I consider Marvin Gaye's What's Going On to be one of the last great jazz albums. Though technically a soul recording, much of its heart remains deeply rooted in jazz's orchestral tradition and progressive consciousness. The party chatter that opens Gaye's album is akin to the banter near the start of James Moody's Disappointed. Flyin' High has Billie Holiday written all over it. Mercy, Mercy Me and Miles Ahead from Miles Davis' album of the same name are similar concept-album crescendos. Even Gaye's thematic pleas for peace and planetary respect feel more like Max Roach's We Insist! than anything by the Temptations or Four Tops. Many jazz artists at the time connected with Gaye's revolutionary form of narrative soul. Among the first to parlay the singer's works into instrumentals was saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. [pictured at top]
Gaye's What's Going On was released at the end of May 1971. The three singles from the album—What's Going On, Mercy Mercy Me and Inner City Blues—were covered by several jazz artists within months of hitting stores. But Washington was the first jazz musician to take on all three singles on one album—Inner City Blues—which was recorded for CTI's Kudu label in September 1971.Soon after Inner City Blues' release in early 1972, Washington's versions became soul-jazz classics, adding a rich, multilayered lyricism to Gaye's vocal hits. In short order, Inner City Blues, arranged by Bob James, became one of CTI's best-selling albums. The LP also launched the smooth jazz genre and transformed Washington from an r&b player to an instrumental star with a distinctive sound. After Inner City Blues (and What's Going On, for that matter), jazz was never quite the same. Musicians tended to divide into two major hybrid camps—jazz-rock and jazz-soul—in an effort to remain current, stay on the radio, and survive economically.
Yet despite Washington's breakthrough with the album, he wasn't supposed to be the soloist on the date. That honor was to have been Hank Crawford's. But the biting alto saxophonist ran into trouble far from the New York studio where the session was taking place. In April 2009, when I interviewed Creed Taylor [pictured], the album's producer, I asked him about Inner City Blues:
1971 you produced Grover Washington Jr.'s Inner City Blues,
one of the Kudu label's best-selling albums. Whose idea was it to use
Creed Taylor: A sheriff in Memphis.
CT: He arrested [alto saxophonist] Hank Crawford [pictured]. It was supposed to be Hank’s record date. But Hank was caught with marijuana, that hideous, evil thing [laughs]. So they put him in the pokey. Someone called me at 1 p.m. to let me know. We were supposed to have started the date in New York at 10 a.m.
JW: Where was Grover Washington Jr.?
CT: In the orchestra's sax section playing tenor. I went into the studio and told Grover that he had to play Hank's part. Grover said he had never recorded on alto and didn't own one. I rented one for him, and he played the date. As I was listening in the booth to Grover play, I knew immediately that he sounded great. Different than Hank, but great.
CT: Grover's sound made the sax statements a less obvious thing. Everything was the same as it would have been with Hank, except Grover was Grover. Hank was a blues master alto player and Grover had a more lyrical, romantic thing going. He had a sound that worked in contrast to what we were doing. I think that made the date quite different.
JW: What did Crawford think of the album?
CT: I didn’t ask him. Are you kidding? [laughs]
JW: There’s so much Marvin
Gaye in Grover's playing.
CT: Marvin became his best buddy in Detroit. Marvin loved what Grover had done with his songs.
Washington went on to add his seductive sax sound on several CTI recordings led by other artists. He also recorded multiple albums as a leader, landing another jazz-soul hit with Mister Magic (Kudu) in 1974. Then Washington won a Grammy in 1981 for his recording of Just the Two of Us with singer Bill Withers, a song that reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Washington died of a heart attack in December 1999 at age 56.
JazzWax tracks: Interestingly, by the time he recorded Inner City Blues for Kudu in September 1971, Washington had already recorded two of Gaye's three singles from What's Going On—but on tenor saxophone and as a sideman. Washington was the first jazz artist to record an instrumental version of What's Going On behind organist Johnny "Hammond" Smith on the album of the same name for Prestige in April 1971. How this recording date happened to occur a full month before Gaye's album was released remains a mystery. The Smith album is out of print, available only as a Japanese CD here.
Several months later in July 1971, Washington recorded Mercy Mercy Me, also on tenor sax. This time he was playing on organist Leon Spencer Jr.'s recording Louisiana Slim (Prestige). You'll find the track on Leon Spencer: Legends of Acid Jazz at iTunes or here.
Grover Washington Jr.'s Inner City Blues is available at iTunes or here on CD as part of Verve's Originals series. And if you love Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, grab the two-CD Deluxe Edition here, complete with in-depth liner notes, personnel listing, and details about the recording.
JazzWax clip: Here's Grover Washington Jr.'s Inner City Blues from 1971...