Whenever saxophonist Kirk Whalum comes to Houston, Texas, it is just like a family reunion of sorts. As a product of Texas Southern University, a protégé of Arnett Cobb and a veteran of Houston’s local club scene, Kirk has a long and storied history in the city. In addition, he also has a strong and affectionate fan base as well. Since becoming a national recording artist during the 1980s, Kirk Whalum has performed in Houston numerous times; however, on the evening of February 26th and 27th, 2006, Kirk came back once again to pay tribute to an American hero, as well as help in an appreciation concert for supporting KHJZ 95.7 "The Wave." To assist Kirk in making the entertainment aspects of the performance even more special, keyboardist Brian Simpson came along for the ride. Both Kirk and Brian have recently released new albums, of which Simpson has the #1 CD on a number of national smooth jazz charts, Whalum’s latest recording re-visits the music of R&B balladeer Babyface Edmonds. Both recordings are released on the Rendezvous Entertainment Record Label, which is co-owned by saxophonist Dave Koz.
On the night of February 26th, the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Educational (D.R.E.M.E.) Science Literacy Foundation celebrated an American space hero. Dr. McNair was a crewmember on the 1986 ill-fated Challenger space Shuttle mission that blew up just 73 seconds after lift-off. As a part of the 20th anniversary recognition of that event and to celebrate the life of Dr. McNair, the D.R.E.M.E. Foundation kicked-off its first commemorative "Blast Off" gala at Space Center Houston. The foundation was established to foster Dr. McNair’s dream of promoting excellence in science and mathematics for youth. For the first ever celebration, McNair’s widow Cheryl, Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Nyota Uhura) and ABC Channel 13 newscaster Melanie Lawson hosted the evening. The significance of Nichol’s participation served as a reminder that she recruited Dr. McNair, Guion Buford, Judith Resnick, Sally Ride and a host of others into NASA’s astronaut program. For her efforts, Ms. Nichols has been honored with numerous awards, including the International Human Rights Consortium’s 2004 FETE d’EXCELLENCE Laureate. Other dignitaries in attendance included former astronauts Major General Charles Bolden, Jr., Dr. Mae Jemison, Capt. Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson and Capt. John W. Young. With participation from these individuals and approximately 500 guests, the gala proved to be a much-heralded success. Kirk Whalum and Brian Simpson provided a fitting ending to an affair that not only praised the educational and technical contributions of Dr. Ron McNair; it also placed smooth jazz into the forefront of an activity that recognizes excellence. The unfortunate aspect of the performance was the length of the night’s events, which led to an over extended evening. After 5.5 hours of paying homage to McNair, extended movies and speeches, guests and dignitaries did not adequately appreciate the musical entertainment. By night’s end, Brian and Kirk were observed playing to a less than appreciative audience, with only a few remaining jazz aficionados to witness the performance.
On February 27th, a totally different reception occurred in the University of Houston’s Cullen Auditorium. Hosted by Larry Jones and Donnie McKenzie, KHJZ 95.7 "The Wave" sponsored a concert whereby loyal "Wave" listeners were provided with an opportunity to see two of smooth jazz’s most prolific artists. As always, whenever Kirk comes to Houston it can be considered as a coming home party. But with Brian Simpson in tow, "The Wave’s Appreciation Day" concert was not just another homecoming celebration; Kirk’s visit was taken to an entirely new level of entertainment. The show was opened with a number of cuts from many of his previous releases, igniting the audience into a frenzy of singing, dancing and clapping. Kirk’s brother Kevin Whalum, who in his own right is a very talented vocalist, led the singing. His participation that night provided another side to Kirk’s performance. With songs from Whalum's newest celebrated release entitled The Babyface Songbook, Kevin’s vocalese was an event worth hearing. By the time Brian Simpson jumped into the mix, the crowd was definitely ready for his highly touted keyboard antics. As mentioned earlier, Brian’s latest CD entitled It’s All Good is #1 on the smooth jazz charts. As a charter member of the smooth jazz sound, Simpson has been clawing his way up the ladder of success for a number of years. His newest CD is the culmination of doing everything correctly to get to this highest level of recognition. Kirk, Kevin and Brian awed their captive audience with a myriad of specialized tunes, a few of which highlighted a multitude of influences. The uncommon aspect of their show was the exhibition of mainstream jazz, something of a novelty in most smooth jazz concerts. They not only highlighted their straight ahead jazz chops, Kirk, Brian and the band gave smooth jazz aficionados a different jazz look altogether. By the end of the evening, the crowd was well served with a good heaping helping of a great show, one that gave as much as was received.
Kirk Whalum’s visit to Houston with his cast of merry men was a definite boon to the city’s fledgling jazz scene. As evidenced by the lack of appreciation for the performance at the D.R.E.M.E. Foundation gala on February 26th, the city has long way to go towards acceptance of jazz as a viable form of entertainment. Too many times, artists and musicians have come to Houston with a fantastic show to do, only to be met with benign neglect or poor attendance. If jazz music is to continue as an entertainment outlet, the general public must support the genre's artists and musicians; if not, one of America's most unique art forms will disappear.