By Dee Dee McNeil
When I first met Kamau Kenyatta, I recognized almost immediately that he was a deep thinker. Tall, thin and willowy, he ambled over to the piano and started showing me some tune he’d been thinking about that he believed had amazing potential for someone to sing. His long, slender fingers moved nimbly across the keys. He plays beautifully.
“Do you remember this Bill Withers’ composition?” he asks me. “It was on his second album and it’s really interesting and deep,” he elaborates.
Kamau has a way of pulling the best out of music and employing the slightest and most incredible inuendoes and ambiguities to color his arrangements. He loves to reinvent a song and he knows how to inspire an artist. That’s what makes him a prolific producer.
Our paths originally crossed some years ago when Kamau Kenyatta was playing more piano than horn. He’s proficient in both. But today, some thirty-years later, I am taking a peek into his history. Pen poised; I ask him when he first felt a musical calling.
“Well, you know I was very fortunate to grow up with people that really loved music and I would say, in the African American community of the nineteen-fifties, it was almost like a badge of honor to know music. So, my mother, Ruth, my father (John A. Jones) and my Uncle Richard Harris, (who used to babysit me) although none of them were musicians, they took great pride in listening to the music. At that time, I was two or three-years-old and my uncle Richard had an extraordinary vinyl collection with Ahmad Jamal and Miles (Davis), Art Farmer, the Modern Jazz Quartet, just all the people you listened to back then. At only two or three years old, my uncle may have thought that I was sitting there enjoying the music because he was enjoying the music. But hey, I remember I genuinely liked that music! My uncle was so meticulous about his vinyl collection, that if he scratched a record, he gave it to me, because he wouldn’t play anything with a scratch on it. So, I actually had my own Ahmad Jamal album and Miles Davis album when I was three and four years old. I knew who they were and I would put them on the turn-table and listen to jazz.
“My mother and father were listening to people like Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. They talked about Billy Eckstine with a great sense of pride and affection. In my house, I heard them talk about Mr. B. and Sarah, all with first names. Consequently, as a child, I thought they were family members or family friends I hadn’t met yet. They spoke of Sarah, Mister B and Hazel Scott with such pride and familiarity.
“As I got older, my mom started taking me to ‘live’ concerts. She was very, very much into music and still is. She’s ninety-one. Mom exposed me to ‘live’ music. She took me to hear the Northwestern High School Band. That was her Alma Mater and that concert made me think, oh man. I want to play an instrument too. So, that’s what got me into music and jazz.
“I started on the clarinet. I wanted to play the bass clarinet, but they told me I was too small for the bass clarinet. Now, in my Detroit neighborhood, I was already wearing glasses and now I’m carrying a clarinet.”
(We laughed together as I pictured a little boy, looking a wee bit like a nerd, walking down the Motor City avenue carrying his clarinet.)
“So, I was kind-of a marked man. That’s when I asked my parents to please get me something cooler than the clarinet. Get me a saxophone. My grandfather, John Jones, was an electrician. He worked overtime doing side jobs and one job was at a pawn shop. That’s where he got me my first tenor sax. That’s when I started playing saxophone. I was eleven-years-old,” Kamau remembered fondly.
I asked Kamau who were some of his early influences and he recalled his first mentor being a public-school music teacher named Allison Oglesby. Then he skipped to his days at the historic trade high school that has turned out so many amazing musicians, Cass Technical High School, and he listed a few more people who taught and inspired him.
“I got involved with Metro Arts through Cass Technical High School. There, I got to meet guys who would come to the program, like Harold McKinney, Teddy Harris and Kenny Cox. Those were the three I probably was the closest to of all the Detroit musicians. Then there was Pistol Allen, (a drummer at Motown) trumpet legend, Marcus Belgrave and even Lottie the Body.”
(we laugh together again, because we’re both from Detroit and we share and respect the legendary legacy of Lottie “the Body” Graves, a shake dancer and Burlesque queen. She is also a big supporter of Jazz and the arts in the Detroit community. Believe me, she was quite beautiful and stacked-up-from-the-ground back in those days. People of all cultures and colors came to see Lottie dance in Vaudeville shows country-wide. She settled in Detroit in the 1960s and became the act to see at the popular Ziggy Johnson hosted, Paradise Club on the East Side of Detroit and at the popular Twenty-Grand nightclub on the West Side of the City. She also performed regularly at The Brass Rail Grill. Her show was famous for Lottie’s high-class costumes and her exceptional dancing abilities. She even hosted her own club called ‘The Pink Poodle.’)
Kamau Kenyatta continued to reflect on his early life in the music business.
“Being around all of that culture influenced me. You know, characters like Lottie the Body would shout out to you from the audience. We’re talking about late sixties, early seventies, when I was a young musician. I was playing in the black community, when some of those people in the audience (like Lottie) would direct our performances. They’d shout out things like, ‘take your time, baby’ – – ‘You playin’ too much.’ Those ordinary people in the audience, sometimes out of love or pride in our jazz heritage, inadvertently guided a young musician’s performance. They knew the music and they inspired us!”
Detroit, Michigan was a great place to soak up a rich, jazz heritage. Folks like the Jones brothers, (Hank Jones, Elvin Jones, and Thad Jones) represented a family success story in the business of music. Kenny Burrell grew from Detroit roots, as did Tommy Flannagan, Barry Harris, Ron Carter and Yusef Lateef. Donald Byrd grew up and out of Detroit to sparkle the world with his trumpet genius. It wouldn’t take long for Kamau Kenyatta to cross paths with some of these music icons.
“In the 1980s I started doing some touring. I went on the road with Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds. When I auditioned for that gig, I played ‘Cristo Redentor.’ I replaced Allen Barnes on saxophone for that tour. After that experience, I joined Mary Wilson and the Supremes. Teddy Harris (pianist, big band leader and Detroit educator) got me my first job with her. He was their Musical Director.”
This was only the beginning of Kamau’s world-wide touring. Travelling to over twenty countries, he has worked with Carl Anderson (from Jesus Christ Superstar and Anderson’s memorable recording with the great Nancy Wilson). Kamau also worked with legendary composer/performer/activist Oscar Brown Jr., and has played with jazz greats like Yusef Lateef and Earl Klugh. He leant his talents touring with the R&B, gold record girl’s group, SWV; with Silk, Charles Wright and the 103rd Street Rhythm Band and even New Kids on the Block. His experiences were varied and he mastered several genres and various styles of music along the way. These diverse experiences would all further mold this man into the prolific producer he has become.
Kamau Kenyatta pictured (upper left), Vincent Bowens, Ayesha Lateef, Yusef Lateef (center-front) and Ralph Jones; after playing a gig at St. Matthews & St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, Michigan.
“I moved to Florida for a few years and then I came from Florida to the West Coast. I was going to move to Los Angeles, but I wound up in San Diego and things worked out for me to stay here. I got a job teaching in 1999 at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). That kept me grounded here,” Kamau explained how he transitioned from on-the-road gigs to a life in the thriving, upscale community of San Diego, California. This was the place where he met Gregory Porter.
“At that time, I was a substitute teacher at UCSD for George Lewis, the great trombonist/composer and educator, and Gregory Porter was in that class.”
NOTE: George Lewis, a native of Chicago, currently is Professor of American Music at Columbia University in New York City and is also Vice-Chair of the Department of Music.
“Gregory was a football player at San Diego State and he had been injured. It was a serious injury; a career-ending injury. So, he was looking for other outlets for his talents and a new career path. He came to UCSD to audit this jazz class. As soon as I heard him sing, I was excited about his talent. I said come to my house. Come and let’s spend time together. He was born in 1971 and he didn’t live through a lot of the stuff that we’ve lived through. I spoke to Gregory about the rich history of Detroit and Motown. It wasn’t that he was unaware of some of the older music, but we sat together for hours and listened to people like Leon Thomas and Jon Lucien. We talked about visual arts and books and authors and African American painters, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Whatever people think of his singing, people should know that this guy is just a brilliant intellect. I didn’t teach him how to sing. He already knew how to do that.
“I actually took him to Detroit and showed him some of our history. We went to Temple #1 on Linwood Avenue that Mother Tynetta X attended; Sacred Heart Seminary, where during the 1967 rebellion they painted the statue of Christ black. I wanted to share those kinds of scenarios and that kind of history with him. And I think it had an influence on him. My mentoring of him goes beyond music. It has a social and political component. He wrote that hit record, “1960 What?” after our visit to Detroit. He took everything I shared with him and made it better.”
As a mentor, it swells your heart with pride to see your fledgling, talented protégés take wing and fly. As a producer, Kamau Kenyatta worked to bring out the very best of Porter’s talents and in 2014 the reward was when Porter won a Grammy for his Blue Note Record release, “Liquid Spirit” and more recently, they both took home a Grammy for the stellar recording, “Take Me To the Alley.”
In San Diego, Kamau Kenyatta found joy in teaching and inspiring young minds to grow and flourish. He served as musical director for ‘Blues Schoolhouse,’ an educational program for middle-school children at the International House of Blues in San Diego. In the spring of 2007, Kamau embarked on a solo album project that featured him as pianist/composer and artist. He produced his “Destiny” album. In 2009, Kamau joined the Music Department at California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) and served as Department Co-Chair from 2010 to 2011. But more and more, Kamau Kenyatta found himself in demand for arranging and producing in a succession of unexpected projects.
“Hubert Laws had hired me to do some arranging for him. I met him through Greg Phillinganes at Quincy’s house one night. Even to this day, when I work with Hubert, I remember listening to him when I was eleven or twelve years old; listening to his albums in Detroit. I mean, I’m a fan of Hubert Laws, as much as I’ve been a collaborator. He’s such a brilliant musician. They call him ‘Silk’ because he’s so smooth. He is turning 81 this year and he’s still fantastic. He’s probably better now than he ever was. Some time ago, I had done this one project with him called, ‘Hubert Laws Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole,’ where I arranged songs recorded by Nat King Cole for him to play.
“Hubert liked the work that I did and called me back to help him when he got the call to do some music for this Fox network documentary that detailed the history of African-American film. He called me to assist him on that project released in 1998. It’s a complete honor to work with him at any time,” Kamau Kenyatta beamed.
Continuing with his success in film scoring and soundtrack arranging, Kamau Kenyatta was approached by film maker Carol Parrott Blue, a Houston, Texas professor and author, who was producing a film about growing up black in Texas in the 1940s. This DVD-Rom, combination book and website, won the 2004 Sundance Online Film Festival Jury Award.
“It was an interactive DVD about African Americans in Houston, written by Carol Parrot Blue. I wrote music and I supervised the period music that we chose for that film. It was another incredible and great experience. Unfortunately, we lost Carol Blue a few years ago.”
“I’ve scored a few film projects at UCSD. There’s a professor at UCSD called Zeinabu Irene Davis. She’s part of the L.A. Rebellion, a group often referred to as Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers. That is a group of filmmakers who all went to UCLA in the late 60s up to the late 1980s. Zeinabu asked me to score a film, “Spirits of Rebellion” in 2015. More recently, in 2016, I did music for this documentary on Gregory Porter called, “Don’t Forget Your Music”, Kamau told me.
The fascinating thing about Kamau Kenyatta’s talents is his ability to interact with a variety of artists and genres. You hear him exhibit those skills in both his arranging and producing. In 2010, he produced the album, “Water” on artist Gregory Porter. This album made the world sit-up and take notice of Mr. Porter and his undeniable talent as a singer/songwriter. The “Be Good” album came next in 2012 and became a big hit both nationally and internationally. In 2013, Kenyatta served as associate producer/arranger on Porter’s Blue Note Records disc “Liquid Spirit” and they won a Grammy in the “Best Jazz Vocal Album” category.
In 2015, Kamau co-produced this journalists’ album, “Storyteller.” It was mainly my original music and pop/jazz.
In 2016 he produced Ed Motta’s “Perpetual Gateways” vocal album and Steph Johnson’s “Music is Art” CD, that featured Ms. Johnson singing her own compositions. It was a pop/R&B/contemporary release.
In 2017, he produced, arranged and played soprano saxophone on the Robert McCarther’s album titled, “Stranger in Town,” that was a straight-ahead jazz album. The same year, Kamau won a Grammy for his co-production and arrangements on “Take Me to The Alley” with Gregory Porter.
In 2018, Kamau Kenyatta produced an album called “Uncovered Soul” by Kathy Kosins. On this project, Kathy and Kamau reinvented familiar R&B songs using more contemporary arrangements. The following year, he produced projects on both Daneen Wilburn and Alicia Olatuja. Alicia’s album was titled, “Intuition: Songs From the Minds of Women.” Both of these singers are strong, soulful vocalists and the material on Wilburn was funk-based and commercial.
“Alicia Olatuja is a singer from St. Louis originally, but she’s based in New York City. Billy Childs did an amazing arrangement on a Brenda Russell tune for us. We did all women composers on Alicia’s project,” Kamau explained.
Then, in the fall of 2019, Kamau found time to produce a solo project titled, “The Elegant Sadness.”
“This album is made up of extended versions of my original music from the “Don’t Forget Your Music” documentary that I scored for the BBC-released film on Gregory Porter,” Kenyatta explained.
“The Elegant Sadness” features: Kamau Kenyatta, piano/composer/arranger/producer; Hubert Laws, flute; Curtis Tylor, trumpet; Brian Clancy, tenor saxophone; Mackenzie Leighton, bass; Richard Sellers, drums; David Castaneda, percussion; Nolan Shaheed, engineer.
Opening with a song titled, “Smoke” pianist Kamau Kenyatta presents a pensive, moderate tempo ballad featuring Curtis Taylor on trumpet and Brian Clancy on tenor saxophone. Kenyatta’s piano style is thoughtful and tender; expressive and lovely. He sets the groove when his piano chords open the composition. Kamau establishes the bass line with his left hand, then allows space, inviting the horns to arrive at the party. The next composition is titled, “Watching and Waiting.” Drummer, Richard Sellers, pushes the horns ahead like a powerful tractor. Originally, all seven songs were produced, composed and arranged by Kamau Kenyatta to accompany a documentary on Gregory Porter entitled, “Don’t Forget Your Music.” These are extended and embellished versions of that music.
Kenyatta’s music is lyrical and melodic. His carefully penned compositions make you want to hum along with them. There is a certain amount of familiarity to his music, even though I realized I had never heard these tunes before, I still felt a kinship to them. That’s a genuine compliment to the composer. I listened and felt connected.
A composition called “Leaving San Diego” features the great Hubert Laws on flute. Hubert adds quality and beauty to this project. As an iconic jazz musician who’s held in high esteem by the jazz community, Hubert Laws flies into my listening space like a smooth, gliding bird. Kenyatta’s solo establishes his melody on piano and improvises on a theme. There is nothing splashy or exciting here, but rather a laid-back production, meandering along at a moderate pace and offering the best of Kenyatta’s composer skills and the mastery of these talented musicians.
Currently, a Teaching Professor at UCSD in the Music Department, in 2020 Kamau Kenyatta is looking forward to several prime projects. He just completed an album with the dynamic vocalist, Paulette McWilliams titled “A Woman’s Story” and is preparing to work on a new project with Allan Harris, who has a warm, velvet smooth voice reminiscent of Nat King Cole. He is mentoring a young singer Kamau refers to as ‘brilliant’ named Laurin Talese, who has recorded previously with Robert Glasper and Kenyatta is also planning to record Hugo Suarez, who will be playing boleros on solo piano.
I have no doubt, Kamau Kenyatta’s bound to wave his magic producer’s wand over these artists with the same individualized concern, creativity and objectivity that he brings to each and every project. That’s what makes him the ultimate and successful producer/arranger he has become.