Artistic Director Don Lucoff conducted this interview with Gerald Veasley recognizing the music of Grover Washington Jr.
Q: When Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell eulogized Grover at his funeral, he referred to him as Philadelphia’s global ambassador. You and I were present on North Broad St. near Temple University just prior to Christmas, 1999 along with many of the 76ers and Philadelphia musical royalty. Can you expound on the mayor’s feelings about Grover?
Grover had a deep affinity for Philadelphia, its cultural scene, its sports teams and of course its place in the jazz world. It was a place that nurtured his musicianship and launched his professional career. No matter where he traveled he was proud of spreading the word about Philadelphia.
Q: Set the band dynamics first. Your years in his group and who else took part during that time? I recall many were if not all Philadelphians and Bill Jolly was the MD?
I played with many Philadelphians throughout my tenure with Grover. The longest-serving member was Richard Steacker who had been with Grover since the Locksmith, “Live at the Bijou” days. My very first stint with Grover was a week at the Blue Note in NY on the heels of his Then and Now release. The album was a straight-ahead project which featured Ron Carter, Tommy Flanagan, and Herbie Hancock. For the Then and Now live shows, he used a Philly-centric group: Monnette Sudler on guitar, James “Sid” Simmons on piano (another Locksmith alumnus), and his brother, Daryl Washington on drums.
It’s important to note that Grover’s jazz roots were deep. He became successful with his special brand of earthy, groove-oriented music but he was undoubtedly a jazz musician. For example, he loved jazz standards and it was difficult to stump him if you questioned him song or album from the jazz lexicon. The fact that my first shows with him were primarily playing standards is not ironic, its fitting. Grover had a profound impact on my appreciation for all eras and flavors of jazz.
For most of the time I was with Grover the music director was Bill Jolly who was also the main keyboardist. We had other keyboardists: Philip Woo, Curt Dowd, Adam Holzman (NY), and Donald Robinson, who became the MD after Bill Jolly. The drum chair featured some strong players (often from New York): Steven Wolf, Richie Morales, and Keith Carlock The percussionists were Miguel Fuentes and later, Pablo Batista. With the exception of the Blue Note band, Richard Steacker was the sole guitarist during my years with Grover.
Q: What were a couple of your life learning takeaway’s from playing with Grover?
The most important thing I learned from Grover was to try to find a sense of balance in life. For example, he always put family first. When I asked him why his reply made a lot of sense to me, “Music is stories and family is where all the best stories come from.”
Secondly, I learned to play each performance as though it may be your last. Though this is a well-worn cliche, I got to experience it first-hand with Grover. I was with him the day he died. He literally played his heart out.
Q: Where do you place Grover in terms of influencing you and many of your colleagues coming up which was at the dawn of the Quiet Storm radio format?
I believe Grover’s most significant contributions were artistic. He achieved three things that are most coveted by true artists:
1) Personal Sound: Great artists can play one note and you know it’s them. They are identifiable. It’s true of Miles, Coltrane, Santana, B.B. King, and it’s true of Grover Washington, Jr.
2) Emotional Depth: Just because Grover’s music didn’t offer harmonic or melody complexity doesn’t mean it didn’t have depth. On the contrary, Grover music revealed an emotional depth that touched people in a way that jazz artists rarely do. People who didn’t “get jazz” could “get Grover” not because of simplicity but because of the emotional depth of his artistry.
3) Intentionality and Clarity: As an improviser, Grover was intentional about his note choices and phrasing. He understood the nuances of every sound he produced from his horn. The resultant clarity created improvisational storylines that fans could follow no matter how educated they ears were.
Sidebar: After Grover, I worked with Joe Zawinul for almost 8 years. Joe introduced me to the concept of “Miscellaneous” playing. He would bemoan musicians who did not know how to treat a melody or solo line with intentionality. Instead they would just engage in “finger work” or “miscellaneous playing”. Listening to music with an ear toward intentionality helped me more fully appreciate Grover, Thanks Joe.
Q: Grover was beloved in Philly by so many people across all cultural spectrums. I was fortunate to have served as his publicist for a brief time when we recorded with Columbia Records, and he related so well to his fans, industry and musicians. But above all he was loyal and fully committed to his family and his family of musicians. Can you provide some personal insight into Grover’s character and what made him the special human being that he was.
I think of Grover as a “king with a common touch”. He had a way of making anyone in his presence feel special. He was very generous with his time to fans and to up-and-coming musicians, as well.
It was typical for him to accept a CD that was given to him by someone after the show and play it immediately on the tour bus. I didn’t understand how after a full day of travel, sound check, show and autograph signing, he would take the time to listen to someone else’s music. His reasoning? “Everybody’s got something to say”. What he meant was that there was always something that could be appreciated in someone’s music and musicianship. That explains why in all the years I knew him, I never heard him say a negative thing about another musician. Not once.