When one speaks of saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., considered by many to be one of the finest contemporary jazz saxophonists of his time, the word "legend' has to come to mind. His impact on the jazz world has been long-lasting and has influenced any number of today's up and coming musicians. For more than 30 years, Grover's influence not only stretched the boundaries of contemporary, soul and smooth jazz styles, it also pushed the envelope of pop and R&B music as well. His crossover approach introduced an appeal seldom seen by conventional standards; yet, his quiet cool demeanor remained intact despite his immense popularity.
With his passing in December of 1999, somewhat of a vacuum has become apparent in trying to close the gap between contemporary jazz, popular and R&B music. During the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, Grover amassed a myriad of fans who returned to jazz after the tumultuous 1960s. During that time, the genre was devastated by the advent of the so-called free jazz movement. As one examines Grover's phenomenal impact on modern day music, a lot can be said for an individual who may well have brought jazz back from the brink of its demise. For that reason, Washington's contributions are just as significant as those of Count Basie, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. By and large, each in their own way changed the face of jazz. Some believe Grover's influence places him in the category of a legend. In recent years, an attempt has been made to elevate the conciousness of jazz connoisseurs with a lasting tribute to Grover Washington, Jr. by presenting a series of annual concerts simply titled 'Groovin' For Grover.' What has now become somewhat of a franchise tribute to one of jazz's finest, a new generation of saxophonists get together once a year to pay homage to the "father of popularized jazz."
The 2005 Houston edition of 'Groovin' For Grover' featured Gerald Albright, Jeff Lorber and Kirk Whalum. Each in their own way have been affected by Grover's music. They spoke fondly of the tremendous impact he had on them as musicians. In fact, they considered it an honor to come together for such a fitting tribute. Collectively, Gerald, Jeff and Kirk have all performed with Grover at one time or the other; therefore, they knew the musician as well as the man. In addition, the audience attending the Verizon Wireless Theater received a double treat, they had an opportunity to see and hear three of jazz's best playing not only their music, but Grover's as well. They also got to see one of the most prolific drummers around today in Ricky Lawson, a solo recording artist in his own right. For more than two hours, the trio of merrymen ebbed and flowed through numerous cuts that reflected a history seldom heard by today's standards. One of the characteristics of Grover Washington, Jr. was the infusing of funk across unfamiliar lines; as such, his music was able to grace the hallowed airwaves of more than one type of genre. That being the case, funk was in full accord from the onset with Whalum's rendition of "Knucklehead," followed by continued offerings from Albright and Lorber on the same note. That was just a start-up of things to come. What began as a teaser soon evolved into one of the finest concerts seen by Houstonians in a number of months. The first half of the show was a variety of tunes that have been recorded by Gerald, Jeff and Kirk as solo artists, but the second half of the performance was all Grover Washington, Jr.
The 'Groovin' For Grover' concert series is more than a mere tribute to a great musician, the show is also a view of the past, present and future of jazz. Along with the concert comes jazz in a variety of flavors, music that is free of the mundane attitude often taken by smooth jazz radio stations. Audiences get to see the marriage of jazz with other musical genres. That was the relevance of Grover Washington, Jr.'s contributions. He had the ability to mesh the familiar with the unfamiliar in a very entertaining and unique manner. Grover's music was so versatile, one could dance to, hum to and reflect upon it without feeling the least bit uncomfortable. That was a major part of Grover's appeal. To see Gerald, Jeff and Kirk weave their musical web of excitement onstage, one truism was definitely in full effect: "Grover Washington, Jr. was and will always be Mr. Magic." With that being said, generations of fans old and new will continue to be mesmerized by the music Washington has left the world to enjoy.