Black Music Sunday: Remembering Grover Washington Jr.—’Mr. Magic’ himself

Tenor and soprano saxophonist and composer Grover Washington Jr. was born on Dec. 12, 1943, and joined the ancestors just five days after he celebrated his 56th birthday, on Dec. 17, 1999.

Some purist critics have disparaged his importance by pinning him as the founder of “smooth jazz” or “jazz fusion,” which in their opinions aren't jazz at all. Yet his album “Mister Magic” topped R&B and jazz charts while making waves in the pop genre as well.

Washington will always be honored as a musician that brought millions of fans to the music. And so it is only fitting that we also explore and celebrate Washington’s jazz and funk contributions to Black music history. 

He deserves the title “Mr. Magic.”

”Black Music Sunday” is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With nearly 190 stories covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack. I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.

Washington’s biography, by Greg Mazurkiewicz for Musician’s Guide, covers his early years.

Born in Buffalo, Washington was encouraged to take up the instrument by his saxophonist father. He was barely in his teens when he joined a local R&B group, and, at 16, began five years of working with the Four Clefs. He then freelanced for a couple of years and played saxophone during his military service before settling in Philadelphia in 1967.

That city had a reputation for clubs that jumped to the sound of the Hammond organ, and that may have been behind his first break. Another case of last-minute substitutions saw him summoned by Charles Earland in 1971 to the Key Club in Newark, New Jersey, where the organist was about to perform a live date. The album, Living Black, contains the outstanding version of Killer Joe, on which Washington's forthright opening tenor solo does so much to create the right ambiance.

Already a mature soloist, with a command of the high register that became something of a trademark, Washington's success with Earland led to several similar recordings, including those led by organist Johnny Hammond Smith. After the success of his own Kudu albums, he finally gave up a day job wholesaling records and became one of the stars of a circuit that involved the likes of George Duke, Bob James, Marcus Miller and Steve Gadd, generally filed under a crossover or fusion heading.

Here’s that 1970 recording of “Killer Joe”:

Washington’s first album, “Inner City Blues,” was released on Kudu Records in 1971. Thom Jurek at All Music provides some background on the album’s creation in his review.

The story behind Grover Washington, Jr.'s first session date as a leader revolves around a sheer coincidence of being in the right place at the right time. The truth is, the date for Creed Taylor's Kudu imprint was supposed to feature Hank Crawford in the soloist's chair. Crawford couldn't make the date and longtime sideman Washington got the nod. His being closely affiliated with organists Charles Earland and Johnny Hammond didn't hurt, and his alto and tenor saxophones' tone was instantly noticeable for both its song-like quality and Washington's unique ability to dig deep into R&B territory for his expression of feeling. Released in 1971, produced by Taylor, and arranged and orchestrated by Bob James, the list of players in this band is equally impressive: James played Fender Rhodes, there's Richard Tee on organ, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Idris Muhammad, then-new guitarist Eric Gale, percussionist Airto Moreira, Thad Jones and Eugene Young on trumpets, trombonist Wayne Andre, and baritone saxophonist Don Ashworth. James also added a violin section and a small vocal chorus on certain tracks.

Inner City Blues kicks off with its title track, a burning version of the Marvin Gaye tune with Washington lending a heft and depth to it that reveals the sophistication of Gaye's original.

Here’s that title track!

Yet it was Washington’s fourth album, 1974’s “Mister Magic,”  that was a commercial success, soaring to the top of jazz, soul, R&B, and pop charts. Here’s Washington performing the album’s title song, “Mister Magic,” live in concert on  June 27, 1981, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Just listen to the roar of applause once people realize what song they’re about to hear.

In 1976, Washington moved in a different direction, as All Music’s Thom Jurek’s A Secret Place review explains.

Tenor and soprano saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. was faced with an almost impossible task in 1976: following up his two [1974 and 1975] critically acclaimed and wildly successful commercial recordings Mister Magic and Feels So Good. Both recordings crossed over to R&B on the radio and on the charts.


Washington could have gone the easy route and followed up his R&B chart success with a series of uptempo, rousing tracks that leaned heavier on funk -- in the style of the title tracks of both the previous albums. But he went in a different direction, at least partially. 

Here’s the full album:

In 1980, Washington released his hit album Winelight, which garnered him the 1982 Grammy for Best Jazz Fusion Performance. His collaboration with Bill Withers, on the iconic “Just The Two of Us” won the 1982 Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Song.

That’s so nice, gotta play it twice—this time with video of Bill Withers performing!

RELATED STORY: RIP, but remember: We will always have Bill Withers' music to lean on

Jakob Baekgaard at All About Jazz reviews the Columbia Records box set of Washington offerings, which includes vocalists.

Grover Washington Jr.: Sacred Kind of Love: The Columbia Recordings

His versatility is sometimes overlooked, but it shines through in a box set like this. When he plays jazz standards, he might add a big band orchestral flourish as he does in his reading of "When I Fall in Love," or he can do a pared-down-to-the essentials approach on "Nature Boy," where his gift for playing a melody comes to the fore. He can also do a playful electro take on Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." When it comes to vocalists there are elements of jazz, R&B and even a brief rap and he enlists singers as varied as Jean Carne, Phyllis Hyman, B.B. King and Freddy Cole. There is also a bit of Latin rhythm and bossa nova and Washington gets away with it all and still creates coherent albums with a distinctive sound. His sidemen include pianists Herbie Hancock and Hank Jones, bassist George Mraz and drummer Billy Hart. Sacred Kind of Love: The Columbia Recordings is a good place to start to grasp the quality and diversity of Grover Washington's music. A bonus: the box comes with thorough notes and bonus tracks. To quote one of the titles in the set, "Check Out Grover."

Here, Washington performs “Sacred Kind of Love” with Phyliss Hyman on “It's Showtime at the Apollo” in 1991:

It’s almost Christmas! Tune in next Sunday for a Christmas Eve jazz celebration. Here’s a lovely version of “Mary’s Song” that Washington recorded with Lisa Fischer. It’s from the 1997 “Breath Of Heaven: A Holiday Collection” album.  

From 1967 onward, Washington made his home in Philadelphia, where a mural honors his contribution to the city:

Continuing to celebrate the legacy of famed saxophonist, Grover Washington, Jr. through the Tribute to Grover Washington mural by Peter Pagast! #blackhistorymonth | 📍: Broad and Diamond Streets | 📷: @steveweinik

— Mural Arts (@muralarts) February 6, 2020

Ronald Atkins wrote in Washington’s 1999 obituary for The Guardian:

When not touring, Washington often helped young musicians in Philadelphia. His most recent big hit was the Next Exit album of 1992 that included Summer Chill, co-written by his son and nominated for a Grammy. Some of his higher profile gigs of recent years involved playing for President Clinton, who joined him on saxophone after one concert and said how honoured he felt to share the stage.

Washington's final TV show was broadcast on CBS the day after he died. He is survived by his wife Christine, a daughter and a son.

Here is the video documenting that last performance.

RIP, Mr. Magic.

Join me in the comments section below for more of Washington’s magic and as always, please post some of your favorites.