Grover Washington, Jr.

Grover Washington, Jr.Grover Washington, Jr., was born on this day in 1943 and died on December 17, 1999. He was a tenor, alto and soprano saxophonist who had huge success as a popular artist, in great part because his 1974 album Mister Magic was high on the pop, soul and R&B charts for weeks. He followed with additional best-selling albums and singles. Predictably, his ability as a hit-maker had critics reaching for their sharp knives, but far from being a sellout, Washington was a superbly inventive jazz soloist whose rhythm and blues roots strengthened his improvisations. His posthumously released Aria, with its variations on opera music and superb arrangements by Bob Freedman, was one of the best albums of 2000.

Here are Washington and his band before a Philadelphia audience in 1981, playing “Mister Magic.” In addition to his own work, this is notable for a gritty guitar solo by Washington’s omnipresent sidekick Eric Gale and the collaboration between drummer Steve Gadd and percussionist Ralph Mcdonald. Richard Tee is on piano, Paul Griffin on synthesizer

An excerpt from the liner notes for the Mister Magic album:

During an engagement with his quartet at the Half Note, New York’s venerable jazz club, Grover was pulling in the expected audience of hip young black people familiar with his recorded versions of pop hits. One evening a certain crusty jazz veteran noted for his musicianship and his acid critiques wandered in and sat scowling at the bar. When the set ended the scowl remained, but there was an announcement to no one and everyone in the gruffest of stage whispers.

“Cat can play.”

It was a benediction equivalent to a bushel of five-star reviews.

For reasons I have forgotten, I didn’t include the name of that musician in the notes. I see no reason why it shouldn’t appear now. It was Charles Mingus.

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  1. says

    Jazz purists often accused Grover W. of being a sell-out, but a majority of those nay-sayers never took the time to seek out his straight-ahead playing. Had they done so, the proof of his prowess and ability to swing would have been quite obvious. Case in point, here he is in 1999 at a small jazz festival in Philly with David “Fathead” Newman and the festival organizer, Tony Williams, as the other horns. (This Tony is a local Philly saxophonist and NOT the late, great drummer of the same name.) Four months after this concert, Grover did not survive a massive heart attack at the CBS Studios in New York City. Here’s the link:

  2. Mark Mohr says

    Mingus was right. Cat COULD play! And he loved letting his band play, too. Doug, where in the world do you find all these kick-ass videos? Amazing stuff. Eric Gale absolutely RIPS on this. The calmest looking guitar player ever. Grover Washington’s “Mister Magic” was the first song I ever played as a jazz disc jockey on my college radio station, KCSB-FM at U.C. Santa Barbara, and it was the last song I played as I signed off there for the last time. The Jazz purists recoiled at it, but I always loved this song and its great groove that had me bobbing my head. Esther Phillip covered Mister Magic. Jeff Golub covered this song, too…just heard it today on satellite radio. R.I.P. Grover, You were great. Thanks for posting this, Doug.

  3. TJ johnson says

    (In reply to Doug Ramsey) Sorry, but I meant the director (of the video I suppose)….. Donny Osmond.

  4. Bays Shoaf says

    Grover was my all-time favorite soprano player. Beautiful tone and technique. Alto and tenor are way up there too.

  5. Wayne Tucker says

    Some dismissed him as a fusion- or pop/smooth jazzer, but one listen to his later Columbia album, Then and Now and another whose title escapes me, proved naysayers wrong. Washington showed he had the straight jazz chops on both of those. I prefer them over his earlier recordings, but “Winelight,” “Mister Magic” and “Let It Flow” still sound solid today.

  6. David says

    For another side of Washington, check out his work with Randy Weston. I think he played on at least two of Weston albums, one arranged by Melba Liston and one by Don Sebesky. Here’s an example from the Sebesky one, Blue Moses: Washington’s solo starts at 6:05, but you probably don’t want to skip over the Freddie Hubbard solo that precedes it. (I’ve forgotten the name of the album arranged by Liston.)