WOODWIND & BRASSWIND: You’re on tour with Jonathan Butler right now?
KIRK WHALUM: I am and I’m not. He and I did a couple of dates this past week and then I did a date just last night with my band. So we tend to do that. We’re touring together and yet we’re always spinning the other plates.
WWBW: So both of you were on some kind of tour and when the proximity avails itself you’ll collide on a gig or is it really planned out?
KW: We’re both with ATA. So you put the tour out there and those dates constitute in an aggregate, the tour. But again, as things tend to go in this season, it’s pretty difficult to do full-on four or five dates a week type of tour these days unless you’re, you know, Katy Perry. My son plays with Katy Perry a lot, but right now his main gig is with Kelly Clarkson. He’s a bass player, but he also plays guitar and sings. That type of tour tends to be on a bus and you’re out solid, but the kind of touring we do more than less is where we’ll do a weekend and then we’ll have a week and then we may have three dates the next week, that type of thing.
WWBW: I imagine that kind of schedule might be welcome, yes?
KW: Right. That is absolutely true, man. I have no regrets on that. It’s great. I love my wife. I love being at home. We’ve carved a beautiful life together; God blessed us. We’re 59 and 60 and we met when we were 15 so I’m really grateful.
WWBW: You’ve done that kind of touring before anyway.
KW: Yes, that’s another thing. I mean, I checked that box. And that was, by the way, when I was raising my kids. So it’s déjà vu when my son and his wife and two kids are going through the same thing as he tours with Kelly. So I could give him some inside advice.
WWBW: When you were preparing yourself for a life in music, did you study much classical saxophone?
KW: I did. In college mostly, and I really fell in love with it and still to this day I do a lot of the repertoire, still work on it. I’ll perform it, but a lot of the etudes and stuff, that’s a big part of my practice routine and it absolutely seeps into my playing. Especially the Slonimsky, all that stuff a lot of the jazz guys borrowed from the classical world.
When I went to college in the mid-1970s, the average liberal arts college that had a jazz program, it still wasn’t considered quite legit. Like if you got a degree in Performance you were going to be playing, performing classical music—end of discussion. That has changed drastically so that now you can go to college and get a, quote-unquote legit degree in an instrument and you will never, maybe ever play a classical etude or a classical sonata or whatever.
Back when I got started I was fortunate, man, to hit a brick wall called Arnett Cobb. Arnett, like on a personal level, and on a musical level, inspired me and taught me everything about music.
WOODWIND & BRASSWIND: Was he associated with the University or he was a Houston musician?
KIRK WHALUM: He was associated because he loved us. He loved the kids who were going there and he understood it as being his responsibility to share his incredible history of traveling overseas and playing this music. So he would come often and share with us.
WWBW: I talk to a lot of great musicians, of which you are one, sir. I wanted to express that.
KW: Thank you.
WWBW: They almost all mention that were a few people who were really important in their development, or who showed up at just the right time.
KW: Yes, I'm really blessed that it was him because I eventually got a chance to hang with Hank Crawford and a few of the others who I considered to be my avatars. But he was the main one I spent a lot of time with. He just talked to me a lot. He told stories of just being on the road and his perspective on the music. So all those things were really beautiful and foundational for the way I play, I guess, the way I'm trying to play.
WWBW: So your direction was fully baked by the time you were a freshman in high school? You were a saxophone player, this is what I’m doing.
KW: Right. Yes.
WWBW: When did that happen?
KW: At the very beginning. Actually I think that I’m about 40 minutes away from visiting my Uncle Peanuts. I went to spend the day with my mom and stepdad in Kansas City, then I played a gig in Manhattan, Kansas. So on the way back to Memphis now, I’m driving I’m going to stop and see my Uncle Peanuts.
WWBW: I read about him.
KW: He as the first guy I ever heard play saxophone. So you can imagine, I guess I must have been 13, but by that time at that point, that pivotal personal point, to hear him, because he is a bad cat. I mean he can really, really play. So that was really—you’re right. By the time I got to high school I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
WWBW: Hey, here's a weird thing. What did you think of the whole Elvis thing when you were a kid? I mean, we're exactly the same age. It was more or less over, at least the Memphis part of it, by the time I was caring about music, but the legacy must have still been there and rock and roll was a big part of Memphis. So I have this theory that your deep gospel background, your natural brilliant harmonic improvisation and just being in rock and roll made this kind of stew that really influenced your sound. How close or far away am I, sir? Hey Kirk, you with me? We're in a bad reception area. It's okay. That was kind of a weird question anyway.
KW: I love that question. I want to speak about that for a minute if you don’t mind.
WWBW: Please do. Start from the beginning because the connection just made chop suey out of what you just said.
KW: You can’t really subtract the race conversation. It’s instructive, it’s foundational in many ways to understanding, dissecting somebody like me. Growing up in Memphis meant everything to how I approach music and a big part of that, again, is being Black in Memphis. So Memphis is that place now where it was the New York of the south. I mean no two ways about it. It's like in terms of music, if you could get to Memphis—ask Otis Redding and BB King and so many others who weren’t from Memphis, but they had to get to Memphis in order to make it, right?
So meanwhile this juggernaut called Elvis Presley is from Memphis, but he was you could say presenting to the White masses and others this amount of amazing Black music and then whatever other influences, right? But it was primarily he was doing Black music.
So that being the case and all these other racial factors that would make another conversation or another interview, would say that growing up in Memphis I, of course, everybody was an Elvis fan because I how could you not be? So he was awesome. Not to mention the fact that what’s popular in dominant culture you are going to know about. You don't really have a choice in it. If you’re a minority you're going to be exposed to it because it's ubiquitous, right? I know Katy Perry songs. I don't necessarily want to, but I do. Okay?
WWBW: I’m with you.
KW: But them—and props to her, no problem. But the thing is that, we, growing up Black in Memphis, all kind of had a chip on our shoulders when it came to the Elvis reference because, “Oh, Memphis! Oh, Elvis!” You’re like, “Damn it!” You know? Let’s talk about William Bell, and talk about Rufus Thomas. We could go down the list of—
WWBW: Stax Records.
WWBW: Or Stax Records, right, and Hi Records. All the amazing music that directly either were huge hits on its own, but that informed and influenced every style of music that was considered pop music, not to mention rock and roll.
So the fact that all of a sudden Elvis is this guy who “Oh, my God,” out of whole cloth created this music, and everybody says, “Wow! This guy Elvis!” But we were saying, no, that’s not exactly how it went.
The burden of the Elvis narrative was hard for me to kick, but I did, eventually, When we moved back home 10 years ago we're seeing Memphis now with completely different eyes because now we're adults and we’ve lived. We’ve in L.A. We lived in Texas. So now we get to experience Memphis kind of for the first time.
So one of the things we did was we went to Graceland. I’ve got to tell you, man, I'm really glad we did because it was nice to kind of give him his props for what it was, which was this brilliant and awesome thing, but what it wasn’t, was innovative.
But what I did, what I do owe my career to, is the gospel in the Blues and the Rhythm and Blues that influenced Elvis, and that's a Black thing. Those are the things that influence me and to this day. I mean after Rolling Stones you could just go down a line of people, including Elvis, who were influenced by and whose lives were literally changed by this music that these poor Black musicians were making in Memphis.
So that’s a point I guess I like making. As you notice, I didn't take anything away from Elvis, but without addressing the facts, it’s an oversight. It's like not putting things in their place.
WWBW: I think that lineage is better understood these days. Anytime anyone sticks a microphone in Keith Richards’ face he's talking about that. He's talking about where it came from. Eric Clapton, same deal. Jeff Beck, same deal. They're all very free with discussing where it all came from.
KW: Transparent. Beatles, same thing. They all say, “Man, I couldn’t wait to meet Muddy Waters. I wanted to meet him.”
WWBW: But back in those days it was in the record labels’ interest to keep all of that a secret.
KW: Of course. Because it made for better print to talk about this innovative young White kid Elvis.
KW: He was meant to be a star, because he could dance; he was a beautiful man and yeah, he could do that Black music like nobody’s business. It’s all okay, but man, my influences were absolutely primarily the church, Black musicians in church.
WWBW: So many great musicians and singers come out of the church. I wanted to talk a little about Whitney Houston.
KW: So get this, man. When I first started playing with her it was a fluke, really, because of my friend Rickey Minor. In the first rehearsal I showed her this article that had been written about me probably five or, I can’t remember, ten years earlier when I was a side man in the Houston music scene. You know what? That article quotes me saying what I want to play—you know, like this, “What’s your objective?” I’m like, “I want to play like Whitney Houston.”
They quoted me on that. I showed it to her and it cracked her up, because she knew that I was a jazz musician. You know, Coltrane and Stan Getz and Stanley Turrentine, all these people I had listened. I summed it up for this article, say, no, I want to play like she sings. In doing so it brings into the conversation the stuff that we just talked about. And the direct influence and inspiration of the church,
KW: That’s what we shared. She and I shared that. That was our relationship, by the way. I ended up being sort of a chaplain for her for seven years, for her and the band. When we connected most on stage is when she was looking to me to bring that element from her church in New Jersey. I could bring that because I lived it.
WWBW: So when you were recording “I Will Always Love You” was the vocal already down or just did the solo get cut first?
KW: Right, so the story of that is—I’ll be quick about it, but she, when presented with that song, something snapped in her. She’s like, no, this is life-changing. I believe that her reference point for that song was that she felt like God was—was a message from God, a vertical message, as it were, as opposed to a horizontal message between two human beings.
She heard that as God saying to all of us, I will always love you. I love you no matter what. So she was struck by that song. And by the way, I have played with Dolly Parton. I have been on the Tonight Show with her. I am feeling Dolly having written that song and there absolutely have been that double entendre, horizontal and vertical.
So Whitney insisted on singing the song live to the film and with us playing live to the film. Again, two unprecedented things at once, and the directors were absolutely not feeling it. They said that’s not going to happen, let alone having your band up there playing while we’re trying to make a movie. That’s not going to happen.
So finally they put their foot down. They said, no, we’ve got to do it the way we always do it and that’s to record to have her lip synch and shoot the scene 50 times. But she finally said to them, and this is a quote as far as what Rickey Minor told me, she said, “Fine. Go ahead and do it as you would, but the problem is you’re going to have to find a singer, because if I sing it I’m going to sing it live and my band is going to play.” And she walked out of the room.
WWBW: That’s the end of the negotiation.
KW: Yes. So this little Black girl from New Jersey had just told these Hollywood producers how it was going to go.
WWBW: She knew she was holding all the cards.
KW: She was holding all the cards and she also knew better than them what had to happen in order for this to be the mega-hit that it became. The saxophone solo that I play is apparently the saxophone solo that has been heard by more people than any other saxophone solo, at least in recorded history.
So that ancillary factoid would not be true had she not seen in this song a global and eternal message which had to be implemented in a certain way. In other words you don't just do that lip synch thing. So she got her way and that's how it went down.
WWBW: That's the take that got kept for the recording, though.
KW: So get this. I think we may have recorded it three times, but I'm pretty sure it was the first one that was the one. But not only that, when Clive Davis heard the DAT tape of the rough mix, in other words the board tape, as it were, it's a stereo on the spot.
WWBW: Two track.
KW: Two track. He heard that, he said, “Yep. This is it.” And David Foster's like “I know, right? This is going to be awesome.” I can't wait to strip it back down and work on the snare drum and add the strings. He’s like, “You don’t understand. When I say this is it. This. is. it.”
So David Foster didn't get to do nothing to that thing. So Whitney, she won on all counts.
WWBW: Yeah, well, overproducing has been going on for decades. A lot of my favorite Ray Charles takes are just gorped up with strings and terrible background vocals.
KW: Right. [LAUGHTER]
We’ve got to talk about equipment for a little piece of it. Do you have any particular recommendations and endorsements that you want to talk about?
KW: Recently, I've switched from after 30 years of playing Keilworth which I love, I played a friend of mine’s P. Mauriat. I'm sorry, I can't remember the model. I have to be looking at it. It’s the kind of dark—there’s two models. It’s not the natural finish.
WWBW: System76, maybe. I'll check it out.
KW: That sounds familiar. It’s the gold lacquer, a very dark gold. A friend of mine is a pop star in South Africa. He's a, what am I trying to say, amateur saxophonist, but he has money to kind of buy toys. So he bought this P. Mauriat. He said, “Man, try my horn out.” I didn’t want to tell him I had tried P. Mauriat 15 years ago and didn’t really like it. But man, whatever they did to this new one… I played his and it just frustrated me because I’m like, oh, damn, now I got to go back and play my other horn.
WWBW: So just mechanically and intonation and everything?
KW: It’s the sound of it, first of all, and the free-blowing, just very open, very transparent sound of it. Because to me, that's the most important thing, transparency because then you can be you with no hindrance of those sort of forceful guiding your sound into a certain direction.
So it's transparent, right? That's the hardest thing to make in an instrument. The mechanics of it, you know, the mechanism is beautiful. I just feel so comfortable. It's a lot more ergonomic than my Keilworth.
WWBW: What do you what are you using for a soprano these days?
KW: I still play my Keilworth soprano. I haven’t had time to go play any P. Mauriats yet.
WWBW: Do you have a reed preference?
KW: Yes. I play—not Rico, but D’Addario filed 4. My primary thing is practicality. If it’s not inhibiting the sound then the next point is practicality. So some of them I don't think are practical because if you need to change something, adjust something on the gig, you need to do it fast. You don't want it to change again once you put—you know, so that’s the criteria
WWBW: Have you experimented much with the new generation of high-end mouthpieces?
KW: I try to stay away from the really boutique expensive ones because I like being able to recommend a mouthpiece to a young musician who doesn’t have a lot of dough. So that’s one of my big criteria and under that list, that rubric, I fell in love with the JodyJazz. It’s the HR8.
WWBW: We have a great relationship with Jody.
KW: Oh, yeah, he's a really great guy. I dig him a lot. He’s one who would listen to me. I say, hey, what if you change this or work on that, he would go figure it out.
WWBW: Is there anything you want to make sure that—a lot of our customers are high school students, college band students. They're the ones who are going to be reading deep into the interview. Is there anything, maybe Kirk's advice column or anything that you feel like we missed?
KW: I have in the last few years gone back to some really, the fundamentals, like practicing really simple—you know, diatonic—not diatonic—yes, diatonic exercises [SINGS DIATONIC EXERCISE] that type of thing. Going back to some things that James Moody taught me years ago. It’s really be very, very helpful.
WWBW: So like breaking out method books or do you…
KW: I like doing it myself because I feel like I benefit more theoretically when I come up with stuff myself and then learn it in all the keys and all the horns. I don’t mind books. In fact, as far as I’m concerned you don’t need but one book and that is the Slominski book, but other than that I think it’s better for a musician to come up with that stuff yourself like based on a given thing. Which is all that Slominski did. Based on this concept let me go as far into this as I possibly can. It will take you your whole lifetime to do it, but along the way you’ll be a better musician because you will thoroughly have—what’s the word I’m looking for—internalized the concept and every bit of it. Because you, “Oh, wow, if I change this and I’ve got this exercise. Let me work that over the whole instrument.” You go, “Oh, wow, what if I change that?” Now you’ve got something else to work on.
WWBW: You mentioned all 12 keys. Is that something that you like to apply pretty religiously?
KW: Absolutely. That comes from my classical training, but yes, it’s all about all 12 keys.
WWBW: I think I read a Bill Evans quote somewhere. He says if you don't have the tune in all keys, you don't have the tune.
KW: Right. That's a Sonny Stitt thing. That's where he was coming from. It's just great because of what it does. It just makes you get over those barriers or those hurdles.