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After DBFF, what’s next for the Grammy-winning jazz great? 

Kirk Whalum performs at DBFF 2019.

Kirk Whalum performs at DBFF 2019.

The studio’s silence said it all. 

A 29-year-old Kirk Whalum had just finished recording a solo that would determine his career’s next trajectory. The musician who stood here would go on to become one of the top jazz-recording artists of the modern era. However, today, this iteration of Whalum waited “with bated breath, barely breathing” for a response from Quincy Jones, who had appeared on the opposite side of the massive glass partition in his Los Angeles studio. He was there to sample Whalum’s sound. 

“‘You know what’s wrong with that?’” Whalum recalls Jones, one of the entertainment business’ biggest powerbrokers, asking. “‘Not a damn thing.’ He was just messing with me, knowing that I’m freaking out.” 

It was the first of many collaborations. 

“I knew why I was there. He’s not going to guide you. He hires you because he’s hearing something. ‘I want that flavor in my gumbo’ and he just drops it in there,” says Whalum. 

For Whalum, that flavor was a signature blend of sounds forged from his initiation into the music scene of Houston, Texas, in the 1980s folded in with gospel notes from growing up in Memphis, Tennessee. Singing in his father’s church choir and surrounded by a grandmother who taught piano and two uncles who performed with jazz bands, music embedded his days. His earliest music memory is being next to his grandmother, Thelma Twigg Whalum, in church. 

“Sitting next to her, while she’s playing “Holy, Holy, Holy” on this huge pipe organ — it was larger than life,” he says. 

First “discovered” by jazz pianist Bob James, Whalum went on to record five albums with Columbia Records before moving to Los Angeles. There, his sound became an underlying current for artists like Luther Vandross, Barbara Streisand and Whitney Houston, whose epic “I Will Always Love You” is punctuated by Whalum’s sax solo. 

It’s a sound fans are familiar with, and it’s a sound that graced the Denton Black Film Festival in 2019 for its fifth anniversary nearly sold-out concert. He returned in 2020 to show “Humanité, the Beloved Community.” The documentary intertwines Whalum’s work with artists globe-wide on a musical journey that reflects back on Martin Luther King’s vision of community. Whalum was 9-years-old when MLK was assassinated and lived blocks away from the Lorraine Motel. 

“It was traumatic for me in that I didn’t know how to process it,” Whalum recalls. 

The experience in filmmaking and the film festival circuit was a first for Whalum, to whom learning is nothing new. 

“In a career of over 35 years, I went deep into jazz — the high art form, more esoteric. I’m still on that page,” he says. “I find myself, even before the pandemic, going back to the smaller settings where I’m playing for 100-200 people and I’m going deeper into my own repertoire, songs I’ve written or am writing or songs that really touch me, as opposed to pursuing the next level.”

Jazz artist Kirk Whalum is pictured with his saxophone.

Kirk Whalum, jazz artist and headliner for the closing performance of the Denton Black Film Festival.

In addition, Whalum says his sound has changed. 

“I played a particular brand of saxophone for 30 years. And just four years ago, I switched instruments,” says Whalum, who now uses a P. Mauriat. “I see that manifest in the evolution of my sound.” 

As with many artists, he is also redefining himself as a creative in the midst of COVID-19. 

“I’m adapting as we speak. If I grow a horn, let me know,” he laughs. 

Among the changes, he’s planning a complete overhaul of his work in the podcasting space. His current podcast, “Bible in Your Ear,” has a simple format typically featuring a bit of scripture reading by Whalum, music and the occasional guest. 

“We’ll upgrade to include more content,” says Whalum, who is also an ordained minister. “We’ll do interviews, performances and all kinds of stuff that has more to do with how music fits in people’s lives, faith. It’ll be all inclusive.”

Musically, he’s working on a project with rising Memphis artist Evvie McKinney, winner of “The Four” reality singing competition. He says much of his work in 2020 centered around his at-home studio space. For a husband, father and grandfather whose typically in 60 cities in 10 countries during a single year, it’s a unique opportunity to be centered at home. 

Whalum’s evolution has also included a new way of bringing people together with a cadre of socially-distanced performances. 

“The one in Dallas was outdoors with people honking horns and all that,” he says. “It’s just another example, like the film festival, that Texas is such a microcosm of the country.” 

He adds that with everything that happened in 2020, people need to connect.

“More than ever, people need to engage with each other where the ambiance and the atmosphere is set by this art,” says Whalum. “Whether we’re looking at it or we’re hearing it, art changes the way we engage with each other. The art, the music makes the difference. We can be on a jazz cruise with 2,000 people sitting in this audience. Color, and I don’t like saying color blind, but in that setting, race doesn’t exist for that moment because music lifts everybody up where we belong.”