Kirk Whalum was born on July 11, 1958, in Memphis, Tennessee, Whalum was surrounded by music as he grew up in the R&B capital of the South. Whalum grew up singing in the choir at Olivet Baptist Church, where his father, Kenneth Whalum, Sr., was a pastor. Influenced by his musical family, including his grandmother, a piano teacher, and two jazz musician uncles, Whalum started playing the drums before switching to saxophone. Along with playing in church, he was a member of his school concert and marching bands, and listened to a steady mix of Stax soul, gospel, and jazz LPs. He received a scholarship to attend music school at Houston’s Texas Southern University, where he formed a band in 1979 and began playing shows on the local club circuit. When he opened for Bob James in Houston in 1984, the pianist was impressed with Whalum‘s expressive style, and invited him to play on his album 12.
In addition, singing in his father’s church choir, Whalum also learned to love music from his grandmother, Thelma Twigg Whalum, a piano teacher, and two uncles, Wendell Whalum and Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum, who performed with jazz bands around the country. These influences proved lasting, as he told Ebony Man in a 1994 profile, “The music I like to play and write encompasses the four elements I grew up with: Memphis R&B, gospel, rock, and jazz. The emphasis, though, is on melody, period.”
Whalum started out playing the drums but switched to the saxophone in junior high. He was not immediately drawn to jazz, however. As he recalled in a February of 2002 interview with Sandy Masuo of the Grammy Foundation online, “I was coerced into the [jazz] program. The teacher welcomed me and said he had heard I was gifted, and that he’d like to see me in the jazz program. And I said, no, thanks. I was 15–what did I know? And he said, ‘Let me rephrase that: You are now in the jazz program.’ So, I didn’t choose it, but I knew from the first rehearsal that this was the music I wanted to play.”
Whalum did not look back. While still a teenager, he played in his school’s jazz band and at jazz clubs around Memphis. His skill earned him a music scholarship to Texas Southern University in Houston. He continued to play in Houston-area jazz groups while writing arrangements and playing with the university’s Texas Southern Jazz Ensemble. By the early 1980s Whalum was a regular opening act for national headliners that came to Houston for concerts. He also became a father for the first time around 1979 when his daughter Courtney was born. He married Rubystyne (or Ruby) Whalum around 1981, and she adopted Courtney as her daughter. The Whalum family later grew to include three more children: Kyle, Kori, and Evan.
While still at Texas Southern University, Whalum was involved in a car accident while returning from a school concert. This was a turning point for Whalum, who decided that it was a message from God not to go back to the day job at a department store that he had just started. “He wanted me to make music,” Whalum recalled in a profile with Smooth Jazz News in 2001, “Whatever the cost.” The young musician did not have to wait long for his big break; after opening for keyboardist Bob James at a Houston concert in 1983, James asked Whalum to appear on his album 12. James also recorded one of Whalum’s original compositions, “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby,” that he had written in honor of his wife.
Whalum spent a year touring with James’s band and in 1985 signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. His first album, Floppy Disk, was released in 1985 and was followed by two more albums produced by Bob James, And You Know That! (1988) and The Promise (1989). Following the release of The Promise, Whalum took a break from his solo career to concentrate on performing with other artists. He recorded with Luther Vandross, Barbra Streisand, George Benson, and Quincy Jones. He also worked on the soundtracks to the films The Prince of Tides (1991), Boyz in the Hood (1991), and Grand Canyon (1991).
In 1992 Whalum made his biggest mark to date when he appeared on Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” originally performed by Dolly Parton. The song from the soundtrack of The Bodyguard spent fourteen weeks on top of Billboard‘s Hot 100 singles chart. Whalum later toured as Houston’s opening act for several years. As he described the experience on his website, “I have so many fond memories of the years spent touring with Whitney. Her powerful gift impacted me profoundly–much like the many gospel singers who influenced the both of us. I was influenced by her long before I ever worked for her. I will always treasure being there to watch her make history time and time again.”
Whalum moved his family to France in 1992 but returned to the United States to capitalize on the popularity of “I Will Always Love You.” His first album in four years, Caché, was released in 1993. He released one more album on the Columbia label, In This Life (1995), before signing with Warner Bros. Jazz. His first album for that label, 1997’s Colors, grew out of his experiences with racial and cultural diversity in the United States and abroad. Taking his interest, a step further, Whalum founded a nonprofit organization, Hearts Against Racism and Prejudice (HARP) to promote tolerance and understanding across cultural barriers. Whalum was also active in raising money through charity benefit concerts for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Houston and the Boys and Girls Club of Pasadena.
While Whalum typically recorded his own compositions, 1998’s For You included versions of Mariah Carey’s “My All” and Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” among other pop tunes. The album proved to be the most successful of Whalum’s career, spending over a year on Billboard‘s contemporary jazz albums chart. Whalum returned to his gospel roots with The Gospel According to Jazz, Chapter One in 1998. He later recorded two more spiritual-themed albums, which allowed him to explore his religious faith through his music, Hymns in the Garden and The Christmas Message, both released in 2001. As Whalum commented in a Warner Bros. Jazz press release to promote The Christmas Message, “I wanted to fully share the joy of the Christmas story, but at the same time not in a dogmatic way. The story, and the songs that convey it, already carries its own power and glory.”
In 2001 Whalum released Unconditional, an album that contained both original compositions by Whalum and covers of ‘N Sync’s “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You” and Macy Gray’s “I Try.” While the inclusion of such popular fare might have seemed unusual for a smooth jazz performer, Whalum took a different view. “It is easy to be narcissistic and insular, to want to get your own point across every time,” he told Billboard in October of 2000. “These songs are accessible to the public, and there is nothing wrong with that. If you think about Louis Armstrong or Count Basie, who have as much integrity as anyone who ever picked up an instrument, they played things that appealed to the public, things that would make people dance. That’s not a crime.”
Kirk Whalum is best known for his saxophone solo on Whitney Houston’s hit “I Will Always Love You,” contemporary jazz musician Kirk Whalum has also recorded a series of well received solo albums and film soundtracks, with music ranging from pop to R&B to smooth jazz. His best-selling 1998 contemporary jazz album, For You, included instrumental versions of the pop hits “My All” and “That’s the Way Love Goes,” as well as the Motown classic “I Want You.” The son of a minister, Whalum also turned to spiritual themes for the 1998 release The Gospel According to Jazz and the 2001 releases Hymns in the Garden and The Christmas Message. “With each project, I make sure that I am honest to who I am as [much as] possible, and I always tell the truth, presenting a unique snapshot of where my life and faith are at that time,” Whalum remarked to Smooth Jazz News online in a May of 2001 interview. “My basic process of writing is going down in my basement and praying, thanking God for everything and then asking Him for melodies that would help glorify Him. That’s why few of my recordings revolve around concepts. I just like to let things flow naturally.”