Area students get lesson from jazz great Kirk Whalum

By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star

(Photo by Theresa D. McClellan)
Grammy Award winning saxophonist and minister Kirk Whalum talks to students at the 46th session of the HEB Tournament of Champions Summer Jazz Workshop.

For five weeks, just before the start of summer, 45 middle and high school students from the Fort Bend, Lamar and Houston school districts spent their days perfecting their skills in an intensive workshop held at two Houston churches.

More than scales and music theory, the students learned life lessons about competition, cooperation and discipline. Recently they received a special treat when artist in residence, Grammy Award winning saxophonist and minister Kirk Whalum walked through the doors with instrument in hand.

With a smile on his lips, he started playing the beginning notes to “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” and the young students began to clap the response. Then he segued into the Addams Family theme song and waited for the students to engage by clapping on the beat. As he gained the students full attention, he swelled the room with a solo jazzy version of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” with his signature long notes.

Hunched forward in his seat, grasping his own saxophone during the mini concert,15-year-old Alphonso Drummond leaned back when the music stopped and sighed, “whoa.” The teen was in heaven sitting mere steps from his idol.

Over the next four hours Whalum engaged, entertained and enlightened the 46th session of the HEB Tournament of Champions Summer Jazz Workshop. The session was held at the Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, bringing together both sets of students from the South Main Street Baptist Church and Trinity Episcopal Church in Midtown. Normally the students practice at Willowridge High School in the Fort Bend Independent School District but the high school is undergoing construction.

“This feels real good. I’ve been listening to him since I was 13 and getting his tidbits will make me a better player,” said Drummond, a High School for Performing and Visual Arts student who is in his sixth year of the summer workshop known as SJW.

The program was founded in 1972 by Bubba Thomas and jazz educator Conrad Johnson and since then more than 11,000 students have gone through the workshop. Thomas, a drummer, created the program because he wanted students to become immersed in music more than they could in a daily public school setting. So using local and international musicians, they created master classes, performance and public speaking opportunities and field trips. Thomas discovered Whalum when the saxophonist was still a student at Texas Southern University. He gave Whalum a chance and put him in his band. Bob James eventually heard Whalum in 1983 and four years later Whalum was touring with Whitney Houston. That’s Whalum’s soulful tenor saxophone on her hit, “I Will Always Love You,” on the “Bodyguard” soundtrack.

Not everyone who starts out learning music becomes a musician, “but music will always be a part of their lives because music will have turned on a light in them that prepares that person to be world renown. The best surgeons, attorneys, lawyers and presidents are people who at the very least tried to play music,” said Whalum.

He explained that music is learned through building skills and finding your voice.

“The person who sets out to find their voice and then works their butt off will be world renown, he explained. “You use the good stuff, your bad stuff, the things that challenge you, make you angry or sad, or happy. Use your emotions,” he said.

He encouraged the students to get to know one another; learning at least three names because building relationships is important. The 58-year-old musician still has friends from when he was 14 years old. Some of them, like jazz educator Leonard Al Campbell are leaders of the SJW. Every Wednesday at 3:45 p.m. Whalum and his three friends get together by phone to pray. He told the students he would now include them in his prayers.

One of the men in his prayer group is head of security for the airport at Dallas/Fort Worth. He started out playing the saxophone. The fourth member of their prayer group is someone who they initially started praying for and now he closes the group prayer. The friend had become addicted to crack.

“He is one of the smartest people I know and we just prayed for God to deliver him, liberate him from the bondage of drugs,” Whalum said.

Once they saw him walking the streets looking for drugs and they kept praying.

“For the last two years it was four people praying. He ain’t doing no drugs. He’s on the up and up. Can’t nobody pray like when you’ve been through something,” he said of his friend.

He told them of another friend who publicly battled drugs – Whitney Houston. He toured with Houston for seven years and her death sent a shockwave through the music industry. It shook him to his core.

“I kept looking at the casket thinking, not Whitney,” he said.

Her musical career was on a trajectory and she took a few detours experimenting with drugs trying to avoid her problems, he said. He warned the students that money and fame can magnify your problems.

“She was doing cocaine. Just that ‘little thing’ she was doing to make her feel better put her in a casket” he said. “The only thing that can keep you from succeeding and being world renown at something is if you let yourself be distracted by something.”

“Don’t let our prayers be in vain. Don’t settle for mediocrity or say woe is me Don’t say I’m poor or I’m sad. Nobody can stop you, but you,” he said. “Not your government, not your friends, not your excuses. Mediocrity will stop you. The freeway underpasses are filled with mediocrity; people who are willing to say, oh that’ll do.”

To achieve, he explained, the students have to be willing to put in the work.

“Working hard at something you love is magic. I still practice every single day. I’m 58 and I’m still doing long tones, sight-reading, scales. You have to make people feel like they haven’t paid enough money to hear you,” he said.

Lessons of the music industry will guide them through life. He advised them to be punctual because the show will go on without you. He also told them to take pride in their work and to have character.

He told of a young man he’d heard play then later seeing the man selling bagels in a coffee shop. Instead of being embarrassed about his side job and hiding when Whalum walking into the coffee shop, the man provided excellent customer service showing pride in every aspect of his job. Whalum asked him what he was doing for the next six months and hired him to join him for a six-month tour and now the musician is the musical director for Baby Face.

Between his stories, Whalum answered students questions, mugged for photos and played music with them. During their workshop the students, when not in classrooms, will perform in area hospitals and HEB grocery stories. The workshop concludes with a battle of the bands with students from both church classes competing July 15 at Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, 14919 South Main Street.

“He was really inspiring. Sometimes you get these inspirational speakers and its all blah, blah, but he was amazing and really gave you stuff you can use,” said 16-year-old Anna Lindsay of the High School for Performing and Visual Arts.

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