Grover Washington Jnr was a saxophonist who enjoyed massive commercial success.
Yet he attracted criticism for that popularity and was sometimes accused of selling out.
So, was Grover Washington Jnr an innovator who brought jazz to a wider audience, or a bland commercial crooner?
Grover Washington Jnr was born on Dec 12th 1943, in Buffalo, New York.
His father was a saxophone player who also collected jazz records. Washington grew up surrounded by music, listening to legends of the jazz world such as Benny Goodman on his father’s recordings.
Washington was given his first saxophone at the age of eight, a gift from his father, and took to it enthusiastically.
He attended Temple University’s School of Music in Philadelphia, as well as the Wurlitzer School of Music in Massachusetts.
Washington finished school at the age of sixteen and left his home town of Buffalo to begin his career as a musician. He played with a group called the “Four Clefs” from Columbus, Ohio, then with the “Mark III Trio”.
In 1965 Washington was drafted into the US army for two years. He was stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Whilst in the army Washington played with the 19th Army Band, and also continued to play jazz gigs in New York and Philadelphia. At this time he met the drummer, Billy Cobham, who introduced him to many New York musicians.
After Washington left the army he played saxophone freelance around New York City, then went to Philadelphia in 1967.
Washington’s big break came in 1971, when he was booked as part of the horn section for a recording date for the producer Creed Taylor. Taylor had commissioned pop funk arrangements featuring Hank Crawford, to be recorded by Kudu Records. When Hank Crawford was unable to get to the recording session Washington was asked to step in. This opportunity led to his first solo album, “Inner City Blues”.
Washington had an easy, smooth style of playing, with RnB influences. He played simple melodies, which he developed and embellished in his improvised passages. This lack of pretension and melodic style was key to his popularity.
Washington’s recording career continued, with him performing on alto, soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones. He made a number of albums all of which were well received, and his recognition within the music industry was assured.
However it was his fourth album “Mister Magic,” released in 1974, which brought him real success commercially. The album reached no. 10 on Billboard’s Top 40 album chart. In 1975 his follow-up album “Feels so Good” also reached number 10.
Washington’s best known album, which defined his career, was “Winelight”, released in 1980 Elektra Records. One of the tracks on the album – “Just the Two of Us” performed with Bill Withers – achieved massive radio play 1981, peaking at number 2 in the Hot 100. Washington won Grammy awards for both “Just the Two of Us” and “Winelight”.
With his 1988 album “Then and Now” Washington re-joined the jazz mainstream, in a collaboration with the pianists Herbie Hancock and Tommy Flanagan.
Washington has been recognised as one of the most successful players to straddle the gap between pop and jazz, bringing the excitement and innovation of jazz to a wider audience, by making it more accessible in a pop context.
…one of the most successful exponents of pop-jazz.
The New York Times
In an article in 1981, Robert Palmer of the New York Times called Washington “one of the most successful exponents of pop-jazz”. Washington’s success also drew disapproval from both critics and musicians alike who saw it as selling out, making jazz too commercial, simplistic and bland. However, many others recognised his musicianship and technical skill despite their dislike of his style.
Washington himself seemed more interested in the opinions of his many fans that those of the jazz purists. At a forum in New York he explained his playing: “My music is for the everyday person—people music. There’s no pretense. It’s honest. It transmits feelings and moods. That’s about all you can hope to achieve.”.
For fans of the smooth jazz genre, Grover Washington Jnr is undoubtedly a huge figure. Not only was he responsible for many of it’s key hits (“Winelight”, “The Best is Yet to Come”, “Inner City Blues”), but he also brought forward new talents who became giants of the genre in their own right – players such as Kenny G, Najee, and Steve Cole.
Grover Washington Jnr died on December 17th 1999. He suffered a massive heart attack after performing four songs for the Saturday Early Show. He was 56 years old.
Check out Grover in action:
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