Even musical movement has a beginning and in the beginning of smooth Jazz there was a saxophonist named Grover Washington, Jr. Ironically is was being drafted into the Army that gave him entre into NYC’s echelon of music makers. He met drummer Billy Cobham in the Army and Billy introduced him to NYC’s music scene. And before you knew, funk, R&B and jazz were merging into a whole new style of music.
Whilst his first three albums established him as a force in jazz and soul music, it was his fourth album in 1974, Mister Magic, that proved a major commercial success. The album climbed to number 10 in Billboard’s Top 40 album chart and the title track reached #16 on the R&B singles chart (#54, pop). All these albums included guitarist Eric Gale as a near-permanent member in Washington’s arsenal. His follow-up on Kudu in 1975, Feels So Good also made #10 on the album chart.
A string of acclaimed records brought Washington through the 1970s, culminating in the signature piece for everything he would do from then on. Winelight (1980) was the album that defined everything Washington was then about, having signed for Elektra Records, part of the major Warner Music group.
The album was smooth, fused with R&B and easy listening feel. The highlight of the album was his collaboration with soul artist Bill Withers, “Just The Two of Us,” a huge hit on radio during the spring and summer of ’81, peaking at #2 on the Hot 100. The album went platinum in 1981, and also won Grammy Awards in 1982 for Best R&B Song (“Just The Two of Us”), and Best Jazz Fusion Performance (“Winelight”). “Winelight” was also nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
In the post-Winelight era, Washington is credited for giving rise to a new batch of talent that would make its mark in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He is known for bringing Kenny G to the forefront as well as such smooth jazz artists as Walter Beasley, Steve Cole, Pamela Williams, Najee, and George Howard.
Today his style is still recognizable in many of the new artists that embrace his soulful approach to R&B and jazz. Sometimes it’s nice to take stroll in the past. You can’t help but smile. Listen and you’ll see what I mean.