Kirk Whalum, Grammy Award-winning jazz musician. (Facebook Photo by Anna Webber)
WASHINGTON — Kirk Whalum, the Memphis-born, Grammy Award-winning jazz musician whose saxophone has accompanied and legendary singers Whitney Houston, Barbara Streisand, Al Jarreau and Luther Vandross, guitarist Larry Carlton and music producer Quincy Jones, is back with a new album/docu-musical entitled The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter IV.
“The Gospel According to Jazz is about the radical hospitality of the creator, God, and the welcome that he has gone out of his way toissue to every human being,” Whalum said during an interview during his recent visit to the Washington area. “It’s a creative way of presenting that.”
This new installment, which follows three other highly successful “Gospel According to Jazz” albums, combines concert film with a documentary that addresses some pressing contemporary issues, including healthcare, homelessness and gun violence with what Whalem said is Christian love, peace, and redemption.
“I think Jesus would be very upset about a volunteer policeman accidentally killing someone, or a policeman in South Carolina shooting somebody in the back as they’re running away as if they’re some kind of animal,” Whalum said, referencing the recent shootings of unarmed black men Eric Harris and Walter Scott.
It was gun violence that inspired him to cover this topic in his work, he said. It was the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and 6 adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“For me it was more so the demographic,” he said. “It was little kids. It could have been any color kids. Something about that setting where you’ve got little kids in their little elementary school and someone comes in with an assault weapon. That is what really just got me going.”
The events at Sandy Hook have made him question one of the tenants of the Constitution.
“How can we say that is fundamental to our culture as a country?” he mused. “I question if everyone should be able to bear arms, and not even get into assault weapons. They would classify me as radically left. I don’t think that’s left at all.”
Whalum has moved back to Memphis, where he said he enjoys volunteering helping the homeless.
“I endeavor to live in solidarity with the marginalized,” he said. “In my lane, it happens to be homeless people. I’m a volunteer barber at a place called Manna House in Memphis.”
Founded in 2005, Manna House offers homeless people access to showers, clothing, gently used walking shoes, and of course, haircuts three days a week.
“We share humanity,” he said. “It’s not about us giving charity, which is a downward motion. It’s more like I am endeavoring to create a space where we can all give.” Whalum says, describing the way he shares his grooming skills in exchange for the chance to learn from someone’s incredible story, for example.
Some of the stories he has learned and some of the people he has met have influenced his music.
His new album includes tributes to some of Whalum’s family, friends, influencers and heroes, including Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama, the late bassist Waymon Tisdale, composer and singer Curtis Mayfield and saxophonist John Coltrane.
It also includes keyboardist George Duke, who performed on the three previous installments of The Gospel According to Jazz, but died before he could contribute to them most recent album.
The second song on the album is Whalum’s rendition of Paul McCartney’s hit song “Let ‘Em In.”
“That song is axiomatic to what it is to issue forth the welcome for people to know their God,” Whalum said. “He does not want you to jump through any hoops. God does not have a form for you to fill out. There is no purity test.”
It’s all a part of what Whalum calls the “radical welcome of God,” which he said is the central theme of his latest musical feat.