5 Questions with Kenneth Whalum

By Jayne Ellen White

As a top session and touring saxophonist, Kenneth Whalum rose quickly in the music industry working with artists that are household names— but he has also carved a deep and unique niche as a modern solo artist. Whalum’s genre may be most related to alt-soul, but his secret to songwriting is being honest and real. His most recent single, “Say Sorry”, may induce body melting relaxation, and deeply emotional songs, like his 2021 release, “One More Kiss” tap straight into the heart of the matter. Be prepared to dig deeply into both of his full length album releases to get more. Whalum is currently working on his next EP, Pretty, which he likens to the calm app for heartbreak— sounds like medicine for our hearts.

Tell me about how you came to the saxophone, and at what point in life did you know you wanted to do what you do?

First day of band class in 6th grade they said go stand by whatever instrument you want to play, I stood by the drums– but the band director geared me toward the sax because she recocknized who my uncle [Legendary sax player Kirk Whalum] was. That was the instrument that really led me to–Also, in that class was drummer Stanley Randolph, and artist and musician Brandon Deener. [editor note: Randolph, and Deener i.e. other Memphis music and artist legends].

My parents weren’t too forceful, but they always suggested that I continue with music one more year, or one more semester. They gave me the option. There were times when I found myself more interested in basketball, or something, but I always made my way back to it.

Later, I went to Morehouse College, and the concentration on music wasn’t as serious as it is at some other schools. The overwhelming majority of music students at Morehouse were also there for something else– pre-med majors that also played an instrument, type-thing.

It wasn’t like I wasn’t necessarily unique or anything, but I needed more of a challenge. I had strengths, but I still needed to grow and learn, and appreciate a lot more. So, by the time I left Moorehouse and went to New York City to go to The New School in 2004, I was pretty set on the feeling of this is what I am doing.

Talk to me about Memphis music, our legacy and how it relates to your and today’s Memphis music?

People claim, or default to, Memphis being a blues town, but the majority of what we as a music city are being informed by, based on lifestyle, is Gospel. Gospel really translates itself well to R&B.

When we were coming up, m*****- f***** weren’t playing blues. Not traditional blues, you feel me? Sure, you would hear blues downtown, but it wasn’t in our culture, it wasn’t what we were listening to. I don’t like to make things stick, just because a place is known for something. Sure, we have blues history that the city capitalizes on in a tourism way— but that’s not what my generation or the generation before me or the next generation are listening to or playing. I was informed by playing in church, or out on the street with Rudy [Williams], and his trumpet, you know? It was Gospel and  R&B.

For me Soul music is the question: Is it for real, is it your story? I don’t attach it to a genre. I like to say alternative soul for my music because if you had to place it in a genre it’s closest to that– but it’s still just me being honest.

An artist like Anthony Hamilton, you may call that alternative soul, because that’s the genre– but he’s expressing a true sentiment. Al Green is soul music, because you can feel it. That’s what it is.

What are you most proud of as an artist, in your solo career, or your saxophone career.. How did that transition happen, anyway?

I made a decision and stuck to it. I had a full out career with the saxophone. I’m still at the top level in terms of that–it just wasn’t enough for me. I fully committed to the risk of doing my own music and singing. I know what it feels like to have people look at you and wonder what you’re doing, or expect you to do something else. People really cast their fears on your decisions. That will really affect most people. I am most proud of the fact that I wanted to express myself in a different way that I felt was going to be liberation. I didn’t know at the time if it would work— but I just went with it. I think my music has really touched a lot of people because of that.

It’s never been my goal to work with big artists, my main source of pride is stepping out to be a singer and not necessarily a player.

How do you feel about working with other artists?

I like working with artists that I like and respect,  and feel inspired to work with. I don’t like feeling like I am bound to something by necessity. I just did the Hollywood Bowl show with D’Angelo for Dave Chappelle/Netflix is a Joke. I’ve written recently with Mac Miller, Justine Skye.  I chose to do those things. I’ve been working with some great artists that I respect, and some projects coming that I won’t talk about yet.

Do you like performing live as opposed to writing?

As a writer I feel like one of my gifts is songwriting and accessing emotion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a present emotion. I’m ok with going to the what-ifs of many situations. Being able to access is a gift, it can’t be so personal that you’re paralyzed.

I love doing live shows because it gives me the opportunity to be present, and vulnerable. I’m not a singer by training– so being able to be singing on the highest level, with people like Rob [Robert Glasper], and others of his caliber–that means a lot. Performing on that level represents so much to me, only because it costs so much to attain it.

I’m addicted to the vulnerability of going on stage without a saxophone— it gives me so much joy, and peace and freedom. When I’m on the stage, it’s the celebration of the pain that it costs, the work.

Touring is like second nature to me. As a professional touring musician, I’m just committed to excellence in touring. My brain doesn’t compute that it’s different from any other day. It’s not  strenuous or taxing.

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