Grover Washington was born in Buffalo, New York, on December 12, 1943. He came from a musical family; his father played tenor saxophone, his mother sang in a choir, one brother was an organist in church choirs, and his youngest brother, Darryl, became a drummer (who would later also join the professional ranks). Like his father, Washington soon took up the saxophone. "I started playing at around age ten," he told Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman in Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music, "and my first love was really classical music." He took lessons at the Wurlitzer School of Music and studied a variety of instruments. "My early lessons were on the saxophone, then it was the piano, the drum and percussion family, and the bass guitar." Asked how he found the time for all these instruments, he said, "It was basically what I wanted to do at a very early age, so I had the time. I could really get into all of them on the basic level." Washington also loved basketball as a child but quickly realized that music would be his future. "I stopped growing at 5' 8-1/2"," he told People.
Washington played in his high school and for two years was a baritone saxophonist with the all-city high school band. He also studied chord progressions with Elvin Shepherd. At the age of 16, Washington finished high school and left Buffalo to become a professional musician, joining the Four Clefs. Based in Columbus, Ohio, the band was on the road much of the time. The Four Clefs split up in 1963 and Washington joined organist Keith McAllister's band. Two years later, in 1965, Washington was drafted into the U.S. Army. Stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he was headed for Vietnam until, according to Joy Wansley of People, "he talked his way into the base band." Besides playing with the 19th Army Band, he also played in Philadelphia during his free time, working with a variety of organ trios and rock groups. In addition, he played in New York City with jazz drummer Billy Cobham.
It was at one of his off-post gigs that Washington met his future wife, Christine, who was then an editorial assistant. Christine told People, "We met on a Saturday, and he moved in on Thursday." They were married in 1967. Washington was discharged from the service that same year. Washington and his new wife then moved to Philadelphia. From 1967 to 1968 he played with Don Gardner's Sonotones. In 1969 he took his first full-time job out of the musical arena, working for a local record distributor. "I was totally immersed in jazz at the time," he told Coryell and Friedman, "and this taught me another side of music. I got to check out people like Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, and John Mayall." In 1971, he returned to music, playing with Charles Earland's band. He also began recording as a sideman with various musicians such as Joe Jones, Leon Spencer, and Johnny Hammond.
His first big musical break came quite by accident. Commercially minded record producer Creed Taylor had put together a set of pop-funk tunes for alto saxophonist Hank Crawford. On the eve of the recording date, Crawford was arrested "on a two-year-old driving charge," Washington told Rolling Stone. Taylor then called in the little-known Washington as a last-minute replacement and had him play the alto parts. The album, Inner City Blues, was released in 1971 under Washington's name. It became a hit--an album, Palmer wrote in the New York Times, "that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and did much to break down barriers between jazz and pop." As Washington admitted to Wansley, "My big break was blind luck."
He continued to record as a sideman with Randy Weston, Don Sebesky, Bob James, and others, as well as record his own albums. In 1972 he released All the King's Horses, followed by Soul Box in 1973. It was his next album, Mister Magic, released in 1974, that established Washington as a major jazz star. It was the first of several of his albums to reach number one on the jazz charts and go gold. Succeeding best-sellers included Feels So Good, Live at the Bijou, and Reed Seed.
Washington developed what is called a jazz-pop or jazz-rock fusion musical style. It consists of jazz improvisation over a pep or rock beat. Although he came from a jazz background, influenced by such artists as John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, and Oliver Nelson, Washington's wife got him interested in pop music. "I encouraged him to listen to more pop," Christine told Rolling Stone. "His intent was to play jazz, but he started listening to both, and at one point he told me he just wanted to play what he felt, without giving it a label." Recognizing that Washington is unrestrained by labels and tradition, Joachim Berendt wrote in The Jazz Book: From New Orleans to Rock and Free Jazz that he plays contemporary music "not worrying about styles and schools." A versatile musician, Washington plays tenor, alto, soprano, and baritone saxophones, plus clarinet, electric bass, and piano. He also composes some of his own material.
The popularity of Washington's brand of jazz-pop helped make jazz-pop music a success. Keyboardist Bob James told Wansley, "Grover was one of the main people to make this crossover movement happen. We had people intrigued by jazz, but a lot of it was so complex they didn't relate to it. Grover maintained a very high level of musicianship and yet his playing was very melodic and direct."
Critics had mixed reactions to Washington's music, some praise and some pans. The "commercialism" of his music was what usually earned the pans. In a review of his 1979 album Skylarkin', Frank-John Hadley of down beat said that "were commercial jazz saxophonists exalted to monarchic positions, Grover Washington Jr. would be the sovereign." Hadley added that Washington's "credo might read: Let my music reach out and spread love. Alas, his past recordings ... have been as superficial, contrived and dishonest as a Harlequin romance." The Skylarkin' album, on the other hand, received high marks from Hadley because of the emotion of Washington's playing. "Now and then his phrases are predictable, tremolos as cliches, but there's enough unrehearsed excitement and compassion in his playing to permanently exile the affected waxing’s of any dozen commercial jazz pretenders."
Respected critic Ron Welbum noted in Radio Free Jazz that "Grover is perhaps the strongest young fusion reedman in the tradition of Hal Singer, Gatortail Jackson, and Junior Walker. That which is predictable about his music can be excused because of the power and ... sincerity of his projections." Although some writers considered his music "fuzak," Palmer, in Rolling Stone, stated: "Powerful live performances make it clear that, whatever his commercial proclivities, Washington knows his soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones thoroughly. On soprano and alto especially, his sound is attractively personal; he combines liquid grace with an understated residue of R&B grit."
Even some fellow jazz musicians knocked Washington's music. Wansley reported that bassist Percy Heath accused Washington of "bastardizing" jazz. But he defended himself against the barbs: "My music is for the everyday person--people music. There's no pretense. It's honest. It transmits feelings and moods. That's about all you can hope to achieve."
In 1980, Washington released his most successful album ever-- Wine light. And from that album came a smash hit single--"Just the Two of Us," with vocalist Bill Withers. Both the album and the single had wide appeal. As People noted, the two recordings were "simultaneously among the top five sellers on five record charts: soul singles and LPs, pop singles and LPs, and jazz LPs." The popular jazz saxophonist achieved even broader popularity. The album eventually went platinum, and the single went gold. Remarked the New York Times, "[Washington's] commercial success is unusual for a contemporary jazz instrumentalist."
Ever since he moved to Philadelphia, Washington had been a big fan of the Philadelphia 76ers professional basketball team. His love for the 76ers, and particularly their star player, went public with the Winelightalbum. One of the tracks on the record is called "Let It Flow ("For Dr. J")," dedicated to the team's Julius "Dr. J" Erving. Around the same time, Washington approached the team and began playing the national anthem occasionally before games. "Why not?" he said to Lisa Twyman of Sports Illustrated. "I was at the games anyway."
Also in 1980, Washington applied for a doctoral program in music composition at Temple University. He explained to Wansley that he "was told he had to audition. 'The next day,' he smiles, 'I came back with a stack of my albums and told them to listen and let me know if they thought I could play.' He was admitted."
Washington's next albums carried on his familiar mellow sound and the critics continued their mixed reactions. In a 1982 review of his recording Come Morning, De Genova said: "Commercial? Yes. Trite? No. Appropriately titled, this album sets a 'cool summer morning, grass still wet with dew, lover lying next to you' mood." He added that "Grover's sincerity and his natural, almost whimsical saxophone interpretations make his refreshingly lyrical phrasing a pleasure to listen to." However, De Genova maintained, "Some may call this music vinyl Valium, and depending on personal taste, the album may become monotonous. Similarities in mood, texture, and tonality often make some of the tunes seem to blend together."
In addition to producing some of his own albums, Washington has also worked as a producer for the group Pieces of a Dream. In a review of their 1982 recording, We Are One, Robert Henschen of down beat proclaimed, "With Grover Washington in a producer's role, you know the final mix is going to have a light, enjoyable touch. It does." Washington also had a featured solo on one of the songs and his playing, Henschen said, was "as sweet as ever." Reviewing Washington's 1983 album, The Best Is Yet to Come, People suggested that he is capable of better. This album "is more pop than jazz, taking wing only in occasional bursts from Washington that break out of a staid set of arrangements." Better things did happen to him when he attended the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar at the University of Pittsburgh and was presented with the year's Outstanding Achievement in the Arts award.
In 1984 Washington released the album Inside Moves. Robert Hiltbrand of People remarked that "Grover's jazz is accessible to listeners of all musical tastes. Turn him loose on choice material, as on Inside Moves, and his fluid and graceful style is incomparable." Describing some of the cuts, Hiltbrand said, "'Dawn Song' moves from soft and dreamy to sharp and funky. The title cut undergoes a similar change, with Washington blending alto, tenor and baritone saxes over the sweet opening and then pulling out all the stops on top of a bass-percussive riff that is reminiscent of the pioneer fusion ensemble Weather Report."
The next year saw Washington collaborate on an album with jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell. A review by Ralph Novak of People stated that "Even those people who find Washington's popular solo-saxophone albums too bland and unchallenging don't question his sense of melody and tone. This LP lets him unleash those talents with a passionate vengeance." Burrell and Washington mesh well together according to Novak. "There are few more enjoyable moments in jazz than when two imaginative soloists mix and match with each other's moods, and this album is full of such moments."
Washington will undoubtedly continue to create his smooth, melodic saxophone sounds for years to come. And if he follows the advice of Hadley, he will also "continue his present policy, the policy of circulating warmth."
Washington died on December 17, 1999, in New York City at the age of 56.
Grover Washington, Jr., was and still is “the most popular saxophonist working in a jazz-fusion idiom." And because of Washington's great success some critics have downgraded his music, calling it bland, too commercial, and not real jazz. However, Washington is an obviously talented musician who always surrounds himself with other top-notch musicians and who has had the good fortune to string together a long procession of hit albums.