Kirk Whalum Brings the Gospel Through Jazz

Jazz great Kirk Whalum is in tune with the gospel.

By Dennis J. Freeman

Music and faith are both intertwined in Kirk Whalum’s world. One can’t be without the other. He received his first music education in the church. His baptism in faith simply became part of his life as he would sit in the pews and listen to his father preach sermons on Sunday mornings.

For years Whalum has been spreading the message through his music, using his tenor saxophone as his invisible pulpit. His career has largely benefitted from playing smooth jazz. Albums such as Cache, Colors, Joined at the Hip and The Promise, have put Whalum at the forefront of today’s smooth jazz scene.

But the Whalum sound is not without spirituality and faith connected to it. Whalum’s Gospel According to Jazz series attests to that. Whether it’s playing jazz or gospel, Whalum’s music comes from being in tune with a higher authority.  

“My core base is a group of people who, at the very least, are open to the gospel message,” Whalum said in a phone interview. “I never really concerned myself doing gospel music. The form of the music that I play has a whole more to do with jazz than with the genre of gospel. It (gospel albums) was more of another vehicle to communicate or deliver the message of the gospel. The gospel is eternal. It’s a musical and spiritual progression.”

But there is no real definitive sound that anyone or anything can pigeon-hole the jazz legend in. That’s because the internationally acclaimed saxophonist produces the type of music that every genre can relate to. His music defies borders or limitations.

Whalum, who is scheduled to perform in concert next Friday with Keiko Matsui at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, describes his music as a journey where he is orchestrating his spiritual faith.

Whalum says the award-winning music he’s been able to churn out is a result of his strong-rooted faith and a reflection of the universal language that music presents itself to be.

“It’s a stream, a river that invites everybody in,” Whalum said. “It’s a gentle stream that is welcoming that whatever your color is, whatever your background, invites you in. It’s a language that you kind of relate to. Lately, I’ve just been in tune with that a little bit more.

“So this stream of African culture and beauty speaks to us in a particular way, and draws into it everyone who is willing. My music has everything to do with that. My first musical memories were in the church.”

BWB: Norman Brown, Kirk Whalum and Rick Braun form the trio “BWB” group. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/

Embedded in the church, influenced by artists like the Jackson 5 and Chaka Khan, and enthralled by the legendary sounds put out by the STAX recording label, the Memphis, Tennessee-born Whalum developed the urban, spiritually-gritty sound that only he can make. World-renowned pianist Bob James liked what he saw and heard from Whalum when he discovered him in Houston.

From there, Whalum’s career has gone on a trajectory course that only a few artists can comprehend. He has earned 11 Grammy nominations and multiple nods from the Dove Awards and the NAACP Image Awards. He has worked alongside and collaborated with industry giants Jonathan Butler, Quincy Jones, Barbara Streisand and Al Jarreau in the wake of recording 25 albums in his stellar career.

During his career, Whalum has reached across the musical genre aisle and covered the works of soul crooners Donny Hathaway and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and created crossover success with his gospel series, including playing the sax on Butler’s monster hit, “Falling in Love with Jesus.”

Despite all of the success, Whalum remains humble. His biggest joy comes knowing that people take the time of their day to put on their clothes and drive to see him play that Whalum calls the biggest highlight of his musical journey, a path he embellishes as his spiritual walk.

“As a Christian, I do find myself retreating to a space where I am worshipping God,” Whalum said. “I am worshipping the Savior through my particular contribution in gospel/soul/jazz saxophone. That would probably be a better way of defining my sound.

“When I am performing live, even in the studio, I tend to retreat into this world where I am worshipping God. That’s a place where I find the creativity at. That’s where the beautiful notes are. The interesting rhythm…all those things are in that place that we can retreat to enter as children of God and to be able to connect with God in that moment.”

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