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Sudden Death of Fusion StarCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Washington, GroverThe sudden death of the hugely successful jazz-fusion artist Grover Washington, Jr, has shocked both the jazz and pop music communities. The saxophonist won a huge following well beyond the confines of the jazz audience for his smoothly accomplished soul and rhythm and blues crossover style, and his gorgeous approach to tone was the key influence behind a subsequent wave of so-called "smooth jazz" saxophone stars like Kenny G, Najee, Gerald Albright, and the late George Howard.
Washington collapsed shortly after taping a performance for The Saturday Early Show on Friday. He was rushed to hospital but pronounced dead on arrival. In a slightly eerie echo, his death came only a week after on one of his early mentors, organist Charles Earland, also died suddenly following a concert performance.
He was born into a musical family, and was encouraged to take up saxophone as a child by his father, who played the instrument. He was exposed to his father's prodigious jazz record collection, and recalled hearing the likes of organist Jack McDuff and saxophonist Harold Vick in local clubs when he managed to evade the doorman's watchful eye. He played in local rhythm and blues groups while in school, and was still in his teens when he joined his first professional group, The Four Clefs, in 1959, and toured with the band until 1963.
Following a spell of freelancing and military service, where he played in the same army band as fusion drummer Billy Cobham, he moved to Philadelphia in 1967, and lived in the city for the rest of his life. He worked in local clubs for a time, and began building a growing reputation which was consolidated when Charles Earland hired him when passing through the city.
When his regular tenor saxophonist was unable to make a recording date, Earland called Washington as a late replacement, allowing the saxophonist to make his recording debut as a soloist on the organist's Living Black album for the Prestige label in 1970.
If he was still an unknown at that point, Washington was about to make his mark. He was hired by another organist, Johnny 'Hammond' Smith (sometimes known as Johnny Hammond), and performed on the successful Breakout . His big breakthrough arrived in 1971, however, and once again revolved around a late change of plans in the studio.
Producer Creed Taylor had lined up a recording for saxophonist Hank Crawford, but at the last minute the intended star of the date was forced to call off. Taylor had already been impressed by Washington's playing, and planned to give him his own recording in any case. With the musicians in place, the producer decided that rather than scrap the session, he would feature Washington instead . The result, Inner City Blues , remains one of the saxophonist's best records, and established him as a major emerging star in the formative stages of jazz-soul-funk fusion.
Washington was still working in a record store at the time to supplement his income, and later recalled the odd experience of unpacking copies of his own record. The album was released on the Kudu label, and was followed by further albums in a similar vein for Kudu and Motown, including All The King's Horses (172), Soul Box (1973), Mister Magic (1973), and Feels So Good (1974).
His combination of a technically impressive playing style rooted in mainstream jazz with a fusion concept which owed more to soul, funk and disco, found a willing audience. Sophisticated but highly accessible, his records sold in the kind of quantities few jazz artists achieve. He signed to Elektra, and his debut for the label immediately provided his biggest hit in his collaboration with soul singer Bill Withers on the latter's song 'Just The Two Of His'. The single reached number 2 in the US singles charts in 1981, while the album from which it was taken, Winelight , reached number 5 on the US album charts.
Washington continued to record in his trademark crossover style, with further releases on Elektra and Columbia, including Strawberry Moon (1987), Time Out of Mind (1989) and Soulful Strut (1996), but also returned occasionally to his roots in a less adulterated straightahead jazz style, notably on the album Then and Now (1988) and the rather more lushly arranged All My Tomorrows (1994).
Although he often seemed to be playing well within his capabilities on his more commercial material, he remained a very able jazz performer, and adhered in all his work to the well-established jazz dictum that a solo should, in his own words, "always strive to tell a story, and to portray my inner feelings". While he acknowledged the influence of the great jazz saxophonists on his playing, he ascribed his emotive way of phrasing ballads to listening to singers rather than instrumentalists.
He was equally comfortable on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, and occasionally played baritone as well. He recorded in many different settings as a guest artist, and took part in a celebration of jazz at the White House in 1993, playing alongside the likes of Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis. He was also invited to participate in an event at Radio City Music Hall in 1996 in celebration of the 50th birthday of another saxophone player, President Clinton.