2021 Introduction: With the November release of the 5-CD box set of the late musical maestro Grover Washington, Jr.’s Elektra recordings, it seems timely to check out a 1979 in-depth interview David Nathan conducted with the pioneering musician in his Philadelphia home…
Grover Washington Jr – The Man
By David Nathan
In person interview at Grover’s home in Philadelphia…
By way of many fine recordings and countless live performances, Grover has become acknowledged as one of the decade’s most talented musicians. But what of the man behind the music? From the comfort of his own home, Grover talked to David Nathan about his family life, his relationship with his audiences and his plans for implementing a scholarship programme for young musicians.
WE’RE sitting in the living room of the home of one of innovators and fore-runners in the form of music that’s become popularly known as “crossover jazz” or, as its tabbed in some places, “jazz fusion”. Grover Washington Jr. is relaxing for a few minutes in the spacious surroundings and everything around him indicates that this is the home of a creative personality.
A Yamaha piano, the original painting from Grover’s debut Elektra album, “Paradise”, a general artistic flair to the room that pervades the whole house. Above all that, you realize that this is the home of a family man. Grover, wife Chris and children Grover III and Shana, respectively aged 10 and 3, have been living here on the outskirts of Philadelphia, about twenty minutes from the centre of the city and it’s been home for about four years now. Right now, Grover’s having his basement re-organised so it can be turned into a meeting place for him to conduct business in as well as a retreat from the pressures of the business.
It’s evident that Grover cherishes the stability of a family home life so our first line of questioning with this master of the saxophone naturally centred around the balance necessary for maintaining an on-going career in music and a family life. “There’s no doubt that the relationship can be strained if you don’t have your priorities together. Everyone is different and for me, ‘paradise’ is your family and friends. That, plus contributing through music to culture. It’s so easy to get sidetracked in this business and you can let certain things suffer if you’re not careful.”
When it comes to friends in particular, Grover states: “It’s important that friends treat you primarily as people — not as ‘stars’. Of course, it all depends on how close you let people get. Sure, we have some friends who are also entertainers — but schedules seldom permit us to get together. People like Dexter Wansel, Patti LaBelle — who live here in Philly also. but you know, when you spend so much time around music, a lot of times you want to be totally away from it with friends and that’s hard to do with other entertainers. So a lot of friends may be outside that — especially basketball players!”. More about Grover’s passion for that, later!
He notes, when asked about how being an entertainer affects his children, “…now they seem to understand better…because they’ve seen more about what’s involved. But I’ve missed quite a bit in not seeing them grow up totally, although we’re making more time available now for me to spend in Philly, as I get into doing other projects.”
Grover feels that he’s at a point where expansion is definitely on the cards. “Naturally, in order to stop becoming stagnant, one must get off into other areas and that’s what we’re doing. I’d like to get into film scores, maybe do something with a concert orchestra and put energy into a production company to work on producing other acts. It’s important to keep away from that ‘formula’ syndrome of just touring and recording that so many people do year in and year out.” Grover admits that it’s possible “to become bored…but I’ve always maintained an attitude that you must give your best in whatever you do. Whether you’re doing “Mr. Magic” for the millionth time or recording a new album, it’s all about doing your best. In live performance for instance, we try to take the audience with us, get them into the music. That way it ends up not being just another gig for us.”
Speaking of audiences, Grover notes that “we have more of a cross section now. Originally, it may have been 75% black and 25% white but now it’s 100% people. I attribute that to the way the industry has broadened out, making music available to more different markets. I’d say that we’re fortunate in that our audiences have stayed with us since “Inner City Blues” (Grover’s initial Kudu album) but they’ve expanded because people have become curious and music’s mixed now more than ever. I’d say the way record companies have concentrated on artist development has been a big help because it’s no longer just about one hit album. It’s all about careers.”
Grover feels that with his audiences following him avidly “they’ve become like friends to us, we’ve gotten to know people over the years. We’ve constantly been building and I think we’ve been fortunate to build a consistent reputation because people see that we’re about more than just good music — we reach out to people, to make friends with them.”
Reflecting back momentarily, Grover states that he learned early in his career that “it’s not just about going out there, saying hello, playing your music and then splitting. People must feel a warmth, that you’re a living person. Over the years, too, I’ve seen what audience ‘adrenalin’ can do for you — especially when you’re real tired. They can push you on and up, really give you that extra energy.” He stresses that even in recording “it’s important to capture that particular kind of warmth, the feeling that you’re a human being, that you’re playing the music for each individual listener. It’s so easy to become self-indulgent, musicians do it all the time. but you must be relaxed enough to express what’s inside without that self-indulgence.”
Along with the fact that Grover’s been getting more and more involved with producing himself, he’s been able to express more and more of what’s inside: “Producing allows me more flexibility naturally. But I don’t have to worry about not being objective, because I have a lot of opinions to draw from — all the people around me. I’m not foolish enough to think that I can’t make a mistake. And I’m lucky because all the people around me have good ears.”
Grover also doesn’t feel the need to cut himself off musically from what everyone else is doing. “It’s essential to see what other people are trying to say with music. You can learn a lot from listening to other people’s music.” That in itself has been part of Grover’s approach to music since he began his career back in Buffalo, New York — which we ruminated has also been the home of many other musically-inclined individuals. “Buffalo was home and when I was young, I’d go check out the clubs — see the folks who’d come from Philly and New York City. it was always healthy because older performers would want to help the younger ones like myself — and we had a lot of exposure to good people because Buffalo was on that circuit going up to Canada so a lot of people would pass through. But these days, I find young people have even more outlets and inroads to express their musicianship. Plus people are even able to go to school these days to learn about the music business – something I had to do the hard way. So, nowadays, you can really stay on top of it all if you decide to make music your career.”
The genial gent is quick to attribute much of his success thus far to his wife, Christine. “When I first started as a solo performer, my main priority was learning how to communicate with an audience and I didn’t know anything about the business per se. But Chris’ knowledge of business and specifically, the music industry has helped us see the light together. “We started out with a five-year plan and we did it in four and throughout we’ve been considerate of each other as people, throughout all the trials and tribulations” — an obvious reference on Grover’s part to some of the hassles that ensued with Grover’s involvement with CTI and that company’s eventual sale of recordings to Motown and all the legal aspects of that. But Chris is involved in all aspects of my career and she’s a real unselfish person — that isn’t just because she’s my wife either!”
With the couple working together with Mr. Washington’s career, it would seem almost inevitable that their offspring would also follow in the same field. “Grover III’s reluctantly playing piano right now because frankly, he’s much more of a sports enthusiast. Whilst Shana (after whom Grover penned a tune of his Elektra album) just goes to the piano, plays and sings, turns over the pages of music as if she’s really into it! Our main thing is to encourage the children to do their best at whatever they do. I don’t think they’ve found it’s a problem having an entertainer as a father because we make sure that the children are around the right stimuli so that they’re not treated as ‘special’ just because one of us is a musician.”
Eventually, when Chris joins us, our discussion leads to one of the Washington’s favourite subjects: basketball! Grover’s been playing the anthem for Philly’s 76s for nine games now and it seems that the team feels he’s a good luck symbol for them. Grover and Chris contend that “there are a lot of parallels between entertainers and basketball players which is probably why we all get along so well. In fact, we believe most basketball players are frustrated entertainers!” and we got the impression that Mr. Washington Jr. might also be a frustrated basketball player — he’s erected a net in his garden and apparently he and Grover III who describes himself as an “aspiring basketball star” will be getting in some serious practice. “We played The Crusaders one night when we were working with them and they beat us hollow! And we also played against Teddy Pendergrass and The Jacksons — they were really pretty good! But we beat them this time!”
WITH a cut-back in his touring schedule (“I’ve done the circuit so many times that it’s almost to the point of overkill”) planned so that going on the road “can become an occasion again”, Grover intends to spend more time in Philly, working particular projects and Chris adds that “we want to get to the point where Grover’s doing maybe two or three months work and special events rather than just regular concerts all the time”. Plus Grover will be doing some session work for friends — he’s guesting on upcoming albums by Eric Gale and Ralph McDonald for instance — and says he always enjoys doing sessions with fellow artists.
More time in Philly will also give Grover the opportunity to implement a special scholarship program for young musicians which he’s in the process of putting together. He feels that with the signing to Elektra, “I’m going to feel comfortable at last with a company who will be putting total effort behind what we’re doing. Once we’ve got our mutual ground rules and there’s been a meeting of the minds, I think the relationship is going to be a good one.”
Immediate plans call for Grover to tour major cities in the US in June and July, culminating in a trip to Europe which will include some dates in England as well as Grover’s premier appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. After that it’s back home for work on his next album.
But one thing’s for sure: as busy as Grover Washington may be, it’s obvious that he’s never too far away from his home and family wherever he goes and that kind of stability has unquestionably helped him to remain in the frontline as one of the decade’s most talented musicians.