he began to earn a national, even international, reputation.

“I think he’s one of the most important male vocalists in the world,” says vibraphone master Joe Locke, who has featured Washington on records and tours. “That’s because of the way he relates to a song—he is a profound storyteller. Did you know that he played alto sax for 20 years? His ability to plug into arrangements and sing complicated lines is second to none. His intonation is amazing; his enunciation is natural and clear. He is the whole package.”

To that you could add his silky tone, versatility, and ability to inject a keeping-it-real shot of soul into everything he sings. His respect for the songwriter’s art is such that he insists on singing the melody as written, at least the first time. But he’s also capable of unleashing a wicked scat solo when it’s time to cut loose. 

If he has a flaw, it is, by his own admission, his reluctance to promote himself. “He’s a sweet soul. It comes through in the music,” says L.A.-based pianist Josh Nelson, who has worked with him for seven years. “He shoos away the idea of anyone focusing on him, even in performance. Sometimes, doing a standard with the band, he’ll sing the melody through, and I’ll want him to go around again. But he’s so giving to the other musicians, he wants everyone to take long solos.”

Washington knows he’s shy. “I’ve never been outgoing,” he says. “I’m pretty much an introvert. In this biz, you’ve got to be aggressive. But it’s not my style.”

On stage and in the studio, however, that diffidence is replaced by a swinging, ebullient confidence. With a deep repertoire of Gershwin, Ellington, Porter, and Rodgers & Hart—peppered with the occasional R&B hit—his approach is joyously old-school, but with a nod to a later generation of soul superstars. Sometimes he sounds a bit like Sam Cooke or Donny Hathaway (both of whom he acknowledges as early influences) singing jazz standards.

What’s the Hurry? is the first full expression of Washington’s aesthetic, and characteristically, he took his time to get every detail right. “He’s a perfectionist,” Nelson says. But three years after the initial tracking sessions, Washington is finally ready to admit that the record might be done. “It’s so different, having your first studio recording after so many decades,” he muses. He wasn’t crazy about his vocals until he heard the final mix. “Now I kinda like it.”

If satisfying his inner critic was tough, selecting sidemen for the album was easy. He chose his working band—Nelson, piano; Lorca Hart, drums; and Gary Brown, bass—occasionally supplemented by stellar players including Victor Goines on tenor sax and clarinet and Jeff Massanari on guitar. And he picked tunes that he loves to sing, including Coleman and Leigh’s “The Best Is Yet to Come,” the Gershwins’ “S’Wonderful,” and Ellington’s “I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues.”

Washington reflects further on why it took him so long to make an album. “Friends and fans who appreciate what I do have pushed me to move forward and have something under my name, instead of just being a guest artist,” he says. “Frankly, it was due to a lack of ambition on my part. It had a lot to do with my upbringing. As a kid, I didn’t have great examples. My dad was tough and ornery. I didn’t have the foundation I needed as a kid. The only thing that saved me was my love for singing.”

Growing up in New Orleans, Washington sang in his church choir. Later, he began listening to his brother’s records: Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations. Too shy to join an R&B group as a teenager, he managed to sit in a few times with a friend’s band. He joined the high-school band, where he played saxophone. Later, while attending Xavier University for music, he played more sax and had his first experiences singing in public, performing Lionel Richie tunes.

At 26 he decided to join the Navy; he stayed for nine years. “I was wandering as a young man,” he recalls. “I had no plans. I didn’t complete my college degree. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.” The Navy took him to Japan, Russia, and Australia, among other places. Asked if he liked it, he laughs: “No, I didn’t like it at all!” At least not until he auditioned for the Navy band. “After that, that became my job. We did rock, pop, jazz, a little of everything. Half the time I played sax, the other half I sang. I loved playing, mostly alto, but I was never a great player. However, I really loved singing.”

After his discharge, he settled in San Francisco and began sitting in at open-mic nights. “It was hard, being shy,” he says. “But the musicians were so welcoming, not intimidating. I started getting a bit of a reputation and did a lot of casuals.” He landed a gig playing jazz and dance music at the ritzy Top of the Mark, which became an eight-year engagement. “As a result, my name got out, and I’d get a lot of calls and emails.”

In 2000, a high-profile gig came his way when he met saxophonist Roy Nathanson in San Francisco. Nathanson cast Washington in an off-Broadway theater production he’d written called Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill. The cast included Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry, and Nancy King. The show later toured several European capitals. Returning to San Francisco, Washington met saxophonist Michael O’Neill, with whom he would ultimately make three albums, including The Long and the Short of It (the title referred to their Mutt-and-Jeff-style difference in height). One night, O’Neill introduced him to Joe Locke.

“It was at a venue in Half Moon Bay, the Douglas Beach House, where I had performed many times,” Locke says. “I was on vacation for a few days. I thought, let me see what the local talent is up to. I walked in and Kenny was singing ‘My Ship’ by Kurt Weill. I’m not a praying man by any stretch of the imagination, but I remember walking out of that concert and saying a prayer: ‘Please let me work with this guy.’ I was so moved by his gift.” 

Shortly thereafter, Locke was booked for a week at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, initially to perform music from his 1994 Henry Mancini tribute album. At Locke’s request, JALC brought in Washington to sing with an all-star band including George Mraz on bass, Geoffrey Keezer on piano, and Clarence Penn on drums. It ended up becoming an annual event at Dizzy’s for the next nine years. Locke went on to feature Washington’s vocals on his 2010 album For the Love of You.

“Kenny just plugged himself into the existing arrangements, in the original keys, and he just knocked it out of the park,” Locke says. “Then we started playing Europe and touring. It was an amazing ride, which continues today. I’ve just written 10 pieces for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. We’ll be going over there next April to do a tour.”

Washington’s appearances at JALC led Wynton Marsalis to invite him to lend his vocal talents to the 2013 revival of Marsalis’ Pulitzer-winning Blood on the Fields with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, alongside singers Gregory Porter and Paula West. Washington returned to JALC over the next few years to sing in tributes to Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Despite all these accomplishments, Washington still doubts whether he has the personal drive to succeed. “But doing what I love to do gets me through. If you do what you love, good things will happen. That’s the way it’s been for me. Being surrounded by good people helps a lot. People who see something in you.”

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Allen Morrison

Allen Morrison is a music journalist, musician, jazz critic, lecturer, and a regular contributor to JazzTimes and 
DownBeat. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, Jazziz, American Songwriter, and Departures. He lectures frequently on jazz history aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Before becoming a full-time journalist, Allen worked as a music publicist and a pianist. He is working on a book on how musicians and non-musicians hear music. He maintains a blog at AllenMorrison.com.