Kevin Mahogany, Masterly Jazz Singer, Is Dead at 59
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO DEC. 19, 2017
Kevin Mahogany at Birdland in Manhattan in 2014. Alan Nahigian
Kevin Mahogany, a vocalist whose broad baritone and prodigious talents as an improviser made him a latter-day jazz standard-bearer, was found dead on Sunday at his home in Kansas City, Mo. He was 59.
His half brother, Craig Hampton, said doctors had not yet determined the cause.
Mr. Mahogany arrived on the national jazz stage in the 1990s boasting a silky tone and a languid swagger. His style drew on Kansas City’s tradition of bluesy male vocals, while also reflecting the influence of R&B and jazz from the 1960s and ’70s. His voice was weighty and wide, yet his articulation always remained crisp.
After moving to New York City, Mr. Mahogany performed with the drummer Elvin Jones and the bassist Ray Brown. In 1993 he released his debut CD, “Double Rainbow,” on Enja. A rigorous, straight-ahead workout, it featured four all-star sidemen: the saxophonist Ralph Moore, the pianist Kenny Barron, the bassist Ray Drummond and the drummer Lewis Nash.
Mr. Mahogany begins one track of that album, Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” in a sizzling tête-à-tête with Mr. Nash, scatting at him in percussive bursts. On the next track, “Save That Time,” a ballad, Mr. Mahogany downshifts into a slow, amorous croon.
Reviewing a performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2000, The New York Times’s Ben Ratliff wrote that Mr. Mahogany “was patient, and the music benefited from his patience; the musicians became appreciably more alive.”
Mr. Mahogany began touring the world, and in 1996 he released “Kevin Mahogany,” the first of three albums for Warner Bros., on which he performed tunes made famous by Stevie Wonder and Bonnie Raitt, among others. In 2000 he released “Pussy Cat Dues,” a big-band album dedicated to the compositions of Charles Mingus. He followed that in 2002 with “Pride and Joy,” jazz deconstructions of Motown classics.
“Every song that you sing onstage, you have to absorb the persona of that song,” he told the website London Jazz News in 2013. “Your audience has to believe that you’ve experienced what you’re singing about, or else it’s just not gonna work.”
Kevin Bryant Mahogany was born in Kansas City on July 30, 1958, the son of James and Carrie Lee Mahogany. He started playing piano in third grade, then briefly took up the clarinet. He switched to the baritone saxophone, and at age 12 earned a spot in Eddie Baker’s New Breed Jazz Orchestra, a local big band.
His earliest musical influences came from Motown soul and the rich saxophone tradition of his hometown, exemplified by figures like Charlie Parker and Ben Webster. He studied with Ahmad Aladeen, a respected tenor saxophonist in the area.
It was not until Mr. Mahogany discovered “Look to the Rainbow,” a live album by Al Jarreau, that he began to explore jazz vocalists more fully. He worked his way back to Kansas City’s lineage of male singers, while also internalizing the more erudite styles of Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson.
He attended Lincoln College Preparatory Academy and Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., where he studied music. It was at Baker that he began to consider himself a vocalist; the university did not offer classes in jazz singing, so he studied operatic vocals and helped start a student jazz choir.
After graduating from Baker, he returned to Kansas City. He formed two R&B groups there, the Apollos and Mahogany, and briefly performed with a nine-piece jazz ensemble, Robinson-Pike.
In addition to performing, Mr. Mahogany had entrepreneurial interests: For a time he published a magazine, The Jazz Singer, and in the 2000s he started his own label, Mahogany Jazz, which released his album “Kevin Mahogany Big Band” in 2005.
In 1996 he portrayed the midcentury crooner Big Joe Turner in Robert Altman’s film “Kansas City.” He also appeared in “Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing,” a companion film built around a jam session shot on the set of “Kansas City.”
Mr. Mahogany also taught, first at Berklee College of Music in Boston and then at Florida International University in Miami, where he lived until this year, when he moved back to Kansas City this summer after the death of his wife, Allene.
In addition to Mr. Hampton, his half brother, he is survived by two brothers, Lawrence and James L. Mahogany, and a half sister, Carmen Julious.
Mr. Mahogany said that as a vocalist he applied lessons he had first learned on saxophone. “A lot of my improvising style came from my instrumental playing,” he told London Jazz News. “I had the thoughts, but my fingers wouldn’t cooperate enough.”
“I started singing it,” he added, “and it just seemed to work out.”