For Kirk Whalum, there’s no difference between performing sacred music and secular music.
Whalum is a Grammy-winning saxophonist and an ordained minister. When he lifts the saxophone to his lips, he aims to touch hearts and stir souls. He doesn’t think of his audience as split between gospel music fans and jazz cats, he said.
“I think we’re mistaken to consider them two groups of people,” Whalum said. “But I have never felt inclined to separate those parts of my life.”
Whalum caps the Denton Black Film Festival’s music offerings with a 6 p.m. concert Sunday at the Murchison Performing Arts Center. He’ll perform with the University of North Texas One O’clock Lab Band as a guest.
Whalum is a pastor’s son who grew up in the black church, singing in the choir as soon as he was able to hold a note steady. Christianity and music were the water Whalum swam in throughout his formative years. You could say his faith got deeper along with his talent. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Whalum was instantly swaddled in the native anthems, grooves and lamentations nurtured in the streets and churches and perfected in the studios of Stax Records, the Memphis company that brought tectonic change to American music starting just two years after Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on the bus.
“When it comes to my faith,” said Whalum, who has a big catalog that blends gospel, jazz and pop, “I don’t know that anyone has ever been able to prove that we can be — that we can live — without being spiritual.”
Whalum said he first saw and heard the saxophone when he was a middle school student. The music teacher led a session of show and tell with the students. He left his best instrument for last, and Whalum still remembers the mellow sound that came from the sax. He started studying the instrument.
“My uncle played the saxophone, and I remember he came to visit from St. Louis,” Whalum said. “I think my parents asked me to show him my saxophone. I went and got it, and in my arrogance — I really thought I was better than him — I honked out a few notes. He said, ‘Well,’ and took the sax. He was like, ‘Let me see what I can do with this,’ and started playing. Of course it was beautiful. I knew I had some work to do.”
Whalum counts himself one of the luckier kids.
“A lot of other kids from the inner city never had the chance to see the instruments, let alone play them,” he said. “And that’s partly because after desegregation, a lot of good white Christians started private schools to sidestep integration. That kept a lot of kids from having the opportunity.”
When he got better at the saxophone, Whalum was drafted to accompany the church choir. It was a living laboratory for improvisation, he said. He didn’t start to feel like a skilled jazz musician until he went to college. He went to Texas Southern University, where he played with the Ocean of Soul marching band.
Out of college, Whalum was hired to play with pop-rock and R&B legends Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross. He developed a distinct sound, and his saxophone phrasing is at once conversational and melodic. Whalum said he’s always thinking of the human voice when he plays. He mimics the range and the dynamics. At a Grammy Awards watch party at Vandross’ house, the vocalist confessed: “You know, I don’t even really like the saxophone,” Whalum recalled.
“Everyone laughed, and I didn’t really know how to take it, to tell you the truth. But then he said, ‘But I like the way you play it.’”
Whalum has been called on to shape the accompaniment of Al Jarreau, Barbra Streisand and Quincy Jones. Whalum is a keen listener in the studio, but he’s a charismatic soloist. It’s possibly his series, The Gospel According to Jazz, that best showcases the depth and breadth of Whalum’s art. He’ll take a famous gospel chorus for a cool stroll, deconstructing it into neat curves and angles. Or he’ll suddenly take a match to a surprise jazz chord, rendering it an offering to the spirit of the moment.
Whalum is no stranger to the pressure the music industry puts on artists born and bred in the church. Success for church singers like Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston was spelled out in crossover careers that sidelined hymns and stymied call-and-response homilies. For Whalum, though, there’s never really been a need to pack away his church music training.
“When I went to seminary, I learned that that’s a very old debate — what actually is sacred and secular music, and should there be a separation? I don’t think there needs to be a separation,” he said. “You know, there really is a risk in purporting that. There are devout Muslims, devout Christians and devout Jews who would say yes, there is an enormous difference between making love to this music or bowing down to that music.”
Whalum said he tries to find the truth in both.
“There’s showing cariño as we say in Spanish, showing tender care between two individuals. That in itself is sacred,” Whalum said. “You can pervert either side of things. But I do believe that there is nothing unsacred about usual life. There are reams about the theology and dogma around this. I try to be a little stealthy when I introduce my faith into my music.”
Whalum is no purist when it comes to music, either. He counts jazz, gospel and hip-hop as dialects of the same musical language.
“I would posit that there is absolutely no daylight at all between jazz and hip-hop,” he said. “I’ve gotten lots of pushback on this. When Satchmo [Louis Armstrong] walked down the street in that certain way, when he played that certain way, that was black street culture. The way he dressed was about black street culture. Fast-forward now to Dizzy Gillespie calling people ‘cat’ [and saying] ‘hey, man, yeah cool.’ He wore a beret and he walked a certain way. It was an overall package. That was black street culture.
“When we buy hip-hop, we buy black street culture. And when we get to that point where everyone embraces and even in some cases appropriates black street culture, we’re all embracing that culture.”