Kevin Whalum was born and raised in Memphis, TN. He was reared in the church his father pastored named, Olivet Baptist Church. It was there where his love of music was nurtured, as the musicians and singers there were the very best the city had to offer. “Our dad was always fine with us listening to different genres and styles of music.” Kevin says. “At home, my brothers and I had everything from Edgar Winter to Cannonball Adderley. We had everything from Sly & the Family Stone to Al Jarreau.”
After graduating from Melrose High School in an area known as, Orange Mound, he moved to Atlanta, GA, to attend Morehouse College. It was there that Kevin came into his own. “Morehouse is a place where a young Black man is provided with irrefutable proof of the talents, gifts, and contributions of his ancestors, and of the same traits that reside inside the young man, himself. I would not be who I am today without the standard of excellence Morehouse challenged me to maintain.” he says.
After graduating with a degree in English from Morehouse, Kevin moved to Chicago, IL, to pursue a career in music. Less than six months after his arrival, he had formed a jazz-funk-soul group called, Kevin Whalum & Fast Forward. They quickly became one of Chicago’s most talked-about local bands. The band consisted of Tim Gant on keys, Richard Patterson on bass, Gerry Johnson on guitar, Steve Cole on sax, and Oscar Seaton on drums. With that lineup, they took no prisoners when they hit the stage. They worked the area for the next six years, and then life came calling.
Kevin got married and moved to Nashville, TN, to start a family and also to begin recording and traveling full time with his famous brother, jazz legend Kirk Whalum. Since then, Kevin has recorded the following albums with Kirk: (Yes, that’s right. We still say “album” around here) Cache’, Into My Soul, Colors, The Christmas Message, Joined At The Hip(collabo w/Bob James), Roundtrip, and Romance Language. Romance Language is one of Kevin’s favorite projects that he has done with Kirk. It was a reimagining of the classic John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman ballad record from 1963. He fondly recollects, “The way Kirk decided to record it was old school. He blocked out 4 days at a studio near Nashville, and got his band to commit to being there each day. The entire record was recorded, mixed, and mastered in a matter of days. I never forgot that, because it taught me that it is the absolute best way to record. Get in there. Get to it. Get it done. Period. Today, so many of us rely on emailing session files back and forth, but I truly believe that because we were in each other’s company, and because we could ‘feel’ each other, we caught a vibe that makes this record sonically spectacular. The intimacy and clarity of each track is arresting to people who hear it for the first time.”
The Gospel According To Jazz
One would imagine, however, that Kevin is best known for his stellar work with Kirk on his brother’s gospel series entitled, Kirk Whalum, The Gospel According To Jazz, Chapters 1-4. Chapter One was released in 1998 to critical acclaim, and it put Kevin on everyone’s radar with his medley take on the Negro spirituals, Wade In The Water/Motherless Child. It broke new ground in gospel. No one had tried anything that daring vocally in the genre’ previously. When he and Kirk performed the song later that year on the Stellar Awards broadcast, the audience gave them a standing ovation. That was a pivotal moment. “Yeah, that was special. I knew I was in front of some gospel purists who believe gospel should be one thing and one thing only, but I reject the notion that praise for the Almighty has anything to do with a certain group of chords, or a certain rhythmic pattern. Gospel is defined as the good news, and as long as that is what fills my heart as I perform, that is what will exude from me as I stand before God’s children anywhere in the world; in churches or nightclubs. They will feel me if they allow themselves to, and aren’t too busy judging me because I sound a little different than what they consider gospel. If you love Jesus as I do, you will feel me.”
If Chapter 1 was Kevin’s introduction to gospel music fans, then, Chapter 2 was the solidification of his presence. That release spawned the remake of an old Johnny “Guitar” Watson classic called, I Wanna TaTa Ya, Baby from the 1970s. Kirk has always left Kevin alone to choose the songs he wanted to record on each volume. “Kirk trusts me to provide him with solid ideas for covers, so I said we should take that song and rename it I Wanna TaTa Ya, Jesus. Our ‘thing’ is to take established hits from artists who didn’t necessarily write them for a gospel audience, and flip them on their heads, so I rewrote the lyric to change TaTa, Ya to mean Thank Ya, and boom…people loved it. That song was released in 2003, and yet it is still requested everywhere from Dallas to Tokyo, and from Stockholm to Cape Town.”
Chapter 3 is responsible for bringing in the R&B fans among the Whalum brothers’ audience. For this live recording, Kevin chose a song by the late Luther Vandross called, Make Me A Believer. He would be joined on it by the now 3-time Grammy winner, Lalah Hathaway. The song was a runaway hit, and was nominated for a Stellar Award for best video in 2008. Again, Kevin rewrote the original lyric to suit its new purpose, and found massive critical and commercial success. “Lalah and I are good friends, and we had an absolute blast singing together. She’s such a singular talent. I knew it would do well, although I had no idea it would do what it eventually did.”
Chapter 4 is the latest installment in the series, and it promises to be as noteworthy as the previous three.
Kevin now has three solo albums under his belt: the self-produced solo debut, Timetable (2002); the George Duke-produced, One Life To Love (2008); and the new self-produced, I Live For You (2016). Although Kevin eschews any effort to force him into a category or genre’, he freely admits to defining himself as “primarily a jazz vocalist who just happens to be a Christian”. He exhorts, “I hope I never agree to be just one thing. A true artist never wants that. I have been-and will remain-free to explore the musical universe. There’s too much out here to stay locked into one soundscape forever. Music is big, but Jesus is infinitely bigger. I want to touch his face with everything he puts in my heart to do. I hope people find my new record, I Live For You, refreshing, and dare I say it, groundbreaking.”
In his own way, Kevin has been in ministry since his teens. However, he officially became a licensed Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on November 15, 2015. He follows in the footsteps of his father and two brothers by answering God’s call to the pulpit. “I am not ordained yet, only licensed to preach, but I feel that pastoring is where I am headed. I feel that pull on my life. Music, however, will never be separate from my preaching. I was given this gift to share, and share it I shall.”