Grover Washington, Jr. - Biography
By NIck Castro
Grover Washington, Jr. is one of the pioneers of the smooth jazz sound, along with artists like Spyro Gyra, George Benson, David Sanborn and Chuck Mangione, and since his first record has captured that slick reverbed saxophone sound which is so iconicly associated with the genre. Kenny G has said that his biggest influences while sculpting his saxophone style were Washington, Jr. records. Washington, Jr., born in Buffalo, NY in 1943, was exposed to music from a very early age. His mother was a singer in a local church choir, his brother an organist for a another choir and his father was a saxophonist and an avid collector of jazz 78s. Even Washington, Jr.'s younger brother became a professional drummer. When Washington, Jr. was still a small child his father bought him a saxophone and began pushing the youngster towards a life of music. Washington, Jr. began his studies and quickly excelled as a naturally gifted musician. Washington, Jr. was playing in clubs by the time he was 12, only two years after picking up the saxophone. By age 16 he quit school and joined the established vocal group the Four Clefs, with whom he spent the next few years touring the country with. Washington, Jr. played pick up gigs for a few years after the Four Clefs and then he served for a short while in the army.
It was in the army that Washington, Jr. met jazz drummer Billy Cobham, who would prove to be a gateway to many of New York's finest players. Through this connection he got a good amount of freelance work in New York, once being dicharged, before he moved to Philadelphia, PA. It was in Philadelphia that Washington, Jr. got an opportunity to record with organist Leon Spencer, who had played with artists like Sonny Stitt and Rusty Bryant and was currently assembling a cast of musicians that included drummer Idris Muhammad, in a rare funky mood, trumpet player Virgil Jones and Percussionist Buddy Caldwell, to record what would be Sneak Preview! (1971 - Prestige) and then the album Leon Spencer Jr. Sextet (1971 - Prestige) with musician Melvin Sparks joining on guitar. These albums would bring a bit of attention to Washington, Jr. but it was not until a serendipitous encounter would unveil the opportunity he needed to attain true fame and success.
Saxophone giant Hank Crawford was unable to attend a session, because he was arrested on an old driving charge, which was being coordinated by Kudu Records head, Creed Taylor, and Taylor called upon Washington, Jr. to fill his shoes. This brought Washington, Jr. to a place where he could record his first solo album Inner City Blues (1971 - Kudu). This album featured notable jazz players like Bob James, who did the arrangements and orhcestrations, on fender rhodes, Richard Tee on Organ, Ron Carter on bass, Idris Muhammad on drums, Airto Moreira on percussion, Thad Jones and Eugene Young on trumpets, Don Ashworth on baritone saxophone, Eric Gale, who would become a long time collaborator of Washington, Jr.'s, on guitar and Wayne Andre on trombone. This record featured an eclectic mix of song selections including songs by Marvin Gaye, George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Buffy Sainte-Marie. This album had not yet achieved the smooth jazz sound but instead was dwelling in a deep soul jazz groove. There are hints of funk in the album as well, which one can hear in the wah wah guitar playing of Gale. Though Washington, Jr.'s later smooth jazz works would receive much criticism from the jazz purists, most of them agree that this early effort is well worth an investigation. Their bossa nova version of Sainte-Marie's "Until It's Time for You to Go" has received a lot of praise from mainstream jazz fans, who consider it a pivotal moment in the world of jazz, which was, at the time, being consumed by the sea of free jazz that was becoming the norm.
Washington, Jr.'s next album for the Kudu label was All the King's Horses (1972 - Kudu), which features a similar line-up but with the replacement of Ashworth with Detroit Baritone Saxophone player Pepper Adams. The album was named after the song by Aretha Franklin, of the same name. Their version of "All the King's Horses" was sparse and bluesy. Session guitarist Cornell Dupree joined Gale on string duties and the two played seamlessly together. For Kudu Records, a subsidiary of the larger CTI Records, Washington, Jr. would record more records before his departure for Elektra. Some of these albums would be the double-LP Soul Box (1973 - Kudu), which, though the last efforts contained orchestration, is heavier on the strings and production of Taylor, then Mister Magic (1974 - Kudu) with which Washington, Jr. would score a big hit with the song "Mister Magic". This album is considered a classic of the soul jazz genre. He continued after this to have a string of hit albums, throughout the 70's, including the albums A Secret Place (1976 - Kudu), which featured two compositions by Washington, Jr., "Secret Place" and "Not Yet", as well as a version of Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance", and the album Reed Seed (1978 - Motown), which once again contained two of Washington, Jr.'s compositions "Reed Seed (Trio Tune)" and "Loran's Dance", and was recorded after his departure from Kudu to the Motown label.
At the end of the 70's Washington, Jr. signed with Elektra Records and had a number of successful albums with the label. He released Paradise (1979 - Elektra), which with the absence of Gale, brought the guitarist Tyrone Brown on board. His next album would be the one that made him a star. He released, in 1980, the album Winelight (1980 - Elektra). This album contained the hit song, by Bill Wither, "Just the Two of Us", with which Washington, Jr. would have a huge radio success. By this time Washington, Jr. had developed his smooth and melodic style which would define him as a musician and recording artist. Also on the album is the song, written by Washington, Jr., for the basketball player Julius Erving, of the Philadelphia 76ers, "Let it Flow (For Dr. J)". Washington, Jr. was also known to occasionally play the national anthem at games for the team as well. This album went platinum in sales, won a Grammy Award and is probably Washington, Jr.'s most highly remembered.
After the success of Winelight, Washington, Jr. many of jazz's leading voices began to turn their backs on Washington, Jr., considering his music to be muzak or bastardizations of traditional jazz because of his use of pop and rock songs in a smooth and sometimes overly produced style, but Washington, Jr. did not let this criticism daunt his efforts. He was quoted as saying, "My music is for the everyday person-people music. There's no pretense. It's honest.". Some saw these remarks as a call to arms against traditional jazz but others saw them as his proclamation of being more of a pop musician than a jazz one. Washington, Jr. released the album Come Morning (1980 - Elektra), which had a heavy dosing of synthesizers and primitive forms of music programming. Washington, Jr. would contribute three tracks for this album including "Come Morning", "Reaching Out" and "Making Love to You". His next was Baddest (1981 - Elektra), which had a solid versin of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me" and Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine". 1982 saw the album The Best Is Yet to Come (1982 - Elektra) and had Patti Labelle singing on it. By this time most serious jazz fans had tuned out but Washington, Jr. would continue to have success with the mainstream market.
In 1984 Washington, Jr. made the album Inside Moves (1984 - Elektra), which slightly went back to his r&b stylings of previous efforts. It also had touches of jazz fusion, similar to sound created by groups like Weather Report. Regardless of this though the album only received moderate sales and produced no hit singles, like Winelight did. Washington, Jr. contributed the songs "Secret Sounds" and "Sassy Stew" to the album.
Throughout the 80's Washington, Jr. would pioneer the smooth jazz genre as well as selflessly introduce new players to the smooth jazz scene, such as Kenny G, Najee and Steve Cole. Washington, Jr. would also play much of the music on the hit show The Cosby Show with famed comedian Bill Cosby, himself a big supporter of jazz and collector of upright basses.
In 1999 Washington, Jr. was scheduled to perform on television for the show The Early Show, at the CBD studio in New York, when waiting in the Green Room he suffered a massive heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital but died before they could save him. He had recorded with many of jazz and classical's biggest names like Dexter Gordon, Kenny Burrell, Kathleen Battle and Gerry Mulligan throughout his long career in the 70's, 80's and 90's.