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
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
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.