On April 29, 2013 I published a special edition of JFASN entitled “My Evolution From Accidental Jazz Admirer to Intentional Jazz Lover.” In that wide-ranging treatise, I explained, among other things, how influential one song was in turning me to the jazz side. That one song was “Strawberry Moon” by none other than Grover Washington, Jr.
Given that I owe my interest in jazz to the man, I am hard-pressed to explain why it’s taken me this long to get around to including him here. As the old saying goes, “Better late than never!”
The man who would become one of the most popular musicians in the world was born in Buffalo, New York on December 12, 1943. He died at the all-too-young age of 56 on December 1, 1999. His father, Grover Washington, Sr., himself a saxophone player, bought Washington Jr. a saxophone when the boy was 10 years old. Two years later he was playing professionally.
Do you hate him yet? 😉
Later on, after spending a stint in the Army, Washington spent several years working with various headliners throughout the Northeastern United States. His big break came when he was asked to record with Johnny Hammond. The album was “Breakout” and it was a hit.
Washington’s next album, “Inner City Blues (his first as a leader), was a huge crossover hit. His 1980 release “Winelight” garnered him two Grammy Awards: Best Jazz Fusion Recording” and “Best R&B Song” (for “Just The Two Of Us”).
In the course of his stellar career, Washington would work with the likes of Bob James, Dave Grusin, Steve Gadd, Marcus Miller, Grady Tate, B.B. King, Herbie Hancock, and others.
The Grover Washington, Jr. album I want to tell you about one he recorded in 1978 for Creed Taylor’s KuDu label: “Live At The Bijou.”
The personnel for this 2-record vinyl LP set are:
Grover Washington, Jr.: alto, soprano and tenor saxophone
John Blake, Jr.: electric violin
Tyrone Brown: bass
Leslie Burrs: flute
Leonard Gibbs: percussion
James Simmons: keyboards
Richard Lee Steacker: electric guitar
Millard Vinson: drums
Before I go too much farther, I should offer a bit of advice. Like the Dave Brubeck album I reviewed for JFASN #100, Grover Washington, Jr’s “Live At The Bijou” is not going to make everyone happy. Grover Washington, Jr. walked both sides of the jazz street and then some. And he did it without getting permanently pigeon-holed as being strictly a one-genre wonder.
That is all the more amazing when you consider that Grover Washington, Jr. has been credited (or blamed, if you prefer) with all but inventing so-called “smooth jazz.”
“Live At The Bijou” blends elements of all three genres. This was the 1970’s, and the music world was in a state of flux. A scant 15 years earlier the Beatles had invaded, and they had been followed by other British pop bands who had become immensely popular with young people in America. Home grown pop groups sprang up like weeds, and many well-established jazz artists had watched in horror as their beloved music, once the “cock ‘o’ the walk,” was relegated to has-been status.
That thumbnail description barely scratches the surface of the backdrop against which this album was born.
“Live At The Bijou” gives us 8 songs spread across two vinyl LP’s.
The opener on record one, side one, written by Guitarist Streaker, is “On The Cusp,” a funky, soul-jazz number with bit of electronica thrown in for bad measure. Unlike a lot of jazz lovers, I don’t outright hate all electronica, but the sounds chosen for “On The Cusp” are too much like transistorized fart sounds for my taste.
If you can ignore the electronic farts (a tall order, I know), “On The Cusp” is a pretty decent song, and the audience seems to have appreciated it.
“You Make Me Dance” is next. This quiet Tyrone Brown composition is a given a mellow opening with just Burr’s flue and Vinson on drums. After a bit they are joined by Grover on his alto sax. By the time you’re about a third of the way into the song the pace picks up a bit and the title becomes relevant. Toward the end things become a bit, well, almost discordant for a brief time. I’m not sure what the musical intent was behind that, but luckily it lasted just a moment and then the boys returned to the melody and carried it to the end.
The next number is “Lock It In The Pocket” and opens with Steacker (who happens to have written it) on guitar, and he has the audience clapping from the first licks. Brown’s bass comes in (Tyrone Brown, not Ray) and lends some authority. Then Grover steps forward, armed this time with his alto, and the groove is on.
Record one, side two opens with a two song Ralph MacDonald, William Salter, Sid Simmons composition, medley that begins with “Days In Our Lives.” Someone (percussionist Gibbs?) opens with a solo on the bongos. Burns flute soon joins in, and then the rest of the guys. This is a light, airy song that manages to be mellow without being boring.
Halfway through the pace does pick up a bit and then, at the very end, the group segues into “Mister Magic,” much to the audience’s obvious delight. There is a bit of funkiness that I frankly don’t know how to describe, other than it sounds like someone swallowing the microphone and saying “Ha ha ha” repeatedly. For my money, they could have left that bit out. Luckily it only lasts a moment and then we are off and running with one of Washington’s most famous songs.
I have always enjoyed “Mister Magic,” and I think this vintage live version is fantastic, despite the odd electronica now and then. You can find out for yourself whether this one is for you by listening to Grover and the boys doing “Mister Magic” here:
Record two, side one, begins with “Summer Song” from the pen of John Blake and Tyrone Brown. This is another light, lively song, good enough that even the momentary overdubbed vocals can’t entirely ruin it. I do have to say, it would have been better without them.
The remaining song on this side is “Juffure” from John E. Blake Jr. and Millard Vinson. This is another funky song, with bits of electronica at first, yes, but for you purists, it does go away. Steacker on electric guitar does a particularly fine job on this during his turn at lead. We hear all too little of Simmons on the Yamaha Grand, and that is about the worst thing I can say about this song.
There are two more songs on the album, but I am going to leave those for you to discover. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
While this album is not for every jazz lover, I am fairly certain that if you have an open mind and just kick back and listen to the performance, you will find that Grover Washington’ Jr.’s “Live At The Bijou” is an excellent addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
To learn more about Grover Washington, Jr., you can read Scott Yanow’s brief bio of Washington on the All Music web site.
All About Jazz has a more extensive, uncredited write-up here.
There is a shorter bio from Rifftides by Doug Ramsey here.
And finally, Washington’s obituary from the New York Times includes an extensive biography.
NEW! Pandora has a station devoted to Grover Washington, Jr. Unfortunately it does not include “Live At The Bijou,” but it does have several of his other albums.
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