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Kirk Whalum: I will never retire

Kirk Whalum performs at the Rotary fundraise show at Serena hotel last week. Above: The maestro faces off with Isaiah Katumwa. PHOTOS BY Edgar R. Batte

JAZZ MAESTRO: The legendary American smooth jazz saxophonist and singer-songwriter Kirk Whalum performed at the Rotary Uganda Charity Concert last weekend. He talked to Bamuturaki Musinguzi about his music career, why he participates in charity concerts and the trends in the music industry.

Why did you decide to partner with Rotary Uganda to fundraise for a blood bank at Mengo Hospital in this concert?
Though I was not involved in putting together this collaboration with Mengo Hospital, it was very easy for me to be excited about it. The need is great, and I happen to be a regular blood donor (though I am reminded that it has been over a year for me).

Why do you participate in charitable efforts or causes?
It is a joy for me to participate in charitable causes such as this. Being healthy (with the exception of the normal aches and pains of being 60) and having my vision and hearing, is something for which I thank God daily. Having had the privileged opportunity to study music both in grade school and college — and then to earn my Masters in Theology — are all things that come with the real responsibility to share with others, and to pay forward these same opportunities and health.

How have your Memphis Gospel roots shaped your music career?
My Memphis Gospel roots provide the substance of all of my music. It does not matter whether the song or project happens to be directed at a mainstream audience. The faith of my parents, the sound of the music I grew up listening to, speaks through the songs I write and the notes I play. Memphis has always been a mecca for music — especially black music; the blues, jazz and spirituals. I feel privileged to have had this music wafting over the airwaves in Memphis on the first black radio station — WDIA.

How do you manage to combine Gospel, contemporary jazz and urban music?
I consider these three genres of music as one and the same. The only difference, many times, is “which specific manifestation of God’s love” are we playing about at the time. Love between two humans is as sacred form of God’s love (in many ways) as the love spoken of in traditional Gospel songs.
The worship of God through music is indeed unique, and this love is exalted in some fundamental ways. But God is, I am convinced, more concerned with us learning to love one another well, as this is the proof that we love him.

Why did you settle for the saxophone and not any other instrument?
I did not settle for the saxophone! I chose it. It was, and still is, the coolest instrument. It reminded me (as a small boy) of a big piece of jewellery, a very ornate necklace. And I loved all the gadgets and keys and buttons. But the sound I heard when I heard my Uncle Peanuts Whalum play it, attracted me to it forever.

What would you have been if you were not into music?
I imagine that I would be a French or Spanish teacher. I love languages. I was blessed to learn a bit of Swahili the last time I was here: Asante kwa kunikaribisha (thank you for welcoming me).

Why do you find music interesting?
Music is the audible witness to the existence of God. It is the language of the angels, and one of the highest callings (next to preaching and pastoring) in the world.
Music is capable of entering into a person’s soul without the person giving permission. This is why it is so vitally important for the young aspiring musician to give prayerful thought to why it is you either play or sing; what it is you want to convey, or whom you desire to represent with your music.

Who are the people that have influenced you the most in your music career?
My grandmothers were both musicians — one a classically trained church musician and teacher, and the other a “domestic” who sang Gospel in church on Sundays.
Two of my uncles were professionals: Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum, and the former director of the Morehouse Glee Club — Dr Wendell Whalum. My mother was also a big influence on me in doing what I am doing right now; typing and using correct grammar. She pushed me in these areas and many others, and of course saw to it that I had a brand new top-of-the-line Saxophone when I made it to the All City Band.
My father, Rev. Kenneth T. Whalum, was perhaps my biggest influence. I had written many sermons in my mind — because of all the time I spent listening to him preach — before I finally accepted a calling to ministry myself. And that was years later.

What is your observation on the current music trends, especially the challenges of streaming services and piracy?
There are many challenges with this new age of digital sharing of music, especially in the US. Many times people share music without regard to the years and expense which go behind any bonafide musical career, not to mention the great expense of making records.
So now we are having to lobby our government (and those in other countries as well) to fight for the proper royalties to flow from streaming services to the “creators” of music: composers and musicians. It is an uphill battle because the “store has already been given away.”
So people have learned to expect “something for nothing.” But thankfully, there are still many fans who actually desire to support and patronise their favourite artistes.

How do you unwind after a hard day’s work?
Ping pong. I also love to watch fútbol. Ruby and I love spending time together — as we have now for 45 years (she became my girlfriend in 1973, my wife in 1980), so we just love sitting by the fire, eating popcorn and watching a movie.
I love animated movies, which comes in handy when one of our six grandchildren comes to visit.

Do you have plans of retiring from playing music?
Musicians normally do not retire per se. We just find other ways to participate. Teaching is one of my favourite things. And this is something I can do until I draw my last breath.

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