It’s no secret that while jazz has always been high on substance, it offers fame and fortune to but a few. Ultimate freedom of expression comes at a high price; a double-edged sword for many jazz musicians who sometimes struggle to enjoy financial fruits that can parallel their artistic ones.
Saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III has performed, recorded and toured with some of the biggest names in music. From Puff Daddy and Jay-Z, to Maxwell and Mary J. Blige, Whalum is emerging as one of the most in-demand horn players in Black popular music. He is also the nephew of smooth jazz recording artist and eight-time Grammy © nominee and 2011 recipient, Kirk Whalum. When deciding to record his debut album, To Those Who Believe, it would have been easy for Whalum to rely on his impressive Rolodex of platinum-selling musical associates, celebrity mentors, or wildly successful family members. But Kenneth Whalum III has boldly stepped on the scene as a man who walks to the beat of his own drum, deciding that greener pastures aren’t always necessarily found in the comforts of the status quo.
“I wanna play music that’s true to me, and other lanes aren’t really for me,” Whalum explains about his decision to release a jazz album for his first recording as a leader. I caught up with him last week in Brooklyn during a short break from his current gig with hip-hop superstar Ludacris, whom Whalum is currently working for as Musical Director. “I can’t fake it, you know what I mean? So, I just play what I hear and what is given to me and what just touches me. It could have been pop or R&B or whatever, but it wasn’t.”
On To Those Who Believe, Whalum enlists the talents of his musical comrades: pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave (also three quarters of the Robert Glasper Experiment). The four initially developed a musical relationship while touring with R&B crooner Maxwell. Each band leaders in their own right, and each straddling between jazz and other musical aesthetics, this was an important commonality to Whalum. “The fact is that I’m more comfortable with them because they’re not so set to one thing, and the truth is I’m not set to one thing…at all. As a matter of fact, I’m newest to [jazz]. So, more than anything, we’re just all like…we have a great relationship. We’re just brothers, we act a fool, and I wouldn’t rather have anybody else in there, so I was blessed to have them to be able to do it and be willing to help me get my message out.”
Whalum’s message is one that is rooted in his faith, family, and his artistry, which developed in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. The son of a well-respected preacher, Whalum began playing in the church. “I just think growing up, there was a mix of the music and the culture and just the people…it really helped me to just become a well-rounded person. A lot of times I remember things and different things pull on me artistically, and all of that comes from growing up there, playing on Beale Street, playing the blues all the time.”
Whalum transferred from Morehouse College in Atlanta, to The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, where he began to hone his skills, taking the idea of becoming a professional musician a lot more seriously. It is here that he also began playing jazz. “[In Memphis] there wasn’t a jazz scene — period. I can remember asking a cat how do you play double-time and he’s looking at me like…nobody knew [laughs] so it wasn’t until I got to New York that I really started to be able to grow in music.”
Whalum’s first professional gigs were backing up fellow Memphis natives like Al Green and Isaac Hayes, but a phone call from the musical director for hip-hop mogul P. Diddy, would change the course of Whalum’s career. “Nissan Stewart called me. He was the MD for Puff at the time. For some reason Puff had fired his horn section, so we went in and he ended up liking us, and then from that we became really cool, so it was like the snow ball effect. I would hang out with him aside from music. He co-produced American Gangster, and he called me in to do some horns for “Roc Boys” and that was a huge hit. So when it came time to do the video and shit like that, and for Jay’s tour, he brought me along as well. Your credibility just goes up, regardless if other people have heard you or not, and people like me as a person, because I’m just chill or whatever it is.”
With an established reputation in the hip-hop and pop arenas, Whalum has since taken on the jazz realm, with the release of To Those Who Believe, which spent an impressive three weeks at #1 on the iTunes jazz chart. Released independently, and self-produced (with Glasper as co-producer) Whalum is determined to get your attention without calling your attention to all of the pretty lights surrounding him. “I don’t think I’ve ever introduced myself by my whole name. I just have always been a kind of stubborn cat; I always wanna be myself. I don’t want people to judge me based on anything. I’d rather be low key than be known for something that has nothing to do with me.”
To Those Who Believe is a superbly executed hybrid of a panorama of Black music; all of which speak to Whalum’s personal story. The album opens up with a gorgeous hymn-like chant, with portions of one of his father’s sermons floating throughout. Whalum also briefly showcases his vocal talent, which he modestly downplays, on a larger scale. “I don’t feel like just because I can sing, I should; that’s not killing. I like to respect everybody’s lane. Like LeBron going to the Heat, and being like ‘Oh, I think I’ll get a ring now…’ But it never really works out well, because you have to have respect for whatever game you’re playing, whether it be music, acting…I just like to respect that.” The hard-swinging “STS” is reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Mr. Knight” with Glasper delving into his inner McCoy Tyner and Whalum reveling in its blues-based form. Much of the album has a meditative quality that speaks to Whalum’s spiritual foundation. “My influence is one of my favorite records, which is [John Coltrane’s] Crescent. That record never gets old to me. Regardless to what kind of mood I’m in, I can listen to Crescent. It’s so thoughtful.”
Stepping out onto new musical territory has proved a wise decision for Whalum, not only because of the certain promise for this rising talent, but also because his range of experience and ability can help continue to garner a younger, Blacker jazz audience — a sorely needed advancement. On the sometimes sticky subject of the interfusion within jazz, Whalum offers some sobering advice.
“I think everybody needs to fucking relax because there is no money – period. People fight to make themselves the only person in a certain lane, but that’s not really how it ever was. That’s why back in the day you got all kinds of cats on one record, doing records together. You don’t really get that anymore. You may get Wynton doing records with country artists but I mean working together. Which is why I was glad to have Rob [Glasper]. Rob is a star, and he didn’t mind helping me…that kind of thing. I think the fact that we understand that sentiment, helps us. Not that we’re where we could be, but we don’t mind where we are. Everybody’s got to relax. I don’t mind what anybody’s doing. The level of appreciation for everything can always lead you to a better place. You’re thinking that this is the only way? This isn’t the only way at all. I just think we need to appreciate each other more. We all have different things to say and I don’t think it’s fair to judge anybody. Cats judge all day. I think that’s the wrong way. The older jazz head fans are slimming out, so now the message has to be straight up what you got to say and either people gonna like it or they’re not.”
Whalum’s perspective is well beyond his twenty-some-odd years; likely due to his early exposure to the music business and his rock-solid foundation. And it is this security that is undoubtedly in-part responsible for his decision to play jazz. When you’re not phased by the hype, you can hear yourself better and have a clearer path to your individual calling. Moreover, so many of our Black musicians are confined to the church and popular music, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that reality, the exposure to the totality of our culture will produce more Black participants and a broader support system. Whalum is a shining example of the endless possibilities.
“I feel really blessed to be able to be able to be doing so much work because I swear…I didn’t even do music. I went to Morehouse and I transferred to New School. So I was just partying and now to have all this stuff going on it really is something I never…I thought about playing but it was never serious. So now it’s really serious. I go places and people know me. This cat just recently walked up to me talking about how he liked my record. So whether people know it or not, I really am happy to be here. I’m really happy to be having this stuff going on. I don’t take it for granted. I’m really just trying to believe it. God is good for real.” ♦
Kenneth Whalum III performs tomorrow, June 21 at the Apple Store (Upper West Side) in NYC as part of Black Music Month. Personnel: Kenneth Whalum (Saxophones), Robert Glasper (piano), Burniss Earl Travis (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums). Showtime 7pm.