Born on December 12, 1943, in Buffalo, NY. Grover Washington, Jr., One of the finest musicians ever tagged with the charge of commercialism by purists, was commonly known as one of the founders of the smooth jazz-pop style that gained wide public favor from the 1970s through the 1990s. By the late 1990s he had produced albums in a range of styles and seen his music influence such commercial giants as Kenny G. Music lovers' appreciation for Washington's music was hardly diminished by his untimely death in 1999.
Washington came from a musical family. His mother sang in church choirs, and his father, who played the saxophone and maintained a large collection of jazz 78 RPM records, bought a sax for his son at the age of ten. "We came out of the ghetto," Washington said in the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, "but despite that fact, and despite Buffalo's cold winter climate, the city had a warm creative atmosphere, as far as I was concerned." His parents encouraged him to study classical music as well as jazz, and these studies proved beneficial later in Washington's career, honing his sight-reading skills and instilling in him a bent toward musical composition.
As a teenager Washington snuck out to jazz clubs and even performed with a blues band. "I'd play in a club until three o'clock in the morning, then be at school at quarter to eight," he recalled to the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul. His brother Darryl became a jazz drummer who backed such stars as Angela Bofill and Gato Barbieri. Washington also hoped for a basketball career, but was frustrated by his small stature (he stood 5 feet, 8-1/2 inches tall). Graduating from high school at the age of 16, he immediately formed a rhythm-and-blues group called the Four Clefs, which toured with some success around the Midwest and the rest of the country.
This phase of Washington's career was cut short when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965, just as American troops were becoming enmeshed in the Vietnam conflict. Washington assumed he was headed for Southeast Asia, but his musical talents came to the rescue: he won a spot in the 19th Army Band. Stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Washington found himself conveniently situated to continue building his musical career. He played with various ensembles in and around New York and Philadelphia, and performed and made friends with drummer Billy Cobham, another jazz-pop pioneer.
Discharged from the Army in 1967, the newly married musician worked for a record distributor while steadily gaining recognition as a jazz baritone-sax sideman. His breakthrough in the music profession came in 1971, when he was snared by Kudu record label producer Creed Taylor as a last-minute recording-session replacement for absent saxophonist Hank Crawford. Washington was to fill in on alto saxophone, an instrument he had not played since he had left the Army. Playing a rented instrument, Washington delivered a recording, released under his own name as Inner City Blues, that in the words of New York Times critic Robert Palmer, "sold hundreds of thousands of copies and did much to break down barriers between jazz and pop."
Washington's subsequent albums for Kudu continued his upward trajectory in the 1970s, with Mister Magic and Live at the Bijou meeting with special success. Washington energetically promoted his records on his own, and, in search of stronger label backing, moved first to Motown and then to Elektra at the end of the 1970s. The 1980 album Winelight, his second for Elektra, made him a superstar. It remained on Billboard magazine's pop chart for 102 weeks and was Number One on the jazz chart for 31 weeks. On the album Washington performed a duet with vocalist Bill Withers, "Just the Two of Us"; the two musicians, with their shared sophisticated-yet-earthy styling, complemented each other perfectly, and the recording remains one of Washington's best known.
Washington was not the first jazz musician to adopt pop and R&B influences, but his mixtures were new and convincing ones. Like other instrumentalists he performed jazz improvisations over a rock or urban contemporary beat; his improvisations were musically sophisticated but never lost the directness of the popular forms in which they were based. Washington, who was encouraged by his wife Christine to listen to more pop music, saw his music become a staple of various urban contemporary radio formats through the 1980s and beyond. And he was no temporary pop phenomenon. Most of his 1980s Elektra albums remained in print in the late 1990s.
Signing with the Columbia label in 1987, Washington kept up a steady schedule of releases. It was not until the 1990s that he relaxed somewhat in his pace of making new music. While continuing to make music that appealed to his large fan base, he took steps to address the concerns of critics who deplored the commercialism of his style. He made two albums, 1988's Then and Now and 1994's All My Tomorrows, that moved in the direction of straight-ahead acoustic jazz, toning down the popular rhythm tracks that had defined much of his music. "If you don't do things like this every now and then," Washington told Down Beat in 1994, "people think you don't know how. ... Most of us are multi-faceted, just like diamonds." Other albums, such as 1992's Next Exit, were more commercially oriented.
His success and celebrity assured--he performed at the inauguration ceremonies for President and fellow saxman Bill Clinton in 1993--Washington branched out into new areas in the 1990s. He collaborated with Boston Pops conductor John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra on a recording of music from the film A Place in the Sun for an album called The Hollywood Sound. And he remained alert to contemporary pop trends: the 1996 album Soulful Strut ventured into hip-hop, acid jazz, and African rhythm. A Christmas album, his first, appeared late in 1997. Many of his concerts, though, continued to feature the jazz-pop instrumentals that brought him his own place in the sun. As a Washington Post critic noted in 1997, "few people have played this music longer or more successfully than Washington."
Washington died on December 17, 1999, following the taping of an appearance on CBS-TV's Saturday Early Show. Jazzman Sonny Rollins told Downbeat: "He was one of the best people we had in this music, both on a human level and as a great player." In 2001 Jason Miles worked with a range of recording artists to put together a tribute album called To Grover, with Love.
Sonia Sanchez, Born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Wilson L. and Lena (Jones) Driver; married Albert Sanchez (divorced); married Etheridge Knight (divorced); children (second marriage): Anita, Morani, Mungu. Education: Attended public schools in New York City; Hunter College, BA, 1955; postgraduate work at New York University.
Career: Downtown School, New York, instructor, 1965-1967; San Francisco State College, instructor, 1966-68; University of Pittsburgh, assistant professor, 1969-70; Rutgers University, assistant professor, 1970-71; Manhattan Community College, assistant professor of black literature and creative writing teacher of writing, 1971-73; Amherst College, associate professor,1972-73; Muhammad Speaks, columnist, 1970s(?); Spelman College, poet-in-residence, 1988-89; Temple University, Laura H. Carnell Professor of English, 1977-99.
Memberships: Poetry Society of America, American Studies Association, Academy of American Poets, PEN, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Selected awards: PEN Writing Award and the American Academy of Art and Letters' $1,000 award to continue writing; honorary Ph.D. in fine arts, Wilberforce University, 1973; National Education Association Award, 1977-78; Honorary Citizen of Atlanta, 1982; Tribute to Black Womanhood Award by black students at Smith College; 1985 American Book Award for Homegirls and Handgrenades; Pew Fellowship in the Arts, 1992-93.
Addresses: Home–Philadelphia, PA.
Sanchez also has contributed to journals and anthologies as a poet, essayist, and editor. She has edited anthologies, including Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Blackness Comin at You, An Anthology of the Sonia Sanchez Writers Workshop at Countee Cullen Library in Harlem; and We Be Word Sorcerers: Twenty-five Stories by Black Americans. Also, she has written and edited stories for young readers, such as the compilation A Sound Investment, and the tale, The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead, and Squarehead. In addition, Sanchez has contributed to a book on Egyptian Queens and written for the publications Black Scholar and Journal of African Studies. She also has recorded her poetry.
In her 1973 book of poems, A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, Sanchez explores being a woman in a society that "does not prepare young black women, or women period, to be women," as she told Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work. She also writes about politics and ethnic pride and uses parts of her life to illustrate a general condition. Although she still advocates revolutionary change she also focuses on individuals battling to survive and find love and joy in their lives. Her work has been called both autobiographical and universal. Critics have observed that while her early books address social oppression, her 1970s plays are about her personal struggles. In Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free us? a black woman participating in the movement against white oppression refuses to be mistreated by her husband. As Sanchez said to Claudia Tate, "If you cannot remove yourself from the oppression of a man, how in the hell are you going to remove yourself from the oppression of a country?"
Sanchez's books of verse include Wounded in the House of a Friend and Does Your House Have Lions? The first book, published in 1995, is a blend of poetry and prose in which she pays tribute to Essence magazine and presents memorial pieces for Malcolm X and James Baldwin. According to Publishers Weekly, "Sanchez is at her best...when she places her speaker in the furious center of criminal action: a raped woman's detailed account of her attack, a woman trading her seven-year-old daughter for crack ('he held the stuff out/to me and I cdn't remember/her birthdate I cdn't remember/my daughter's face'). A brilliant narrative is offered in the voice of a Harlem woman struggling with (and eventually hammered to death by) her junkie granddaughter."
In Does Your House Have Lions? (1997) Sanchez concerns herself with AIDS and familial estrangements and reconciliations. In the book she writes of her brother who left the South angry at his absentee father. He hurls himself into the gay world in New York City, "and the days rummaging his eyes/and the nights flickering through a slit/of narrow bars. hips. thighs./and his thoughts labeling him misfit/as he prowled, pranced in the starlit/city," wrote Sanchez. But AIDS pursues him and the family is only brought together again because of his illness and hospitalization. As he dies, he hears the spiritual voices of his ancestors, who also are present. Kay Bourne stated in the Bay State Banner, "Stylistically, the 70-page heartfelt lyrical poem is a wonder. It is a triumph of skill with its consistent rhyming pattern (ababbcc) that propels the reader forward. It is brilliant in its choice of words, which, while never sending the reader scurrying to the dictionary, is touchingly apt in plumbing the depths of her brother's experience and that of her other family members."
The author has won numerous awards for her work and activities, including the PEN Writing Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters' $1,000 award to continue writing. She was given an honorary Ph.D. in fine arts by Wilberforce University in 1973 and received a National Education Association Award in 1977-78. She was named Honorary Citizen of Atlanta in 1982, and received an NEA award in 1984. More recent awards include a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 1992-93, an honorary Ph.D. from Baruch College in 1993, a PEN fellowship in the arts in 1993-1994, and a Legacy Award from Jomandi Productions in 1995.
Throughout her distinguished teaching career, Sanchez taught and lectured at institutions across the country. As a teacher her legacy is as one of the pioneers of African-American Studies. She was the first professor to offer a course on the literature of African-American women (at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969). She began teaching in 1965 at New York's Downtown Community School. After teaching at several universities, including San Francisco State College (now University), the University of Pittsburgh, City College of the City of New York, Amherst, Spelman College, and the University of Pennsylvania, she became a professor of English and Women's Studies at Temple University where she remained until her retirement in 1999.
Though retired from teaching, Sanchez did not quit writing. She kept to her discipline that she started as a youngster. She attributes her desire to keep writing to her "love of language," as she told African American Review. "It is that love of language that has propelled me, that love of language that came from listening to my grandmother speak black English. I would repeat what she said and fall out of the bed and fall down on the floor and laugh, and she knew that I was enjoying her language, because she knew that I didn't speak black English. But I did speak hers, you know. It is that love of language that, when you have written a poem that you know works, then you stand up and you dance around, or you open your door and go out on the porch and let out a loud laugh, you know."
With the 2004 publication of the spoken-word album, Full Moon of Sonia, Sanchez is continuing her legacy as the poet who brought black English to the world. As put by Black Issues Book Review: "It is refreshing to see a legend, a respected artist, come forward and show all of us how to do it right. Full Moon of Sonia does more than give us good poetry set to music; it galavants through an amazing formal and stylistic range that reminds us all how Sonia Sanchez finally got to this place."
Clay Corley Sr.
My name is Clayton E. Corley, Sr. aka Big Trigger host and producer of an award winning internet program!