That NEW Adage

A pressure-relief valve about God, and just about everything else.

Wailin’ like Whalum!


In what field do you work? What activity do you wish you could make a living doing? Is there someone you admire in a particular arena that is the epitome of skill and expertise?

Are you a sports fan who admires A-Rod, or Jordan, or Peyton Manning? Are you a painter who loves the work of Rembrandt, or Picasso? Are you an aspiring actor or playwright? Do you work in the restaurant business, or the automobile design industry, or the cosmetology field?

If you think about it, every one of you has at least one person who is the icon of your admiration in a given area. I am a musician. By profession. I am of a blessed few who get to do the one thing I LOVE for a living, meager though it is right now. This means that the person I most look up to in the entire musical world does both what I love and what I do.

I am a saxophone player, and hopefully not a hack! I am not a poseur. I don’t walk around town with my horn on my shoulder, and I don’t dance when I play. I MOVE, though… For me, it is about getting better on that horn, and the musicians I most admire are serious about their discipline. My two favorite singers are Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole. My favorite female singer is Lalah Hathaway. Or maybe Sarah Vaughan. It’s pretty close. My favorite piano player is Phineas Newborn, Jr.. My favorite trumpet player is, I think, Clifford Brown. My favorite guitar player is, maybe, Wes Montgomery. My favorite bass player is Marcus Miller. I don’t have a favorite drummer.

There are a million sax players in this town alone. I love that the Lord gave me that instrument to play! It is so complex and so expressive. There are so many who play it well; Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Coletrane, Joe Henderson, Grover Washington, Wilton Felder, Branford Marsalis, David Sanborn, Eric Alexander, Phil Woods, Paul Desmond (Take 5), Kirk Whalum, Bird, Stan Getz (Human velvet), Dexter Gordon, Chris Potter, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Garrett, Gerald Albright, and scores more.

The thing is this: Of all the singers I like, but didn’t mention, and all of the other musicians whom I just love, the ONE who is my favorite– out of all who have ever sung or played a single note– is Kirk Whalum. You can agree or disagree, you can argue and present your case for the brilliance of Bird or Trane, and you can cite the mastery of Sarah Vaughan and Stevie. You can talk about Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye and Brother Ray. You can plead the case for David Ruffin, or Billie Holliday, or Wynton Marsalis, or Sinatra, or Donny Hathaway, and you will have some valid points. But for my money, the one who resonates with me is Whalum.

He has the ability to convey pure, raw emotion in a single note. His horn sings and cries and shouts and growls. He is at once soulful, and harmonically competent. Not many can say this. They are usually one or the other. It is an awful thing to hear a straight-ahead cat (musicians say “cat”) try to play some soul! And vicey-versey. He is the leader among guys who can make a sax sound almost human.

The moment I first heard him in a Denver record store way back when guesting on a Bob James record, I immediately asked the store manager who it was. I was hooked. That was how I wanted to sound! It sounded like he was wringing the notes from a wet towel! Every note was urgently played. I thought that if I could play like that, I would be able to tell girls with music what I was too scared to utter with words.

A year or so later, I heard him on a Luther Vandross album, and this one song, “Anyone Who Had A Heart, ” by Bacharach, repeatedly put me in the saddest mood. Beautiful! I have followed his career since the first day, waiting on album releases, and buying every record I saw his name attached to. Some of them were duds with the songs he soloed on being the only ones I dug.

Somewhere in there, I decided that I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to drop out of architecture school and become a musician. It was the only thing I felt that I could really do and do well. I wanted to make people feel whatever emotion I felt when I played a song or a solo like Kirk Whalum did. I had a long, long way to go. (I only have a long way to go now.)

I started from scratch, not having any guidance. I began to teach myself licks, and turns, and scales, and phrases. And most of all, I worked on my TONE– the way I sounded. I gigged with my friends who were grass-green like I, and we used to play at family house parties with just a piano amp, and no gear for no money. I graduated from there to playing for a gospel artist for no money. But we had gear, though.

After a year of that, I got a gig with blues singer, Denise LaSalle. I was on my way! I was making money, but the gear was AWFUL! I continued to teach myself by practicing the solos of Whalum, and my other “teacher,” Grover Washington, as well as any other artist that inspired me. I played lead vocal melodies, piano solos, guitar solos, and everything. The main thing, though, was to always be soulful. And to have that pretty tone.  

Friends would tell me (they still do) to be more of a showman, to walk into the audience, or to wave my hand like Dave Koz does. I just couldn’t. “I just wanna get better on this horn,” I always reply. If I am feeling what I am playing and move accordingly, sincerely, that is honest. For ME, it felt phoney to use gimmicks to get a response. I was trying to please musicians! If THEY dig you, then you know you’re doing something. I may be wrong.

Now, from time to time, I get the comment that I “sound like Whalum.” What was to be expected? I had played, really, millions of Kirk Whalum notes! Now, though, I have to find my voice out of all that emotion and wailing! There is already a Whalum. It’s hard to be discouraged by hearing that, though. I kind of get the same feeling as when someone tells me I LOOK like my father. How can I not like that? My pops is the MAN!

So… my question is this: How would you, as a golf fanatic, like to play a round with Tiger, or Ernie Els? How would you, as a basketball player, like to be on Jordan’s team? How would you, as a real estate person, like to spend time with Trump? Singer– Stevie Wonder? Cook–Emeril, or Rachael Ray? Actor– Hopkins, Hepburn, or Denzel? How would you feel if you, an average citizen, were called upon to perform with or for your greatest hero? How would you feel if, out of ALL the people in the world, the ONE person you most admire watched you do what HE does? And what if that thing that he does is not just your recreation, but your VOcation? How would you feel?

Well, today, at the church at which I play, the musical director said at the last minute, “Hey, let’s play that Whalum tune we closed with last week!”  That being the song from his just-released album that we sort of butchered up last week. At that very MOMENT Kirk Whalum and his wife walked in!!! Ohhh Lorrrd! I pride myself on not being scared of a musical challenge. How can I call myself worthy of being a contemporary of the masters if I am scared to do what I can do musically?

I was as scared as my little son, Max, when those guys in the hamburger suits come on the teevee!

Tim, the m.d., was like, “man, whass wrong witchu? I ain’ neva seen you like this!”

“I ain’ neva been like this,” I said, knees sounding like dice about to come up snake-eyes. “I ain’t prepared. That song has a crazy pattern that’s hard to follow wit’out a chart!” It was 9:57. Church started at 10:00. No time to practice, and I couldn’t punk out. So, I prayed, and we played. It was okay. Only minor mistakes. I do this for a living. But I didn’t want to sound like a scrub with the icon of my artistic life sitting 20 feet away! There was a problem, though, and that is the reason for this post.

The service was about GOD. What about GOD? Isn’t HE a greater audience than Kirk Whalum? Kirk, being a Godly man would say, “yes.” (I know this because I have met him a few times, and he occasionally comes to my church. More pressure?!) All I could think of during the musical portion of the worship was, “Don’t mess up, Kirk’ll think you’re a scrub. Play that flat 5 lick right here, Kirk’ll think that was cool. Don’t overplay, ’cause Kirk’ll think you’re into your self. I wonder what Kirk thought about that tag I put at the end of that last song?” I mean, I was in the same room as my hero, and I was playing HIS song, his style, his instrument! It was too much.

And I was so ashamed of myself. I kept apologizing to God for making Him ride in the back seat so Kirk could sit up front. “I’m sorry, Lord,” I kept saying, and I kept shifting my focus back from God to man.

“I wonder if he heard that bad note? I wonder if he heard me play that cool run? Oh, Sorry, Lord.”

My wife consoled me, saying tht the Lord understands, that I’m only human. True, but that fact didn’t keep Him from holding us accountable for the fact that we sin. Without Jesus, we still suffer the repercussions of our actions. Humanity is no excuse for faults.

I know God forgave me, but the thing is that we need to be aware that God is always sitting on the front row. For every scene. Good AND bad. We should conduct ourselves according to the fact that the One universal Celebrity requires us to serve, worship, praise, and perform for HIM. And He deserves it. Look at all the stuff He did. All the things He made…

Kirk Whalum is not an idol of mine in the sense that he occupies God’s throne of glory. His skill and talent, as are ALL of ours, are a sign of what God can do. That is why God gets the praise for the made putts and three-pointers, the Grammys and the Oscars, the pictures and the sculptures.

At the end of service this morning, as we played the benediction music, I felt someone come up from behind the chair in which I was sitting and grab me, choke hold style, around my neck.

“You blessed me, man! You really blessed me by playing my song!” Imagine Jordan telling you that you played well… Imagine that you felt that he meant it… That made my WEEK! And I thanked GOD!

I wanted to ask him a thousand questions… about mouthpieces, and horns, and chords and solos, and sessions, and about helping me make records. But I didn’t get to. I don’t like to crowd celebrities when I see them. They have lives. People are always trying to get something from them, and I feel that if I am good enough to do this on a higher plane the time will come when God says so. If I really CAN play, he, or someone, will give me my shot.

So what I have is the memory of his gratitude. And my OWN gratitude to God for being so cool and merciful and Beautiful. And for inventing the saxophone and putting it in my hand.

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October 8, 2007 - Posted by | Art, Christianity, God, Heroes, Jazz, Kirk Whalum, Life, Music, Saxophone

2 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the post, I like me some Kirk Whalum. You can feel his soul in his music. The man is awsone with that instrument.I have some of his old music and I heard something he done with Junita Bymun.

    Comment by Ann Brock | October 12, 2007 | Reply

  2. Your post was inspiring! I also admire Kirk. I admire his talent, I admire the man. I had an opportunity to meet Kirk at a concert in California once. As I shyly walk up to him and ask him to sign my CD, imagine my surprise when he graciously agrees and invites me to sit and have a soda with him (and Richard Elliott). I was in aw as I listened to Kirk tell me thank you for coming to see him and for buying his music. I was a bit star struck to say the least to be in the presents of a man with so much talent and yet so humble and gracious. In sitting and talking with him, I saw a man that truly knows that the Lord has blessed him with the gift of music and how he is grateful that by the grace of God he is able to share that gift with others. I will pass on to you and anyone else reading this, some of the words Kirk passed on to me that unforgettable Saturday afternoon, stay focused on the Lord and in all things give thanks to Him.

    Like you Kirk Whalum is someone I aspire to be like. Where my talents are not musical like yours and his, I aspire to be like Kirk in the sense I want those I get the opportunity to meet to see in me, like I saw in Kirk, a true gratefulness to God for all He has given me. Thank you for sharing your story with all of us and to Kirk for inspiring others with his many talents and gifts.

    Comment by Michele Hall | January 29, 2008 | Reply


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