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Kenny Washington: From the Ninth Ward to the World Stage

Courtesy Mark Robbins

Mark Robbins BY

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I've never wanted a huge career, I'm not a go getter and I don't want to deal with all the bullshit and publicity that comes with a big career.
—Kenny Washington
As a result of past visits to Norfolk, Kenny Washington has amassed a large following of fans here, so it was no surprise that tickets sold out when the Virginia Arts Festival announced that he would be the first guest of the post-Covid season. As one of the best male jazz vocalist singing today, Kenny had a busy traveling schedule, both in the United States and Europe, when it all came to a sudden stop. Live venues closed, some not to reopen, touring stopped and the livelihood of thousands of musicians was put in peril. The virtual world came into being and musical artists of all genres were performing online, depending for their keep on their generous fans' donations to their virtual tip jars. Kenny was no exception and outside of a few virtual appearances the tool of his trade, his voice, was silent. Now that the worst is over (we hope) live venues are reopening, musicians are gearing up to tour again, music festivals are announcing new dates and, lucky for us, the man known as "the Superman of the Bay Area jazz scene" will be performing with the John Toomey Trio. All About Jazz sat down with Kenny the morning of his gig to talk about his journey from the Ninth Ward in New Orleans to the top echelon of jazz vocalists.

All About Jazz: Kenny, welcome back to Norfolk! What has it been, three, four years since your last visit here?

Kenny Washington: I'm not sure but it's been too long. Let's see, I had a gig at The Attucks, Havana Nights (a wonderful jazz club in Virginia Beach that unfortunately shut down after a two-year run) and a great week at Old Dominion University with kids in the various jazz programs. It's even a better treat because I get to perform with John [Toomey] and Jimmy [Masters]. So, if I'm invited back again I'm hoping it will be sooner rather than later. You know, I spent a few months here in the Navy in 1987 at the Navy School of Music.

AAJ: I want to circle back to the Navy, but when you play a gig out of town, many times you do not arrive until one day before, such as here, or in some cases the same day as the performance. Do you send charts to the band, how do you prepare?

KW: Ha! I am not a chart guy. A lot of artists will send charts to the band to rehearse for the gig. I send a list of tunes that I like and that's what we use. No charts for me. Sometimes, most of the time, it works and sometimes it doesn't. It has always worked here.

AAJ: Do you improvise a lot? Just go off to do your own thing then come back?

KW: NOOOOOOO! I don't have the confidence to do that. I may do a little bit but I'm never that sure of myself. If the band wants to it's alright with me. I just lay out until they signal me to come back in and there have been times when I've missed the cue. So, no, I'll sing what's there. I will scat but that's as brave as I get.

AAJ: Okay, so let us get back to the Navy. Were you stationed here in Norfolk?

KW: No, I was here later. I joined the Navy right from college and went to boot camp in Orlando, Florida where I auditioned for the band on saxophone. Before I knew whether I had made the band or not I was shipped out to Charleston, South Carolina. I auditioned for the band there and made it! I was still playing saxophone when I was sent here to Norfolk for the Navy Band. The leader of the band asked if I could sing and I told him yes so I started singing and playing and soon it was just singing. So I was a vocalist in the Navy band for the rest of my Naval career of 9 years. We played Asia, Russia, here in the US and Australia. Then, in 1995, I was discharged in San Francisco. I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Oakland and I really had no where else to go so I stayed in San Francisco and it's been home ever since.

AAJ: You went in the Navy from college. Where was college?

KW: Xavier in my hometown of New Orleans.

AAJ: You must have been immersed in music from an early age.

KW: Well, kind of. I grew up in the Ninth Ward (the Ninth Ward was devastated during Katrina in 2005) singing gospel music in church. That's all I was allowed to sing. My daddy was really strict and I wasn't allowed to sing secular music and could go nowhere near the French Quarter. I never had a gig until I left home in my 20s. Daddy was a carpenter and did a lot of work in the Quarter so the days my mother took him lunch I would jump in the car so I could at least see what I wasn't supposed to to see! That's the closest I ever got to the French Quarter when I lived in New Orleans. My brother would bring home records, mostly R&B and I would listen to those when I could. As a matter of fact, all these years later I'm starting to sing more and more R&B. Once I was in Xavier I started listening to jazz. I listened to Ella [Fitzgerald], Sarah [Vaughan], Mel Torme, Joe Williams and so many more. I did a few talent shows while was at Xavier and won. I think my dad's attitude about secular music started to change when he saw I was winning money.

AAJ: So, you are out of college and the Navy and living in San Francisco.

KW: Yes, I didn't know anybody so I just started hitting clubs until I began getting jobs. Word got around about me so there were more and more gigs.

AAJ: Is that where Mark Murphy saw you?

KW: Oh man, yes! That guy was a blast. I was singing in a club in Oakland and a couple of my friends came in with this dude I'd never seen before. Man, this cat was dressed! Sometime during the set he came on stage to sing with me and that's when I found out he was Mark Murphy. He had the best stories, which I can't repeat here, and we all stayed out til the wee wee hours of the morning. A couple of years later I read that he was going to be performing in San Francisco so I called a friend of mine connected to the club he was going to be singing and he got me a table right next to the stage. We hadn't spoken nor seen each other since that night in over 2 years but during the set he looked down and saw me sitting there and yelled "Kenny!" I was in shock that he remembered me.

AAJ: Murphy said that you were the only contemporary male vocalist carrying on the tradition. While we're on the subject, Ravi Coltrane calls you his favorite male vocalist andWynton Marsalis said, "I love this man. He's a consummate professional, with impeccable intonation. He's a real improviser who brings depth to everything he does. We all love Kenny. If you love music, you've got to love Kenny!" Those are some heavy props.

KW: I really appreciate it. I've been with Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra a couple of times, the last I think was 2017 at a tribute for Ella's 100th birthday.

AAJ: I think it was Lincoln Center where you met Joe Locke.

KW: Oh yes, just like with Mark I had no idea who he was. The way he was dressed I thought he was a rock star, then I'm told he's probably one of the five best vibe players in the world! We've done some gigs, cut an album, For the Love of You [E1 Music, 2010], played with The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, did a series of gigs at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola ,which is where I met Wynton which led to performing with The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

AAJ: You have sung with quite a few big bands as well as small combos. Do you have a preference?

KW: Small combos, hands down. I enjoy the big band and the symphonies but I like the intimate feel of the small combo. If it's a big band, you know, they've got to play what's in front of them, there's no deviation from the music. If there's a mistake you just keep playing, but in a trio or small combo if you make a mistake the musicians will take that wrong note or whatever and use it. He, or she, could carry that wrong note to a whole new melody and play around till till they get back to the song. Like I said before, I'm not brave enough to improvise like that. I remember one gig where the pianist just went off, he was playing his heart out and when he got to the song I missed it. I'll scat but I'm not going to go far from what's written.

AAJ: The tunes you do on Joe's album are some of the most beautiful songs I have heard and are songs that have not been recorded a whole lot. "The Shadow of Your Smile," "Pure Imagination," "Two For the Road," "Verrazano Bridge." Do you enjoy singing those as much as you do the standards?

KW: Oh, I love them all. From the standards to the more obscure. I have a list of songs I keep adding to that I hope to record one day.

AAJ: Which brings us to the first album under your name, What's the Hurry (Lower 9th, 2020). Why now?

KW: What was the hurry? No really, I'm very happy with the album. I really had not intended to make one but some of my fans really wanted one and then this jazz angel shows up and practically financed the whole album. If it wasn't for her and my other fans this album wouldn't have been made.

AAJ: Will there be another?

KW: I hope so, but no time soon. I'm very comfortable with my career. I've never wanted a huge career, I'm not a go getter and I don't want to deal with all the bullshit and publicity that comes with a big career. I like where I am and I appreciate my fans . If it wasn't for them there would be no album.

AAJ: Now that clubs and other venues are reopening are you anxious to get back on the road and what was the lockdown like for you?

KW: Yes yes yes but it will be a gradual thing. Tonight is actually my first travel date since everything shut down. One night we're singing and the next night it's all gone. I've kept busy doing some virtual things. Joe [Locke] and I got together virtually, I did one with Janis Siegel for her radio show Vocal Gumbo. None of us were in the studio together. Janice and I were on different coasts. There were others. When I get back home I've got a gig at Piedmomt Piano Company [The Piedmont Piano Company opened in Oakland 40 years ago and has live jazz and classical concerts in their showroom. The venue was voted #3 in the USA in the "top 100 jazz venues of 2019" poll]. After Piedmont it's quiet for a while then I fly to Denmark.

AAJ: Did you enjoy performing virtually, did you find yourself singing differently than you would in front of a live audience?

KW: It was fine. I can't say I performed any differently virtually than I would have live. The song is the song no matter what. I would have rather been singing live, you can't beat the energy from a live audience.

AAJ: What do you think the fate of the jazz rooms in the San Francisco/Oakland will be like.

KW: I wish I knew. We've still got Yoshi's in Oakland, Piedmont Piano Company and The Sound Room is still live streaming and hoping to open soon. But when clubs like Jazz Standard in New York and every club in Washington except Blues Alley have gone you have to wonder who's next?

AAJ: Well, I can not thank you enough for taking some time to do this interview. Thank you for being here and thank you for making Norfolk your first stop post-Covid.

KW: Oh man, thank you. It's good to be on the road again, it's good to be back here and performing in front of a live audience.

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