Remembering Kevin Mahogany (1958-2017)

The first time I heard Kevin Mahogany it was at a boyfriend’s house in early 1996. He had an advance copy of Mahogany’s self-titled debut album for Warner Bros. It came sans cover art for it to be reviewed by USA Today, where my ex served as the R&B and Jazz critic. There was just a tracklist, and I knew most of the songs as R&B, jazz, and blues classics. Astonished by the range just from the listing alone, I put it on and was immediately entranced by Mahogany’s embracing instrument. It reflected the name: warm, rich, smooth, powerful, and undeniably Black. It also hinted at youth despite its weight and the age of some of the selected material performed. This was rare at a time when Black male jazz and blues musicians were on the endangered species list.

The first time I heard Kevin Mahogany it was at a boyfriend’s house in early 1996. He had an advance copy of Mahogany’s self-titled debut album for Warner Bros. It came sans cover art for it to be reviewed by USA Today, where my ex served as the R&B and Jazz critic. There was just a tracklist, and I knew most of the songs as R&B, jazz, and blues classics. Astonished by the range just from the listing alone, I put it on and was immediately entranced by Mahogany’s embracing instrument. It reflected the name: warm, rich, smooth, powerful, and undeniably Black. It also hinted at youth despite its weight and the age of some of the selected material performed. This was rare at a time when Black male jazz and blues musicians were on the endangered species list.

Mahogany, then 38, had already recorded three solo albums for the German jazz label, Enja Records, where he’d wowed critics with more virtuoso swing, scat, and soul performances of cuts like Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home,” Miles Davis’s “All Blues,” and the runaway train of “Bells Are Ringing: Just In Time.” By the time I’d heard Mahogany belt through a rousing rendition on Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “Yesterday I Had The Blues,” and ache all over the Johnny Mercer and Barry Manilow ballad, “When October Goes” for his first major label offering, Mahogany was already in a period of transition vocally, but still holding fast to the hunger and fire that are stunningly present on his Enja recordings. I’d later come to realize there were two Kevin Mahoganys, each bringing something different to their audiences, but never less than brilliant.

By the time Mahogany followed up Kevin Mahogany with the more straight-ahead traditions of 1997’s Another Time, Another Place and the vastly superior My Romance in 1998, I was already deeply studying Mahogany’s approach to song as a then-fledgling jazz vocalist myself. The way he swung without a sweat, how he wasn’t afraid of reaching for the upper parts of his baritone range in a burst of joy or pathos, and how he demonstrably appreciated the value of timing and space to express emotional resonance. A student of greats like Joe Williams, Johnny Hartman, Eddie Jefferson, and Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross himself, Mahogany in his early recordings was the next generation’s answer to those standard bearers, bringing a verve, passion, and eager confidence to the best of his recordings that were far, far from the moniker of “conservative” that would later be laid upon him by critics. And, for a time, it felt he and Bobby McFerrin were alone in the marketplace as brothers still recording purist jazz material, even making his soul offerings inevitably one of jazz, blues, or a bit of both.

With most of his peers like Will Downing, Miles Jaye, George Benson, and Najee doing instrumental R&B and smooth jazz in the early ‘90s to the early 2000s, the peak years of Mahogany’s output, Mahogany carried the torch for artists to come like José James and, of course, the similarly stately Gregory Porter. Like Al Jarreau before him, another major influence on Mahogany’s style, Mahogany swung a rope out for the next generation to catch. A listen to the teasingly suggestive and light tempo plays of “Teach Me Tonight,” the almost unbearably elegant “My Romance,” the heavenly hush of “Stairway to the Stars,” and the master class of masculine vulnerability that is “How Did She Look” from My Romance and one readily understands how Mahogany managed to have a purist jazz career as a vocalist at a time when nearly no new Black men not already established a decade or two before seemingly could.


Filmmakers also took notice of Mahogany’s fine instrument, with director Robert Altman’s featuring not just Mahogany’s voice but his powerful physical presence as a riff on Kansas City singer, Big Joe Turner, for Altman’s noir, Kansas City, in 1996. The film further marked Mahogany as his Midwestern hometown’s prodigal son. For his part, jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood captured one of Mahogany’s finest recorded vocal performances, “Laura,” for Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1997. In his prime, Mahogany’s voice lent itself easily to bygone eras and the sounds that invited nostalgic longing for their return. In both films, its Mahogany’s voice that lingers with you long past the closing credits. Or, so it was with me, as captivated by the rhapsody of the middle years recordings of Mahogany as I was by the energetic early ones spotlighted in the must-have Songs & Moments and Double Rainbow.

However, by the early 2000s, Mahogany had left both Warner Bros. and a certain vocal adventurism that had been hallmarks of some of his brightest moments with both Enja and Warner Bros. In its place was a mellower, more reserved Mahogany that had no problem letting the work breathe even more and one who placed far more emphasis on tone and timing to convey what belting, scatting, and the occasional, well-placed vocal acrobatic once had. On a cut like his total reimagining of the Temptations “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” on 2002’s Pride & Joy Motown tribute project for Telarc International, the result is emotionally devastating, allowing each of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s lyrics to be heard as if for the first time. Mahogany had become less the vocal showman and more the stylistic storyteller in a way that preserved his instrument as it further matured and allowed him to color a song through texture and tone rather than flat-footed power. This is also gorgeously evidenced on the very last song of his swan song album, The Vienna Affair, an acoustic take of Hoagy Carmichael’s 1938 “The Nearness of You.”


In Mahogany’s career we witness a quiet revolutionary who held fast to the torch of traditions not always as well appreciated on this side of the pond as other musical genres took prominence in the American imagination. In that revolution, Mahogany enviably maintained a stable recording and touring career, releasing 13 solo or band leader albums and making an internationally respected name for himself. Artists studying the form and the business can also take stock in the arc of the many shades of Mahogany from the earnest, sly multi-instrumentalist of the early years (Mahogany also played piano, clarinet, and baritone saxophone) to the relaxed balladeer bear of a businessman who managed to stay true to his musical calling in a rapidly evolving musical period where Sean “Puffy” Combs had his biggest year at the same time Mahogany was arguably at his commercial and creative peak.

More than his recordings, the jazz students of Mahogany at the Berklee College of Music and the University of Miami can continue a legacy Mahogany worked hard to maintain throughout the age of hip-hop and smooth soul, instructing them while also carving a path for them. His legacy also lives on through the issues of Mahogany’s published magazine, The Jazz Singer, his own record label, Mahogany Jazz, and the numerous featured and guest performances on a range of artists and soundtracks from Marlena Shaw to T.S. Monk. His contributions will further live on with this music critic who once tried his young hand at jazz because a rare singer like Kevin Mahogany showed him that it could be done and how to do it with unparalleled excellence.

By L. Michael Gipson 

 
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