When I first discovered vocal jazz, I believed that I was born too late. I should have been hanging out with Joe Williams in Chicago, trading rhymes with Jon Hendericks, singing all night in a Kansas City jam session; swinging and singing with Big Joe Turner or shouting with Jimmy Rushing. As I grew up some of them were still performing. I would get a chance to meet some and talk to them and actually perform with a few." Kevin Mahogany
Jazz has a rich tradition and a set of rules to go by, but it’s brand new with each artist. The artist interviewed is Kevin Mahogany. Kevin brings a fresh sound to jazz; a sound that feels good and you are sure to feel the romantic effect that his music has on you.
JazzReview: Everyone enjoys the sounds of Motown (especially reaching back in time or history). Why did you decide to select the Motown sound?
Kevin Mahogany: To be honest, a lot of it has to do with always having promoters/club owners and different people who hire me talk about bringing in a new audience. Once I started thinking about it. The only way to bring in a new or younger audience is to give them their own jazz, and for my generation, these are our standards. To the extent that the older music is fine, I still love doing the traditional standards, but that’s not our music. It’s our grandparents and parent’s music. These are the standards we grew up with. So, that’s what brought me to that music because now the way I look at it, I had someone ask me about DJs and who do you expect to play the music. I said, "Well anyone that’s my age, the DJs we have now can speak from their life experiences." As opposed to trying to tell the stories about Basie and Ellington; people whom they know nothing about. Any DJ my age or younger, or some even older of course, can tell stories about these people who they actually got to see and got to hear live and a lot of them are still alive.
So that’s one of the reasons why I decided to do these songs of course. The other is because I’ve always loved them.
JazzReview: Every last one of them is my favorite.
Kevin Mahogany: I like them all too. I was pretty selective also because the beauty of it. As a vocalist I’m not limited to the 30s, 40s, or 50s, where in so many of the tunes, the really good ones have been done to death already. Now I have a whole new area of music to reach out to, where if everybody decided to sing some of those same songs next year, I still have tons to pull out.
JazzReview: Exactly, there’s so many of them. I understand you play both clarinet and saxophone. Why did you decide to switch to vocals?
Kevin Mahogany: A couple of reasons: one, my clarinet was strictly traditional, meaning legitimate as they call it classical, Mozart, concert, band and orchestra. And as we know, there aren’t a whole lot of positions available for clarinet players. The saxophone was again the instrument I enjoyed, but it wasn’t a passion. I love playing in the section of a big band, but I would never consider myself a front man or a band with a saxophonist. I’ve often talked about picking it up again just for the fun of it, and doing a song or two maybe on an album, but that’s about it. I didn’t have the desire to play the saxophone like a true saxophone player does.
JazzReview: Combining jazz and Motown, you’ve developed an extraordinary sound in jazz. Was this something planned or did it just happen naturally? We both grew up on the Motown sound, but you’ve turned those favorites in to a jazzy/Motown sound.
Kevin Mahogany: To just take it and redo it as it was originally done, there’s no creativity in that. At the same time, if I’m going to do that, I might as well be in a wedding band to copy what has already been done. The objective of jazz is that creativity to take something that is so well known for whoever the other artist is and to make it your own. That is a true test of jazz creativity. That’s what I was trying to do. I wanted to still make it my own, but continue to be recognizable. I believe that’s not easy to do, but hopefully people will hear it.
There are a couple of songs people do not recognize right away until either I sing a bridge or sing the hook. The one that no one ever catches is "The Hunter gets Captured by the Game." That’s one that was a big hit by the Marvelettes, but a lot of people don’t really recognize it. It was more straight-up R&B. It was more for a black audience that wasn’t a pop crossover type of tune. They had a couple of other hits but as I said, it was more for the black audience.
That’s another reason why I chose this music; I would love to have more of my people come out to see me perform. I am grateful for those who see my performances. By giving them their music again, their standards, hopefully I can forge some of them to come out.
JazzReview: As a male vocalist in jazz, there are a lot of women in that arena. Was this difficult for you? The men in jazz seem to be older.
Kevin Mahogany: Even though there are a few mentors, as you said, they are much older. To break into the niche was not a problem. Everyone welcomes you, but sometimes getting steered into the right direction may be a problem. Many times I have problems with people returning my calls, when I just want to talk to them about music and what they’re doing. In fact, a couple of them I haven’t been able to get my calls returned. It’s not that it’s unfriendly. Sometimes you have to take care of yourself.
That’s one of the rules I’ve learned, but at the same time, there’s always been more women than men in this arena. I have a couple of theories. I don’t know if any of them are true or scientifically based, but backed in the 40s and 50s when those gentlemen were singing jazz, jazz music was the pop music of the times so it wasn’t actually called jazz for them. You hear about the male vocalist, but you don’t hear them being considered as jazz singers today. Like Billy Eckstein or Arthur Prysock. You don’t hear them being considered as jazz artist, but they were.
Now a days, it’s more lucrative for black males, in particular, to sing R&B as opposed to singing jazz. The difference between jazz and the other styles is jazz is all about longevity. All of the other guys have proved it, like Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, and Jon Hendericks. Jon Hendericks is still singing jazz. I just finish working with Jon Hendericks and he is 80 years old. You can sing jazz forever, but you can’t do that with R&B. They don’t want to see a 60 year-old man singing, "whip it, whip it," [laughter]. Again, look at my generation. Our popular stars were Luther Vandross, James Ingram, and Stevie Wonder. You don’t see many of them out there now, and they are not old. These guys are still in great voice. You do see them once in a while, but the young audience is not interested in them any more. That’s what happens unfortunately and that stands true for female R&B [vocalists]. The ones holding on are Aretha Franklin and Patti Labelle.
JazzReview: So, there’s longevity in jazz How did you get your start in jazz?
Kevin Mahogany: I started off in jazz as an instrumentalist, playing in the big band in Kansas City at the age of 12. That’s when it started for me. Hearing the vocalist with the big band and having the chance to hear them as well as playing, made it a little easier for me to slide into the position. I had other people at that time willing to help me learn what songs to sing and the things I had to do to get prepared to be jazz singer.
JazzReview: Is there any one particular song in "Pride and Joy" that you favor? I’ll tell you which one I favor. It was " Neither One of Us (Wants to be the First to Say Goodbye)." I wore out my CD [laughter].
Kevin Mahogany: That one is pretty popular, but it was popular before I did it obviously.
JazzReview: Your sound made it different.
Kevin Mahogany: Thank you. That’s another thing, everybody is so use to hearing a female sing their songs, so when you hear a male sing it, it brings a different prospective to it. I think my favorite is the last cut "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me"). I played that for Barrett Strong, one of the co-writers of the song up in Detroit. We played the whole album and when that song came on, he put his head down. Before it was over there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. That made me feel really good that I got what he really wanted out of the song. That was very important for me. These songwriters who are still alive deserve credit for bringing a whole generation of people, as well as music, to the forefront.
JazzReview: I’m sure you’ve been told that your sound reminds one of Joe Williams. Was he one of your earliest influences?
Kevin Mahogany: No, unfortunately he wasn’t. Everybody thinks that. My earliest influence was all R&B. From there I got to jazz vocals and a little bit later than most people would take. As I got to learn about it, I definitely got an appreciation for Joe, probably more so than most people because of the similar voice range. He was one of the last baritones that were singing. That’s another thing, there’s not too many baritone voices out there.
JazzReview: Do you have any specific advice you can give to an aspiring vocalist?
Kevin Mahogany: You have to be prepared at all times; you must be prepared whenever that opportunity arrives. You must have your tapes, demos, or whatever, ready. You have to have your pictures ready and be willing to sacrifice a lot. The only way to really, truly succeed in this business is it has to be such a desire, almost more than taking a breath. It has to be more to you than breathing. And believe me, I have taken stock in that a couple of times because there’s been times when I say, "I’m getting a little older and I can get a job with a pension and this and that a guaranteed income." You have to decide, do you want that? Will you be satisfied with that or would you be compromising? If you are true to yourself and you end up saying, "I just can’t live without this music," then you’re in the right place. That’s the only thing I would say because once you make that decision, that direction, it’s a lot of heartache ahead.
JazzReview: That is excellent advice because you have a lot of artist wanting to get into the business and getting discouraged early on.
Kevin Mahogany: That’s because they are choosing younger artist now. The record labels are signing them younger and it’s almost to the point once you reach 21or 22, you’re almost too old for the business. Obviously it’s sad because you don’t know what you’re going to be missing out on as far as new artists or great musicians that are coming out of high school or college.
JazzReview: Are you from a musical family?
Kevin Mahogany: In the sense that my mother had us all take music lessons, yes, but no one else continued on passed high school.
JazzReview: Is there going to be other CDs reflecting the Motown sound?
Kevin Mahogany: I haven’t decided yet. I would like to think I am going to continue in that direction for my own musical sanity [laughter]. That again is meshing or molding two sounds I’ve grown to love, so I feel I can’t go wrong. To me it’s not about record sales at this point, not anymore. It’s about doing the music I love and hopefully others will enjoy it too. So yes, I’m hoping to do more Motown. I want to also follow up with Staxx records. Everyone else has tapped into Stevie Wonder’s music; I want to do some of Smokey Robinson’s music. We have been in contact with Smokey in hopes that we can draw him into working on a project. My understanding, and I don’t know how accurate it is, I’ve heard he’s written somewhere over 700 songs. What I’d love to do is maybe do something new with him, but also see what he thinks wasn’t done justice to the first time around maybe come up with new ideas, new arrangements while being creative with new concepts on some of the same music that we’ve love for so long, such as "Tears of a Clown" that was on this CD. We ‘re hoping to get him involved in the project.
JazzReview: Prominent journalists have described you as "the standard jazz vocalist of your generation." This is a great compliment and I have to say it’s well deserved. How do you plan to maintain the standard?
Kevin Mahogany: That’s the thing, I didn’t say it [laughs] so I don’t have to back it up [more laughing]. If it falls off, it’s on them. They have to figure it out, they have to do what they can to make it up [more laughing]. I can only do one thing and that is do my best. As long as I’m doing my best, then I’ll be satisfied. I can’t live up to anyone else’s standards. I just have to do what I can do.
JazzReview: What else can we expect from Kevin Mahogany in the next 5 years?
Kevin Mahogany: I truly hope to continue singing, but I also want to continue to develop new artists for the future new jazz artists. I have been fortunate enough to have a teaching position at Berklee. I teach at Berklee here in Boston in an adjunct position. It’s a nice position where I can check out some of the future, to see what’s going on here and to work with them.
There are quite a few things I have planned in the works. I don’t know if everything will be successful, but I have to give it a shot. The object is to enjoy it while I can. I’ve written a play a couple of years ago. It’s a one-act play about a jazz singer. I wrote it while I was touring Europe and I’ve since decided to write a second and third act to it so I can do a trilogy--not the same story, but the same individual and see what happens. I’d like to write a text for my class that I teach up here. I think writing is probably my second passion.
I believe that all creative people have more than one passion or more than one creative talent. It took me a while to find mine, but it turned out to be writing. I don’t call myself a writer per se. I have to use it because it’s the only way I can describe what I’m trying to say, but I’m having fun with it.
JazzReview: Kevin Mahogany’s Pride and Joy give us a glimpse of time and some of Motown’s earlier recordings. He gives us a taste of jazz with an R&B flavor, a flavor that when you get a taste of it, there’s nothing else so sweet to your ear. After listening to "Pride and Joy," you know there are more exciting things to come from Kevin Mahogany.