Kevin Mahogany, a singer who made a great impact in the 1990s with a rich, soulful baritone sound evocative of Joe Williams and Johnny Hartman, died on Sunday, per the radio station KCUR. He was 59.
Born on July 30, 1958, in Kansas City, Mo., Mahogany lived much of his life in that city with its storied tradition of jazz and blues. He was an instrumentalist before he became a vocalist, initially playing clarinet, baritone saxophone and piano in school bands around the area. It was while attending Baker University in nearby Kansas that he turned to singing, forming a vocal choir there while majoring in Music, English and Drama. Upon returning to the Kansas City area he worked mostly in R&B bands during the late ’80s.
In a 1997 profile for JazzTimes, he told Willard Jenkins, “I realized that if I wanted to sing for a living it had to be either R&B or jazz—that was where you were generally accepted.” It was the vibraphonist Gust William Tsilis, working as the U.S. rep for Enja Records, who “discovered” Mahogany at a gig in Chicago. “We talked about how there weren’t many male jazz vocalists, especially black male jazz vocalists, and [Tsilis] asked me to send him some stuff,” Mahogany said. Enja’s Matthias Winckelmann, who was a skillful talent scout for new jazz artists in the U.S., signed Mahogany to a three-record deal. Double Rainbow, his nearly flawless debut on Enja, turned heads and ears. Mahogany’s silky yet powerful baritone evoked both the great jazz singers of the past as well as modern R&B and soul singers. His bluesy and soulful feel seemed bred from the lineage of Kansas City belters like Big Joe Turner, and his chops as a jazz singer were unquestioned. Much as Gregory Porter has captured the attention of jazz fans in the last few years, so too did Mahogany enthrall jazz audiences in the ’90s. A large man, Mahogany had a correspondingly large presence on stage, with a matching voice that seemed to not even require a microphone.
When his term with Enja was done, Mahogany signed with Warner Bros., who had re-established a jazz department, signing many new and veteran artists including Joshua Redman, Mark Whitfield, Milt Jackson and Sonny Simmons. Matt Pierson, who was head of the jazz department at that time, said that it was Mahogany’s first album – featuring jazz stalwarts Kenny Barron, Ralph Moore, Ray Drummond and Lewis Nash – that got his attention. “When I first heard Kevin’s debut recording, of course I was struck by his incredible instrument—a rich baritone that seemed to encompass the entire history of jazz, soul and the blues,” Pierson said. “But perhaps most important, he was such a warm, wonderful guy, with an extraordinary emotional immediacy. At Warner Bros., we were building a roster of artists who, though primarily for the jazz market, we considered to be beyond category, and Kevin felt like a perfect fit. In the studio, Kevin and I set about finding a singular stylistic zone for him, on the bridge between the rich jazz tradition of Joe Williams and Johnny Hartman and the more contemporary yet timeless soul of Otis Redding and Teddy Pendergrass.”
During that period, Mahogany received the plum role of the vocalist based on Joe Turner in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, from 1996, a period film shot on location in Mahogany’s hometown and utilizing many of the gifted young jazz musicians of that time. But despite all the coverage in the jazz press, and a subsequent album and tour by the artists, it was a film that was talked about more than it was seen.
Mahogany later recorded for Telarc, and in the end recorded about a dozen albums as a leader, even doing an album dedicated to the Motown music of his youth, titled Pride & Joy. Other albums saluted the music of Johnny Hartman and Charles Mingus. He also toured with fellow vocal-jazz greats Kurt Elling, Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy as the Four Brothers. His production as a recording artist slowed in the 21st century, however, and he became frustrated to some degree by the limits and the physical demands of a performing career. Utilizing his strengths as an articulate and well-educated musician, Mahogany began teaching jazz and vocals at various schools, and did fewer recordings and performances. He taught for several years at Berklee and then later at the University of Miami, where he had moved with his wife, Allene.
In keeping with his early background as an instrumentalist, Mahogany always felt it was important to measure up musically. “When I do clinics, they’re always asking me about scat singing, about jazz, about how to get respect on the bandstand,” he told Jenkins. “I always tell them, ‘If you want to get respect on the bandstand, you have to know what the instrumentalist knows, you need to study the same things he does. If you want to improve your scat singing, you want to study the harmonies and things he’s studying, because that’s how he got his improv up.’” He also felt that jazz vocalists were not getting their due, and created a short-lived publication called The Jazz Singer.
Allene was a constant presence in his life and often acted as his personal manager and representative. It was rare to see him at a performance or industry event without her. Allene’s death earlier this year had a profound effect on Mahogany, who had suffered various physical ailments of his own. After many years in Miami he moved back to Kansas City, where he had been trying to rebuild his life and career. Despite his health problems, Mahogany’s death came as a shock to colleagues and fans, many of whom recalled on social media the rare gifts and genuine warmth of this larger-than-life man.
Said Pierson: “After hearing of Kevin’s untimely death, I went back to listen to those recordings [on Warner Bros.], which not only moved me to tears, but reminded me of the fact that he’s easily one of the great interpreters of his generation. From Donny Hathaway and Stevie to Van Morrison and James Taylor, to Mingus, Metheny and Jon Hendricks … hard-swinging standards, searing soul ballads, precise vocalese, deep blues—there was nothing that this guy couldn’t sing the hell out of.”
Producer and recently named NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan tried to sum up the singer’s unique talents: “In a world which relentlessly bombards us all with cybernetic monotony and sensorial overload, Kevin Mahogany resolutely maintained a readily identifiable voice and sound and emotional cadence all his own.”
“I was so sorry to hear about the untimely death of my friend Kevin. He was a big man with a big sound, and his passing leaves a great big hole in the fabric of our jazz family. I’m sorry to see him go.” – Kurt Elling