Feature Interviews

Kenneth Whalum: Hip-Hop’s Go to Saxophonist

Words by Priscilla Ward

Words by Priscilla Ward
Photography by Aundre Larrow

Kenneth Whalum was able to secure Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs approval and friendship early on, after cursing someone out for not getting his sound right. Turns out, they both have high standards. The Memphis bred saxophonist, composer and backup singer also has a last name that’s synonymous with Jazz tradition. He’s the nephew of famed jazz musician Kirk Whalum, and the son of a preacher man. As traditions go, every pastor’s kid goes through a rebellious stage, and thankfully Kenneth is still having his. Not one to really mess with Jazz like that, instead he chooses to skew away from the genre’s sometimes formulaic approach. His sound is uniquely soulful yet alternative, and his dreams much bigger than playing at yet another tiny, packed out jazz bar. He’s created and toured the world with the likes of Jay Z, D’Angelo and Maxwell. And it’s important to note, Kenneth’s saxophone has carried Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings” and Jay Z’s “Roc Boys.”

We recently had a moment to talk with Kenneth at his studio in NYC about growing up a pastor’s kid, shifting from jazz and how he keeps himself groomed while touring all over the country.

BevelCode: How old were you when you got introduced to your first instrument?

Kenneth Whalum: 12. I started playing the saxophone while I was in middle school, but I played drums in my Dad’s church, but it wasn’t very serious.

BC: After getting introduced to your first instrument, was there any sort of pressure or sense of responsibility to your last name?

KW: Not necessarily pressure, but it was more so a pressure from the lady at the school. She told everyone to go standby the instrument you want to play and I stood by the drums. She read down the roll and saw my last name and was familiar with my uncle Kirk. And she just kind of made me play the saxophone. In a weird way there was pressure there, but it really had nothing to do with me in terms of expectations.

BC: Did your uncle Kirk Whalum give you any sort of lessons when you were first getting started?

KW: He was touring with Whitney Houston at the time, like when I was a kid he was doing a lot of stuff. He would come to town, check me out and wake me up playing while I was asleep. He would have to come late after his shows and was always definitely there to encourage me.

BC: What are some of the things that keep you inspired?

KW: More so, just life you know. I got a family. I’m 33 now, but I’m seeing things a bit differently than before, my priorities, haven’t necessarily changed, but I’ve become a bit more serious about certain things now. It’s caused me to take a real look at what is really going on and become a bit more introspective.

Kenneth Whalum at Shelter Island Sound IMG_8445

BC: What was it like growing up as a pastor’s kid?

KW: I mean it was good, but I think I started with that pressure. I had eyes on me early. This shaped later on how I would deal with people, for better or worse. To this point, it affects me in different ways and in different areas. Like now, I just don’t deal with people like that. I try to be as authentic as I can and I try to manage people. I don’t like expectations.

BC: Now a lot of pastor’s kids have this sort of rebellious stage, did you deal with this at all?

KW: Definitely. For certain, even now. But I mean just going back to that pressure in a certain sense. I got a son now and I always say I’m not doing him like that. I feel like earlier on I just had this pressure to be right all the time. It’s not really unwritten, but it’s like you got an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Just that good and bad thought pattern you know. And I feel like I had more pressure on me than other people because of that, you know what I mean. If I got in trouble growing up, it would be on the news.  It just affected me in a lot of ways and I don’t really think about it in the same way. I just try to stay clear of a lot of that. I just want my son to see it for what it really is, it’s cool.

BC: How have you and your brothers encouraged one another along the way in your music making pursuits?

KW: I mean we all kind of do our own thing. I’ve been doing different gigs and touring for a quite a while. But we talk every day and keep each other motivated. I’ve been doing different things and touring with different people for a long time. We all just have a different approach. It’s mostly based on encouragement and love for each other, but I’m proud of them for sure.

BC: What is one piece of advice you’ve passed down to your younger brother?

KW: I mean my brother Kameron, I just make sure he’s staying focused on whatever bigger picture he has. And it’s kind of like I try not to “little bro” him. But he’s at a point where I’ve already been at. I just try to be there to provide any type of advice or guidance.

BC: If you weren’t making music, what do you think you would be doing?

KW: I’ve never thought of that. I don’t know man. I mean, I often think I couldn’t imagine having to put on a suit and go somewhere every day. I definitely don’t have that desire, but that’s very hard. I don’t want to just make some shit up for the recording. I just don’t know. That’s very hard.

BC: What is it like touring and working with Maxwell?

KW: He made sure to include me in the creative process. A lot of musicians don’t tour with the same musicians they bring into the studio. Which is weird to me. It’s a matter of, do you respect that level of musicianship or not. Like I could see if it was circumstantial. A lot of times they are just cop out or go with the cheaper option. He’s just real loyal. But I’ve been working with him since 2007/2008. So right around the same time as Jay actually.

Kenneth Whalum at Shelter Island Sound
Kenneth Whalum at Shelter Island Sound


Kenneth Whalum in the studio
BC: How did Maxwell approach you about going on tour with him?

KW: He was working on his first album, “Pretty Wings” and all of that. He was working on it for a while and he was like, “I want you to sing and play.” I’m just low key most of the time and I was cool with just playing my horn. Kind of being on tour with him allowed me to work on my stuff. He was really encouraging in terms of that too. That’s something people wait all of their lives for just to audition. It’s not like I didn’t grind for my own opportunities, but this definitely worked in a special way.

BC: How does it feel to be literally the wings on Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings”?

KW: That was a real special project to work on you know what I mean? I loved the music, and now a days, that doesn’t really mean I’m taking a hit for it. You know what I mean?

BC: So what has been one of your most memorable moments on tour to date?

KW: Touring with D’Angelo was a lot of fun. Just because as a musician especially, that’s just like one of the gigs you want. It was just like a big deal. It’s one of those coveted spot type of things. It was just a lot of fun, in terms of particular touring stuff. The Grammy’s were cool. Touring with Jay was fun. Doing  “Roc Boys” was a special moment for me. Just to be able to work with him, an instrumentalist, at the time that’s all I was doing. Now I’m singing and stuff. At that time I was just moving to New York and chasing it down. So then to be able to tour with one of my favorite artist, you wouldn’t think of having a band and stuff like that. It was not a dream come true, but just like a dope experience.

BC: How did you first get that opportunity to go on tour?

KW: I was working with Puff first, me and him were real cool and were coproducing American Gangster, with a lot of producers he always works with. Then he called me, because he wanted the real live version and then from there it ended up being a single and then a video.

BC: How did you and Puff first meet each other and forge a relationship?

KW: He was putting his band together to do his “Press Play” stuff, the album he put out back then in 2006 I think. And that was it. I got called in to do that with some friends of mine and from there we were on the road together. We got to talk to each other all the time. He’s just real cool. Different people have their own relationship with him.

BC: How did you command Puff’s respect the way that you did?

KW: I think he’s really appreciative of people who are really passionate about whatever it is. We actually got cool because I was cussing out a sound man. He just appreciated that I cared that much to go off because my sound wasn’t right. So ever since then we’ve just had a really cool relationship, even now.

BC: Can you tell me a little bit about your upcoming project?

KW: Yeah, I released a song called “Ghost Town” a few months ago, it was a part of a project, but I just put it out myself. It was a new sound for me and I wanted to make it available and see what was up, see how people would respond to it, and it did really well. So I’d already been writing and recording some stuff. So right now I’m putting together the best that I’ve got. The song is basically finished. It’s coming out in the next few months. Because they are working out some things as far as the release date and association and what it’s going to be called and stuff like that. I think it’s going to be called, “The Broken Land.”

BC: What was your inspiration for that name?

KW: Again, it’s kind of like those life situations, just real deal stuff. There’s a lot of relationship based stuff. Reflective times that people have. Kind of like that voice that’s in my head, I’ve always had people watching me and people in my younger years having this standard. And I think these songs just let me voice it. Those thoughts that I have that go against the grain that may not be what you come to expect or even realize that I might think about.

BC: What are some of those standards that you thought you had to live up to and how are you working against those?

KW: It has to do with my upbringing and how I’ve become the person I am. But I also want to voice those sentiments in any kind of way. There are some love stories on there and just some dark times, and I call it “The Broken Man” because we all go through that and we expect male singers especially black male singers to have to sing like a Chris Brown or have this R&B and it’s more like alternative music. I think since I come from Jazz music and really appreciating that type of music I wanted it to have that real integrity of sound in it. It’s not like R&B, but it is honest.

BC: What do you think the future of Jazz holds?

KW: Probably not much. I mean I don’t really mess with it like that. I mean I love it. It has to do with a lot of my appreciation for music in general. It was just a chapter. I went to Jazz school.

Kenneth Whalum at Shelter Island Sound Kenneth Whalum at Shelter Island Sound

BC: Why do you say it’s in the past?

KW: I love it in terms of it having a lot to do with my appreciation for music in general. I feel like it was just a chapter in terms of expression. I mean I went to Jazz school. I’ll never make music like that again. I was going to school for it and just really deep in it. I feel like it was just a snapshot of where I was at the time. But it doesn’t fully represent what I’m trying to get across now. There are influences in my music for sure. 

BC: So what is one piece of advice you might give to a younger Jazz musician or to your younger self?

KW: I would say just don’t call it Jazz, you know? I think the title in general puts you in handcuffs. I mean in my opinion Jazz is like the only genre of music that in time kind of went…I mean you look at a Jay or you look at a Kanye who started small and moved to like a Radio City. In Jazz, it doesn’t work like that. The greatest Jazz artist will still come around to the Village Vanguard and shit that sits 30 people. If that’s really what you want to do, you have to do it. But I would say just don’t limit yourself to that. To what the establishment says it got to be. It’s weird that all the same jazz musicians play at the same small club. It’s corny to me. You know what I’m saying? How is it that Wynton Marsalis is the only musician that played? Why is it that all these other Jazz musicians go to different places? When are the youth going to get a chance to play at those places? The youth can’t get booked in those places, because they are small places. It’s not really a community for it. They aren’t selling any records, there’s no merchandise and it’s just kind of dead.

BC: What do you think we should be calling this genre as an alternative?

KW: I mean I don’t necessarily think we should change the name. I just think the approach in the Jazz world is just outdated. I just think the model has shifted now. And to be effective you have to make music that is unique. And I just want to make people mean it and I feel like a lot of people don’t mean it.

BC: While you’re on tour how do you make sure you are cleaned up and everything?

KW: I mean a lot of times if I’m out with Max, his barber will come out. He’s also my barber when I’m in town.  I also wear a beard and it’s not hard to keep it decent. If I had a goatee or something it might be much harder, but I just rock the natural vibe a lot of times too. But it is important to keep it up because you just don’t ever want to look a fool in shows especially.

BC: So how often do you get your haircut?

KW: I try to get it cut at least once a week and then I get it cleaned up between then. But definitely once a week without question or it’s a shame. And I got a son, so it’s more of a routine. I like to try and get him cut too.

Kenneth Whalum at Shelter Island Sound getting his hair cut by Jomo Bevel Trimmer at Shelter Island Sound Studios

Kenneth Whalum at Shelter Island Sound getting his hair cut by Jomo

BC: How old is your son?

KW: 4

BC: Have you already started exposing him to any music at all?

KW: I play him all my artist stuff. He likes James Brown, Kid Cudi, N.E.R.D. I mean he got his things that he really likes. But I don’t ever approach it from you got to listen to this. I just let him do his thing.

BC: Can you tell me about your latest single, “Might Not Be Ok” with Big K.R.I.T.? 

KW: K.R.I.T. and I had a real convo about the state of the world. In particular, the systemic oppression of people that look like us. The police killings of unarmed black men was what sparked the conversation and we just gave a realistic take on the bleak atmosphere.

BC: What was going on at the time that prompted you and Big K.R.I.T to talk?

KW: Alton Sterling and other incidents that coincide.

BC: Who’s on your playlist right now?

KW: I’m listening to that new Frank Ocean, 21 Savage, Drake is always on there…I just went to his concert not too long ago. I’m always listening to Radiohead, that’s like my favorite band. That’s pretty much like the real rotation.

BC: Is there any artist that you would like to work with that you haven’t already?

KW: Radiohead because I just think that shit is so high level you know what I mean? Just like that whole sonic landscape, they have this certain darkness to them that I appreciate. Our people would love it, if they knew it. You see what I’m saying? On the surface level it doesn’t necessarily line up, most people like to hear something that makes them feel something. Because our cultures are so different sometimes, it just exists parallel. Just listen to the words though, whatever it is, but check it out.  And then they like the story without even realizing it’s someone’s real story. And it goes the other way around, sometimes people will take like a James Brown sample or a Jay approach. I think there are so many ways we are separated in general you know what I mean.

Accommodations provided by Shelter Island Sound Studios.