It's easy to understand why so many critics and listeners consider Grover Washington Jr. to be the father of jazz-pop saxophone. Back when David Sanborn was just another session player and Kenny G was still just Kenny Gorelick, Washington was enjoying Top-10 success through albums like "Mister Magic" and "Feels So Good."
But ask Washington (who is scheduled to take the stage at 8 p.m. as the headliner of tomorrow's BLAZZ Blues and Jazz Festival at Pier Six) if he thinks of himself in such paternal terms, and his reaction verges on incredulity. "The father?" he laughs, -- over the phone from his Philadelphia home base. "What about Louis Jordan?
"Well, folks speak from their own realm of experience," he says, shrugging it off. "I'm flattered they think of me in that way, but some of that is credit that I really can't take. You have to look at people like Louis Jordan. People like Cannonball Adderley -- he played music like 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy' and he played straight ahead jazz tunes like 'Janine.' He was what I call a complete musician, a real complete musician."
He goes on, naming off artist after artist who used jazz as a means of wooing the pop audience. Guys like Earl Bostic,
Ike Quebec, Illinois Jacquet. "Ramsey Lewis, my wife just said from across the desk, is an appropriate example," he says. "They tried to bury him when he came out with 'The In Crowd' and 'Hang On Sloopy' and all of those other things."
By "they," Washington means those purists who try to define what jazz is by declaring what it shouldn't be. This contingent has complained about pop jazz for decades, railing against the Louis Jordans, Cannonball Adderleys, and Grover Washingtons of the world. What "they" want is for music to remain frozen in amber, eternal and unchanging.
But that, to Washington's way of thinking, is dead wrong. "Music was never meant to stand still," he says. "That is one of the main reasons why I try to deal with a lot of different music. I don't want to be known as just a one-dimensional cat."
Washington, though, has an advantage in that regard, having grown up at a time when it was much easier for young musicians to experience a range of styles in their musical education. "When I was coming up, in the '40s and '50s, we were taught to be prepared for any kind of gig that came up.
"Like, our folks would play Prokofiev or Hindemith or Stravinsky, and follow that by some Gerry Mulligan, or Anita O'Day or Billie Holiday. And then follow that with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, or with Stan Kenton. And it was just to show us that there are many different styles of music, but the basics always stay the same."
It was a great way to learn music, he argues, but one which few of today's music students will ever experience. "There's less hands-on training like that," he says, regretfully. "When I was coming up, there was always a big band to sit in with. You could play first tenor, you could play fourth tenor, you could play first alto. You could feel what the music teachers were talking about through just the sheer practical application of your art.
"Now there's a lot of classroom stuff, which is good, but I miss the old Sunday afternoon jam sessions and the Blue Monday jam sessions and stuff like that."
Washington does what he can, though, to give these younger players a chance. "I go to a lot of schools, and I do master classes and stuff," he says. "That is the main thing that has helped the musician of today deal with the music of yesterday. You have to do your research into where the music came from if you want to take it to another musical place in the future.
"You have to have a working knowledge and a practical application of all of those artists that have come before you. And like the most important things to me, as far as any artist goes, is his own personal musical direction and the unique sound that each person that I listen to has.
"I had the good fortune to know Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Cannonball Adderley and Paul Desmond," he adds. "And when I look into the history of the music, I see how things haven't changed. Those people who I just named, they were completely down to earth. They were willing, like, to take their time to answer your questions. I think that is the most important thing about an artist's development, whether he is an established artist or just starting out.
"Every time that you go through the basics, every time that you stop and try to help somebody, you always wind up learning something yourself. And that's true whether it's somebody who's been playing for two years or somebody that's been playing for 30. It doesn't make any difference."
Blues and Jazz Festival
When: noon to midnight tomorrow.
Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion.
Tickets: VIP reserved seats, $100; reserved seats, $35; open seats, $25; lawn, $12.50.
Call: (410)659-0280 for information, (410)625-1400 for tickets.