Shy jazz star Kenny Washington visits Carmel.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Kenny Washington is one of jazz’s most dynamic vocalists, a brilliant improviser who alternates between soulful crooning and electrifying scat solos.
But Washington is loath to blow his own horn. In nearly 20 years of interviewing and writing about musicians, I’ve never experienced a greater disparity between an artist’s overwhelming talent and his disinclination for self-promotion. Fortunately, Washington is giving his music a chance to speak for itself, as he recently released his first album under his own name, Live at Anna’s Jazz Island.
“It’s long overdue, but I’ve never been a good promoter of myself,” says Washington, 51, who makes his Jazz & Blues Company debut on Saturday with pianist David Udolf, bassist Fred Randolph and drummer Ranzel Merritt. “You have to be aggressive and get in people’s face all the time. I’m just not like that. I’m from the South, easygoing, and don’t want to bug anybody.”
Instead of Washington making a case for himself, several musicians have taken it upon themselves to champion him, including singers Kim Nalley and Mark Murphy, who recently declared, “Kenny’s got the gift.” Body percussionist Keith Terry showcases Washington in the wondrous a cappella ensemble Slammin, and saxophonist Michael O’Neill has built an entire repertoire around Washington’s extraordinary ability to sing unison lines with horns. Last year O’Neill’s quintet with Washington released Still Dancin’, a consistently enthralling album featuring Joe Locke as a special guest.
Locke, arguably the greatest vibraphonist of his generation, brought Washington to New York City last February for a week-long run at Lincoln Center’s prestigious Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, and the singer won rave reviews. “Kenny’s one of the very greatest living male vocalists, without a doubt,” Locke says. “He’s a sublime storyteller and exquisite balladeer. I love his familiarity with R&B, with Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye and how he can inject that feeling into the American Songbook in a very mature way.”
Locke is hardly the first to rave about Washington or to bring him to New York City. In the late ’90s, he was a featured vocalist in saxophonist Roy Nathanson’s jazz theater production Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill. Washington performed at the Manhattan premiere as part of a glittering cast with Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry and Nancy King, and then went on the road for several performances in Europe. San Francisco-based Six Degrees Records documented the production with an excellent cast album.
A New Orleans native, Washington first started singing in church, where his parents were choir members. Jazz caught his interest during his senior year of high school, when clarinetist Alvin Batiste performed at his school with a band of students, including two brothers named Branford and Wynton Marsalis. He spent several years studying music at Xavier University, singing pop, classical, R&B and jazz, paying particular attention to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme.
Washington joined the Navy in the mid-1980s, and after a couple of years auditioned for a band, a gig that took him to clubs and naval bases around the world. When he left the service in 1995 and processed out at Treasure Island he decided to stay in the area. Washington has supported himself as a musician ever since, but knows that his reticence hasn’t been good for his career.
“I’m in the wrong business to have that kind of an attitude,” Washington says. “You have to go out there and grab what you want… You’d think I’d know better by now, but I just can’t get used to it. Hopefully this CD will make a change.”
KENNY WASHINGTON performs 7:30pm Saturday, Nov. 15, at the Jazz & Blues Company on San Carlos and Eighth, Carmel. $35. 624-6432, www.thejazzandbluescompany.com.