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Kirk Whalum: Soul Comes Home

Kirk Whalum
Kirk Whalum

More than 30 years after waving goodbye to Memphis as a young man, saxophonist Kirk Whalum is back home. But it’s not like Memphis ever left him. The full force of Memphis’ pull on both himself and the world was brought home during a stay in France. “Being born and raised in Memphis, you kind of take for granted things that you grew up around,” Whalum says. “I couldn’t get away from Memphis music in Paris. I would be in a café, a little bistro, and there was the music: Al Green, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Elvis. I kept running into Memphis music.”

Now Kirk is back in the city where he was born in 1958. He grew up in Memphis playing the horn in the choir at Olivet Baptist Church, where his father, Kenneth Whalum Sr., was pastor. (The senior Whalum was also a Memphis city councilman from 1988 to 1996.) Kirk and his wife Ruby settled into a funky 1928 home in the heart of the city where, when Kirk isn’t touring, you can usually find him upstairs creating music while Ruby is downstairs renovating the home to suit her style. “The house has a big boiler in the basement like in Home Alone,” he says. “We have radiators. That’s kinda cool. We love the neighborhood, all the people walking by. I bought a new water heater and put the old one out on the curb. Within 10 minutes somebody came by and asked about it. So you know you’re in the city. It’s just great.”

Memphis’ iconic stature as a hub during the Civil Rights movement is not lost on Whalum, who considers Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a personal hero. He and his wife renewed their vows on their 25th wedding anniversary at the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built on the grounds of the former Lorraine Motel on Mulberry Street, where King was murdered on April 4, 1968. “It’s an important place for Ruby and I since we both grew up near there,” Whalum says. “We used to go swim there at the motel pool when we were little. It’s just a very special place to us, and it’s a beautiful place as well.”

Memphis has always radiated a special charm and beauty, a mid-South town built on the banks of the Mississippi River. Whalum grew up in a sultry Memphis soaked in gritty blues and soul music. Not far away, the most famous singer in the world, Elvis Presley, was living in Graceland, his white-columned mansion south of downtown. In 1959, Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, opened the doors to a record company and called it Stax Records after the first two letters of their last names. Stax would find worldwide fame by offering a soul-with-grit counterpoint to Motown’s soul-with-sunshine.

Influenced by the Stax sound and his musically inclined family-his grandmother and grandfather were singers and his mother and father fed him a steady diet of gospel and soul-Whalum took a shine to the drums but switched to saxophone after seeing another shine: light reflected off a saxophone imparting a mystical appearance. After graduating from high school, Whalum accepted a music scholarship from Texas Southern University in Houston. When not studying, Whalum moonlighted in his own band and quickly began answering the call to open for national acts passing through town. One of those acts, pianist Bob James, recruited him for his own band and convinced Columbia Records to sign him. Whalum’s first album, Floppy Disk, was released in 1985.

After 11 years in Houston, Whalum-by this time with two young children-moved to Pasadena, Calif., to work with guitarist Larry Carlton and as a session player with such artists as Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross, Barbra Streisand and Quincy Jones. In the summer of 1992, Whalum realized a dream-and learned French-by moving to Paris, a city he fell in love with after soaking up French culture as a 21-year-old on a music scholarship. But his time in the City of Light was brief. Before jetting off to the Continent, he had performed on the soundtrack to a movie. In 1992, that movie-The Bodyguard-struck gold with audiences, if not movie critics, and would go on to rake in more than $400 million worldwide even with the awkward Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner twin billing. The ubiquitous soundtrack threw out one of the biggest hit singles ever: Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” That’s Whalum on the killer sax solo. The success of the soundtrack convinced Whalum to move back to Southern California, which he used as home base while touring with Houston for seven years.

At the same time, Whalum’s solo career heated up and he soon became known as one of the bright lights in the contemporary jazz genre. His breakthrough 1993 CD, Caché, remained at No. 1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts for five weeks. While it might have made sense to continue living in Southern California, the smooth-jazz capital of the world, Whalum was anxious to move his family-which had grown to four children-to suburbia. So he returned to Tennessee, but not to Memphis. Instead, he oversaw work on a brand-new home in Nashville, 200 miles east on I-40. Today, Whalum will be the first to tell you he enjoyed his stay in Nashville. But after 10 years and with all four children-Kori, Courtney, Evan and Kyle-out of the house, the empty-nest syndrome hit Whalum and his wife hard.

“Both Ruby and I just thought, man, we don’t want to live in the suburbs anymore,” Whalum says now. “It was a move we made when we lived in L.A., and Nashville had been just a wonderful place to raise our kids. When we realized we’d be empty-nesting, we grew restless.” Whalum briefly considered relocating to New York City, but out-of-this-world housing prices quickly nixed that idea.

So Whalum’s mind naturally returned to Memphis. “We couldn’t believe that we were saying it-why don’t we move home?” For Ruby, the idea of returning after so many years away was as appealing as it was to her husband. And Ruby’s thoughts on the move were essential. Although Kirk and Ruby have known each other since they were bright-eyed kids in elementary school in Memphis, it wasn’t until he was 15 that Kirk fell hard in love. He was on the same bus as Ruby, heading to a youth camp in Tennessee. “I saw her and all the bells and whistles went off,” he recalls with a laugh. “But I was determined to keep right on walking and say, ‘Oh no, that’s too easy. She’s from Memphis, you’re going to camp. Keep an open mind here, man. You have to find you a Nashville girl, Knoxville, anything but somebody from home.’ So all week long at camp we basically ignored each other until the last day when my new little girlfriend got back on the bus to Nashville. I went and found this girl I’d seen on the way to camp. And that was Ruby-stein, as she says it, and we’ve been together and a team ever since.”

In 2003, more than three years before relocating to Memphis, Whalum musically hinted at his hometown with a CD he called Into My Soul. His homage to the Memphis sound was produced by David Porter, who along with Isaac Hayes wrote songs for Stax recording artists in the 1960s such as Sam & Dave and Johnnie Taylor. Recorded in Porter’s studio on famous Beale Street overlooking the Mississippi River, the CD featured two of Whalum’s childhood heroes, Hayes and Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as Whalum’s childhood friend, drummer Blair Cunningham. (Cunningham’s brother, Carl, was an original member of the Bar-Kays and was killed along with three other members of the band and Otis Redding in a December 1967 plane crash.) He chose the CD’s two cover songs well: the Porter/Hayes classic “Hold On! I’m Comin'” and Elvis’ first hit single, “That’s All Right.”

“We had David and Isaac, but we also had all these wonderful new Memphis musicians,” Whalum says. “Spending time there really helped me to rediscover the beauty of the soul of this culture. It just totally inspired me. I saw that downtown Memphis was vibrant again and there was music everywhere. It’s an incredible place to be a musician.”

Later in 2003, even though Whalum didn’t realize it at the time, events began unfolding that would cement Whalum’s return to Memphis for good. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened at the site of the original Stax recording studios, which was torn down in 1989, unceremoniously closing the door to the spirit of Soulsville USA. 2005 saw the Stax Music Academy open a full-time charter school for middle- and high-school students, and in August 2006, the Academy chose Whalum as its first artist in residence. Besides sharing his many musical experiences, Whalum’s duties include performing with academy students in public concerts as well as conducting public and private master classes. He’s also recorded public-service announcements for both the Stax Music Academy and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

“I can’t tell you what an honor that is,” says Whalum, who has at least a one-year commitment. “The idea of an artist in residence is that you’re out there making records and touring and not on campus. But when I can, I interact with the students and perform with them at special shows. It’s a mentor position, to really be there for kids to have hands-on access to what they aspire to do. It’s a close connection to the actual music industry.”

Whalum is thrilled to be included in Stax’s comeback and the label’s rebirth. In March, Concord Music Group released Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration. The double-disc compilation served to remind the public of how powerful the label’s legendary catalog was and is. “People can Google Stax and really [get] a feel for what it’s about,” says Whalum, “and that’s really what Memphis is all about.”

Although Memphis and Stax ooze soul and blues, Stax musicians from the Staple Singers to Otis Redding drew on gospel music for their recordings. Stax even boasted a gospel subsidiary. The gospel connection makes Whalum an even more perfect fit as Stax’s first artist in residence. Whalum is a deeply spiritual man whose Gospel According to Jazz series has earned a Stellar Gospel Music Award, three Urban Gospel Industry Awards and several Grammy and Dove award nominations. (Whalum’s next in the series, The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter III, is expected to be released this year. It will be recorded live in Washington, D.C., and be released on both CD and DVD.) His latest honor came in October 2006, when he picked up the gospel award at the annual Blues Ball in-where else?-Memphis. The annual charity event honors Memphis music and musicians.

Another honor came to Whalum shortly after he moved into his new Memphis home. The Memphis Theological Seminary recognized Whalum with its President’s Humanitarian Award during its 20th anniversary Henry Logan Starks scholarship dinner and awards presentation at the University of Memphis. Whalum was singled out for his work with church charities and ministries. “A prophet is not without an honor except at home,” says Whalum, paraphrasing a popular passage in the Bible. “Now I’m not a prophet, but to receive that honor from a seminary was incredible. A No. 1 record won’t get you that honor, so I’m humbled.”

Whalum is now finishing two projects at his home studio that are linked to his deep faith. He continues to record The Bible in Your Ear, an ambitious project where Kirk’s reading of the entire Bible is available for free as a podcast in association with iTunes. A notice on Whalum’s Web site promotes the venture with advertising-speak: “Listen or read along with saxophonist Kirk Whalum as he reads through the whole Bible in 365 days! 15 minutes can make a DRAMATIC difference in your life!” On Easter, he provided a special Resurrection Day episode with music.

“People talk about religion, but you know, it’s really not that,” he says. “It’s about acceptance, it’s about forgiveness. To have that in a person, it’s a relationship with a person … Jesus Christ, it’s something that’s,” Whalum struggles, “it’s hard to put words to. I just personally know that I would be lost without Him.”

Whalum’s other project is scoring his first full-length movie. It’s a documentary titled Miss HIV, directed by Jim Hanon and filmed in Botswana and Uganda in Africa. (Hanon’s last movie, End of the Spear, was targeted toward the Christian community and created a minor controversy after it was revealed that the film’s star, Chad Allen, was gay.) The documentary focuses on the real-life Miss HIV Stigma Free pageant. “It shows the AIDS crisis from [a] Biblical point of view,” says Whalum, “but it’s not a Christian movie. The Bible has something to say about AIDS and people suffering from it.” In addition to Kirk’s original music, the film will have songs from his catalog and other artists, including South African native Jonathan Butler. Whalum says he’s enjoying scoring his first film, even if the subject matter is emotionally exhausting. “It’s really about giving them their dignity, these women who are HIV-positive. And as well to help to do away with the stigmas that are literally killing people. Africa is a very conservative continent. When there’s a chance a person has the HIV virus, they often do go and get tested. It’s kind of hard for me to watch it over and over again as I work on it because it’s so powerful.”

Whalum certainly has a lot on his plate-including performing on the smooth-jazz Guitars & Saxes tour and on the inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise sailing from Copenhagen in July. But it’s always been so. His follow-up to Into My Soul was a tribute to one of his favorite artists: Kirk Whalum Performs the Babyface Songbook. His next solo CD, tentatively titled Round Trip and scheduled for release later this summer on Rendezvous Entertainment, comprises mostly original material. He’ll be working with a few producers, including Rex Rideout, who produced Whalum’s No. 1 smooth-jazz song “Give Me the Reason.” That tune, which stayed at the top spot for seven weeks, was included on the 2006 Rendezvous release Forever, For Always, For Luther, Volume II, a tribute CD to the late Luther Vandross. Whalum performed with Vandross for many years and actually appeared on the singer’s Give Me the Reason CD from 1986. “Having a song at No. 1, no two ways about it-it’s just a great honor and a wonderful thing. For a person like myself who doesn’t really watch the charts, when you get to No. 1 for one week, let alone for seven, it’s a blessing. It means that radio likes the record and people responded.”

Whalum says he’d also like to record a mainstream jazz CD with Rendezvous labelmate Philippe Saisse, with whom he’s had a long musical relationship. Whalum’s also contemplating a bluesy project with guitarist Jeff Golub.

Whalum was also the main force behind the 2006 self-titled debut from Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum, the saxophonist’s 78-year-old uncle. Kirk convinced Rendezvous to reissue the 2001 CD from the pianist and vocalist. Kirk produced and performs on this straightahead jazz project. It was a family affair, with performances by saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III, the son of Kirk’s brother Kenneth, as well as Kirk’s son Kyle on bass. “Peanuts is like a fine wine; his talent has developed into something that’s really incredible. When you hear someone who’s been singing for 60 years, that’s not like hearing someone on American Idol. I believe in him. I produced that record on a shoestring because of a New Year’s resolution I made. I just wasn’t going to let him have another birthday without having a CD for somebody to hear.”

In the meantime, Whalum will get out and enjoy his hometown as he finds time. “Memphis is right on the Mississippi River and that has historic implications, musically and otherwise. It’s a funky town. It’s got things that big cities have, such as crime, but there’s so much beautiful energy and the vibe is so great. I feel like a hypocrite because there were many years when I did not love Memphis. But living in Paris was really the thing that convinced me how incredible Memphis and the music is. The French would say, ‘Man, you’re from Memphis? How I’d love to visit there one day, to see where B.B. King recorded, and Elvis, and Isaac Hayes.’ I have to give thanks to my buddy David Porter, who years ago said I should move home. I finally got it.”


Saxes: Keilwerth SX90R tenor saxophone

Yamaha 675 silver soprano saxophone

Mouthpieces: Vandoren S35 soprano mouthpiece

Sugal “Kirk Whalum II Model” tenor mouthpiece

Reeds: Vandoren V16 #4 reeds

Mics: Shure Microphones (Beta 98 Wireless for live shows) Originally Published