Kirk Whalum Interview
By Andrea Williams, Terrence Richburg and Debbi Johnson © 2008

Kirk Whalum is probably one of the most inspiring figures in the world of contemporary Jazz and Gospel Jazz alike. He is on a devoted mission to live out the "Good News" around his fellow performers and before the world at-large, while accomplishing milestone after milestone within the Jazz industry. Whalum's appeal as a saxophonist, writer, arranger, producer and performing artist without question serves as a testimony of his unshakable heart--transcending the walls of the church and impacting a multitude of lives with a sense of transparency and unlimited spiritual power.

Kirk doesn't mince words, but tells it like it is, keeping it real, so that it isn't religion or even "the church" people experience, but rather the reality of a true-life relationship with the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. As clearly as expressed and conveyed in his latest musical offering, The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter III , let's now hear from Kirk Whalum in his own words in an interview JGC recently conducted with him and find out more about his life-changing music and convictions:

JGC: Obviously you've converged Jazz and Gospel together. Was that intentional? Was that something that you set out to do?

KW: It's not so much a merging of two things. In the truest sense of the word, it's more about using one thing as a means to another. You can say one thing is the end and the other is the means. The end is the Gospel - that people will encounter the Savior through this good news of reconciliation. The other thing is Jazz, and that's just the means. You can use art, you can use music, you can use preaching, whatever it is, the point is that people encounter Him. In our case, I believe Jazz is a truly undervalued means because of the fact that it's instrumental music. It's uniquely able to go beyond a person's mental faculties; the processing center. Lyrics of Christian music and Gospel music have to pass that gauntlet to get to people's souls. But, Jazz, on the other hand, can go straight to do its work and then people are left saying "Wow, what is this? I feel like I need to make this connection."

JGC: What has your experience been like witnessing to non-Christians? I'm sure there are so many people in the Jazz world.

KW: I'll say this, there are a lot of non-Christians in church. That's not a judgment. I just encounter so many precious people out here in the "world" where I work, in clubs and Jazz venues and theatres, so many precious people who have so much to offer and from whom we can learn so much. But, I am to share this unique relationship I have with the Lord Jesus and through Him with the Father. That is priceless, and I'm constantly humbled by that because you never really feel like you do it justice. Most of the time we don't, but at least in our case as musicians we are able to offer ourselves as doorkeepers - not keep people out, but to invite people in like the doorman at the hotel. That's how I see it. We're out there where the people are, and we're able to invite them in.

JGC: How do you feel about Gospel Jazz as a ministry, both within and outside the church?

KW: I'm very excited about it. From two points of view. One, I like seeing young musicians in the church striving for a higher level of excellence, of techniques, of creativity. That is exciting to me. I think that's an obscure ministry we have. You see this in artists like Paul Jackson, Jr., Jonathan Butler, and on and on. They are Jazz musicians who love Jesus. So, we're able to minister, as it were, to the choir. Just because you say you're a Gospel musician, that doesn't exclude you, that doesn't excuse you from striving for excellence. I think what happens in a lot of Black churches, in particular, they say "just play for the Lord, honey." That's like code for don't bother with private lessons, and sweating it out trying to get a Masters and getting out there in competition with the best of the best. Forget that; you play for the Lord. So, you get a hall pass. I say, "no." My Bible reads - talking about David - play skillfully. When I recorded "The Gospel According To Jazz" here in D.C. and George Duke played his rendition of "Because You Loved Me," it was in the spirit and people got blessed. But, guess what? The technique that the man exhibited, he didn't just get that playing in church. He got that studying, he got that in the school of hard knocks, he got that in the practice room, he got that out there on the road, he got that in college. He got that working it out, and I think that in itself is a ministry. That in itself is a worship. I tell young musicians if you really want to worship God, get in the practice room. To me that's pure worship. It's not saying hallelujah. It's like you're working scales. You're working exercises. You're practicing intervals. To me that's pure worship because you can't mess it up. You don't have to worry about theology. You don't have to worry about any of that. God accepts that, I believe, because it's your reasonable sacrifice. But a lot of these young musicians have not made that sacrifice. David said I will bring no offering that costs me nothing. But, they do it every day. They say "I'll just get up here and play". They get to rehearsal late, they miss rehearsal. You can't do that out in the world; you will not work.

JGC: Along those same lines, you were talking about the level of the experience, the level of playing. You've had an opportunity to work with the best jazz players, musicians, artists in the world. What kind of humbling experiences have you had with working with them, but also, who have you inspired?

KW: That's a good question. I have lots of stories of humility. I can even say of humiliation. That is a tell-tell sign of what this is all about. To me that's a microcosm of what it means to pursue God and to serve Him. Preachers will tell you this, too, if you ever get to the point where you ever feel like you're really doing something, go down the street. There's somebody who's preaching much better than you. I think as a musician, you're constantly faced with the fact that (a) horizontally, there's always somebody better than you; and (b) you don't dare compare yourself to the great musicians - I call them the great jazz musicians - because jazz is about improvisation and creativity. God is the god of improvisation, hope, something out of nothing. When it comes down to being humble, I'll just say, lately, just recently, I participated in a jazz workshop at a school in Salt Lake City. A couple of the guys who shared the stage with me, again, you talk about the best of the best. This one particular guy, Ed Calle , originally grew up in Miami. His technique is indescribable. He's just one of those people who's gifted with brilliant technique. It wasn't something he just woke up with, it started as a seed, and he just worked it. And, now when I stand next to him playing, I'm completely humbled. But, I was able to share with him from the standpoint of just loving God, walking with him and serving him. So, it's an exchange, but it's a very humbling exchange because (a) you don't have anything that God didn't give you and (b) you don't have anything particularly remarkable compared to somebody else. There's somebody who can do it better than you. As far as inspiring, I get a lot of young saxophone players who come up to me saying, "I'm looking to you." People say that my style or my technique of interpreting melodies helped shaped who they are. I think that's a beautiful compliment, and I think that is the way it should be. In my case, it was my uncle, somebody who did that for me. So, if I'm in line to continue this [jazz] music, then I, too, work my land as Proverbs says "to the point that someone is inspired."

JGC: You mentioned your uncle. I know you've been working with your family a lot. Can you tell me how that is? How that experience is musically and spiritually to be working with your son and some other family members.

KW: On the Gospel According To Jazz , I feature my son, two of my nephews, my uncle, my cousin, my brother. Like a lot of Black families, in particular, a lot of family's music is just in there and it's a part of the DNA, as it were. And, again, it's a seed.

JGC: Do you think that Jazz Gospel or Gospel Jazz has been accepted well? Have you seen it accepted well?

KW: It really has, and it constantly amazes me, especially when it comes to what we've just finished doing. When you take off the Jazz, I think you can say there's a cadre of artists and a product that is more a remake of a Yolanda Adams song or it's a saxophone playing a familiar hymn. That is great. But this is kind of different. On this record, Jazz has a pretty wide spectrum of what it does. On the left, you have Jazz that's very ethereal and avant-garde and very artsy and artistic in the sense that you don't pat your feet necessarily. It's an expression. A very profound, a very deep expression. And so, we get into some of that on this record. There's a song called "Ananias and Sapphira," which you can imagine. That's a pretty deep story. We go there, and the people are with us. A church filled with 3000 people, and they go with us. To me that says that we've been selling people short. We just assume they don't want this. It's over their head. No, it isn't, not if you do it well. People want that. They want the whole picture. Even some of those old sisters were sitting there said, "I'm feeling you." You're expressing something deep and profound. It's not, "Yes, Jesus Loves Me." It's something else, like, man, Ananias fell dead. I think it is well accepted, and I think it's going to be even more accepted. In smooth jazz, as they call it, where most of my records have been exposed in the last ten years, that format has been focused. It's a format out of which the life has been sucked because of demographers who say this is the target audience and this is sound we're going for -- trying to architect the format. And, people are saying, I don't like that. It looks like somebody was in my mailbox trying to read my mail so they try to send me something that they know I'm going to like. They don't know what I'm going to like. In essence, I think that Gospel Jazz, or whatever we call it, is vying for a whole new level of acceptance. Even amongst people who don't agree with your Gospel. Even amongst people who are not feeling your Jesus. They feel that you're passionate about it.

JGC: In jazz, are there a lot of well known Christians? What other Christians are you aware of in the world Jazz?

KW: Let me first of all say, not to be too deep, what does it mean to be a Christian? We know that's a huge thing. To say, I don't know if you're a Christian; and you don't know if I'm a Christian. I can tell you I love Jesus -- if that makes me a Christian. I know a lot of folk who are reaching for God, who are striving to know Him, who want to know Him, some of whom I believe do know Him, who are Jazz musicians. The name Abraham Laboriel is a name that not a lot of people know because he's been in the background. But, he in the last 30 years, has been the #1 called bassist in the studio scene. He's a guy who's played with everybody from Michael Jackson to Al Jarreau . He's the one who played bass on the "Al Jarreau Live in Germany" album. He's a guy who's just basically in the trenches who is just completely sold out for Jesus. He's also an amazing musician, an accomplished musician, in the studios playing on film scores. He's impacted the whole industry. Ask anybody in the industry about Abraham Laboriel. They will say, "Wow." Because of his walk with God. Not that he's out beating people over the head. I'll just use him as an example, because there are a lot of them.

JGC: Talk a little bit about your project coming up?

KW: It's hard to talk a little bit about it. You have to see it. But, just to say, in one sense it's a continuance of the series. There's a resemblance to the others. In another sense it's really, really different. Some of which I already talked about. Lalah Hathaway is amazing, there's an incredible reggae rap tune on there that we wrote for Africa. There's a lot of really crazy stuff on there. My uncle is 80, and he sings a Nat King Cole classic, "Smile," though your heart is aching. It's really profound, but it's not really "Gospel." It's just letting people know who Jesus is.

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JGC was there when Kirk Whalum unveiled his new project CD and DVD release of The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter III at Reid Temple, where he first recorded it. Both the CD and DVD are par excellent and Kirk delivered an awe-inspiring live performance, anointed and spiritually uplifting, which had Kirk and the audience crying together, as God's presence filled the "Temple." Whalum continues to climb to new heights with each new release in this amazing series and it is expected that each one to come will have audiences yearning for more and more in the future. Don't miss this exceptional chapter as the revelation of God's gospel is revealed through the "means" of Jazz.