At 54 years old, Kirk Whalum is the crown prince of the modern-day saxophone in Memphis. Having grown up at the tail end of the age of the jazz masters, he has graced stages all over the world with music that crosses over from genre to genre like a greatest hits album of pop music favorites. And now, as the chief creative officer of the Stax Music Academy and Stax Museum of American Soul, Whalum is helping to shape the next generation of Memphis musicians, note by note. All while remaining a working musician in his own right, recording and touring with the likes of Whitney Houston, Al Jarreau, Barbra Streisand, and Quincy Jones.
Brought up inside a musical cauldron of jazz, R&B, soul, and gospel from his father’s church on Southern, Whalum’s musical path seemed preordained. (He’s also an ordained minister himself.) As a student at Texas Southern University, Whalum cut his teeth and found his chops in the Houston nightclub scene where he was picked up to tour with pianist Bob James. Soon he was a star, recording his first solo album at the age of 27. Over the years, he has worked with Columbia Records, Warner Bros., Sony, Rendezvous, and Mack Ave. Records. He has been nominated for a Grammy award 12 times and and in 2011 won in the “Best Gospel Song” category.
Last year’s album, Romance Language, is a soulful love letter to those who came before. Specifically, this is a track-by-track homage to the 1963 recording John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, with Kirk Whalum playing the part of Coltrane and brother Kevin taking the vocals to emulate Hartman. To continue the musical ride, the Whalums round out the original album’s six tracks with four others. The music website.allaboutjazz.com says of the effort: “Romance Language reflects the stature that the Hartman/Coltrane recording has held for almost 50 years. Doubtless, it will continue to be an inspiration to future generations.”
Doubtless, too, Whalum will be a shining example for future jazz artists from Memphis and beyond. His passion for music can be heard in his recordings, as it could be witnessed on stage with Charles Lloyd in a recent spring concert at Rhodes College when Lloyd, the Manassas High colossus, bowed out to let the Melrose High alum, Whalum, take the solo and the spotlight for a time.