Arts News – Kevin Mahogany: The Joy and Magic of Jazz

Kevin Mahogany was the kind of jazz singer who made it all sound as natural as breathing. The Kansas City native cut an imposing figure — and his talent was easily as big as his frame.

But aside from his voice, what you remembered about the vocalist who died last December at the age of 59 was his sheer joy in performing. Mahogany was the kind of entertainer who commanded a stage the moment he stepped onto it. And the magic continued until the second he stepped off.

In the 1990s, when Kansas City’s jazz glory had largely faded into a fond memory, Mahogany emerged on the national stage as a reminder of its essential place in American culture. And that musical tradition fit him like a well-tailored suit.

Mahogany cited as his idols such classic jazz singers as Billy Eckstine, Eddie Jefferson and, of course, Big Joe Turner — whom he portrayed in the 1996 film “Kansas City,” directed by Robert Altman. But while the singer could persuasively evoke the spirit of the ’40s and ’50s, his artistry wasn’t merely about nostalgia.

“If I wanted to do a Marvin Gaye tune, people would say I’m trying to cross over,” he said during a 1995 engagement at the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival. “But I’m looking for good songs — it doesn’t have to be a ‘jazz’ tune. Some people feel that if you’re not singing standards, you’re not singing jazz. I don’t feel that way.”

His albums, mostly on the Enja and Warner Bros. labels, reflected that philosophy. On his eponymous 1996 Warner debut, the selections ranged from Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” to Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.” His third Warner disc, “My Romance” (1998), made room for Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” as well as James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.”

I caught a Mahogany gig at Iridium, a jazz club then situated in a hotel across from Lincoln Center, in 1997 while on a fellowship to Columbia University. It was one of the highlights of my year.

New York audiences are legendarily tough, but he owned the room — wowing them with standards and jazzy interpretations of pop tunes, but also with a self-penned original, “Fix It in the Mix,” about what goes into salvaging a problematic recording.

But his stint at the Monterey festival, which I covered as jazz critic for the “Kansas City Star,” was perhaps his finest hour. Clearly, he wasn’t yet as well-known as he would become. But just as clearly, jazz fans knew a true artist when they heard one.

His performance on the festival’s main stage, I wrote, had the crowd in an uproar. Putting his spin on a song deeply amenable to his style — “Since I Fell For You” — Mahogany definitely made jazz fans want to know who he was.

And it wasn’t long before many more listeners fell for him.

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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