Grover Washington Jr. leaves a mixed legacy

Musicians who have great talent owe it to their art and to their audiences to make the most of it.
Grover Washington Jr., who died Friday in New York after taping a performance for a television show, had such a talent, but his recorded legacy is spotty at best, for Washington was one of those jazzers who turned away from the grand traditions of the jazz idiom and took his career to the pop charts.

He started out with bang in 1971 with the fine "Inner City Blues," upon which date he was backed by some pretty powerful reserves: Ron Carter, bass; Bob James, keyboard; Eric Gale, guitar; Airto, percussion; and Thad Jones, trumpet.

Washington proved his virtuosity on this maiden recording, and, as time went on, he proved again and again his versatility, performing on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, and on flute.
Sadly, though, he went for the limelight and cut a name for himself in soul-jazz and smooth-jazz circles. He forged a lucrative career, but all the air had gone out of music for lovers of the gutbucket side of jazz.
On only one recording can I find a hint of what we could have had from Washington, and that is a 1984 date for Blue Note with guitarist Kenny Burrell titled "Togethering." Eight cuts long and as straight-ahead as I've ever heard Washington play, the album lifted my spirits when I first encountered it about 10 years ago.

On these tracks, he gave up the silly notion of producing inoffensive airport tunes and blew and blew and blew, spurred by the virtuosity of Burrell and the rock-solid rhythm section of Carter once again on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Ralph Macdonald on percussion.

In the large club composed of smooth-jazz fans, there will be great anguish at the reed man's passing and it surely will be a sad Christmas in the Washington household. Grover Washington Jr. did bring a lot pleasure to the millions of people willing to settle for something less than jazz.

Sadly, the musician settled for the same thing. That waste of an obviously very fine talent means that Washington's recorded legacy probably won't mean very much when the ultimate study of jazz tradition is written. And that distresses me, because I like to think of jazz as the most inclusive of musical styles.

It is ironic that a virtuoso reed man ignored the very genesis of his talent and style. And that harms jazz.

A sad Christmas, indeed.