Vocalist Kevin Mahogany Dies at 59


Kevin Mahogany (1958–2017)

(Photo: Courtesy kevinmahogany.com)

Kevin Mahogany, a jazz vocalist known for his resonant baritone and stylistic diversity, died Dec. 18 in Kansas City, Missouri. He was 59.

Mahogany’s 1993 debut, Double Rainbow (Enja), launched his career as a jazz singer. In addition to several Enja releases, he recorded albums as a leader on the Warner Bros. and Telarc labels, as well as his own Mahogany Music imprint. His most recent release, The Vienna Affair, was released last year on the Austria-based Cracked Anegg label.

In 1996, Mahogany appeared on screen in an acting/singing role for director Robert Altman’s film Kansas City.

A highly accomplished scat singer, Mahogany was known for incorporating various elements of the blues, r&b, rock and soul into his vocal delivery. He was influenced by such iconic jazz singers as Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams and Johnny Hartman. Prior to pursuing a career as a vocalist, Mahogany played baritone saxophone and clarinet.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 30, 1958, Mahogany had been based in Miami until recently. After the passing of his wife, Allene, earlier this year, he moved back to his hometown, where he was scheduled to perform New Year’s Eve at the Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center, according to The Kansas City Star.

In addition to performing and recording, Mahogany was a dedicated jazz educator and mentor who taught at Berklee College of Music and the University of Miami.

Mahogany rose to international fame in the mid-to-late ’90s. He won the Male Vocalist category of DownBeat’s Readers Poll in 1998 and 1999, and he topped the Male Vocalist category of the DownBeat Critics Poll in 1999.

In memoriam, DownBeat presents the following article by John Janowiak, originally published in our December 1998 issue, when Mahogany was named Male Vocalist of the Year in the 63rd Annual Readers Poll.

Kevin Mahogany: Male Vocalist of the Year

The career path of a male jazz vocalist can be a tortuous one, tangled in a thicket far from the path of least resistance. Lured by cartloads of money, or at least the prospect of a decent living, many would-be scat men are sidetracked into more commercial realms. So, it’s rare when a male jazz vocalist, based in a small Midwestern locale like Kansas City, goes so far as to land two major record deals, complete six albums as a leader in six years, then top his category in DownBeat’s Readers Poll, all by the age of 40.

Record labels were signing few male jazz vocalists at all in 1993, when Kevin Mahogany landed his first deal, on Enja. After three CDs and a few years of hard work, he brought himself to the point where he could move on to a contract with Warner Bros. The new deal benefited him with wider distribution and increased promotional support, and from there, his career kicked into higher gear. Having already performed in the movie Kansas City, he took another step into the movie world, first singing on Clint Eastwood’s Eastwood After Hours—Live At Carnegie Hall CD, then performing on the soundtrack for Eastwood’s movie Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil. With the help of such mainstream exposure, no doubt, he steadily climbed up the Readers Poll, not to mention the Critics Poll.

Still, while he could be called a crossover artist, he’s no sellout. He sings compositions by James Taylor, Lyle Lovett and Van Morrison on his newest CD, My Romance, but the harmonies and style of these interpretations are in the jazz tradition, and they’re done with taste. Although Mahogany describes himself simply as a singer, not a jazz singer, he can scat with the best of them. He played legit clarinet and big-band baritone sax long before specializing in vocals, and he says this background helps him hear music a little differently than most singers. His voice, he says, is just another part of the ensemble.

At any rate, defining “jazz singer” is a sticky endeavor that can sound like the president discussing what “is” is. Is he is, or is he ain’t a jazz singer? When you get right down to it, Mahogany is just that, and then some.

Why then, given the commercial limitations of this niche, does he sing jazz?

“I don’t know,” Mahogany says with a sigh of mock resignation, then a laugh. Then seriously: “I think it’s also a matter of what you love to do. I mean, we [singers] are blessed with a job that we love. I love singing all styles of music, but I don’t think anything touches me as much as jazz does. Also, when you look at career longevity, it’s definitely more prevalent in jazz than it would be in any other form of music. Look at Joe Williams. And Mel Tormé was singing until he had the stroke. And Tony Bennett. I mean, you see very few pop or r&b artists singing at their age, except for oldies reunion kinds of things. You don’t really see them performing at the level that these gentlemen continue to perform at.”

The title of his latest CD can serve as a metaphor for his calling. His romance, you could say, is a lifelong pursuit of musical expression.

“The one time I actually did speak to Joe Williams, he was saying how he’s still learning,” Mahogany says. “Every day there’s still something new for him to learn in jazz. And I think that’s a lot of [the appeal]. I think that it’s a life-long pursuit for all of us.”

While he is flattered to be acknowledged by fans in the Readers Poll, Mahogany bends over backward to point out that he, too, still has plenty to learn. “I am so far behind, in fact, they might be holding me back a year,” he jokes. Lately he’s been working on improving his songwriting, harmonic concept, vocal quality, scatting and pitch selection. Much of his learning is done on the fly, since he finds it hard to find enough time to practice. This fall, he was busy rehearsing his band to go on tour and promote the new CD. Over the past year, he gigged on four continents, from Kansas City to Austria to Japan. Among the year’s highlights, he sang with the Metropole Orchestra for a concert radio broadcast in Amsterdam, brought his own band to São Paulo, Brazil, and performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Then there’s been activity closer to home, like working with a community jazz band in Fargo, N.D., and guest-artist stints with college ensembles, an educational role he often plays.

Another project that keeps him busy—and keeps him learning—is The Jazz Singer, a quarterly magazine he launched about and for jazz vocalists of all levels.

“I’m trying to get information out of singers,” Mahogany says. “Because it used to be, you sang in a big band, that’s how you came up through the ranks, just like Joe Williams, Frank Sinatra, all those guys did. But now, without the big bands, there’s only so much you can get education-wise in the schools. Sometimes we have to turn to other places for information. What I’m trying to do is fill a little gap there.”

The magazine is an outgrowth of a newsletter he has published, and it’s an example of the kind of grassroots marketing he has used to promote his career and the profession as a whole.

“You just learn to do the things that you have to do to get the results you want,” he says. “I don’t mind working hard. This is not an easy business, we all know that, and no one’s going to give you anything here. So, I don’t mind working for what I get, especially because this is something I love. It’s hard to envision myself doing something else.”

Mahogany is on the phone a lot, setting up not only his own concerts, but bringing other artists into Kansas City. “Because remember, to have a good local scene, you have to have other artists from outside the area,” he says. Another ongoing endeavor is the constant search for songs. He digs into his past, searches record stores and solicits opinions, not only from people like his producer, Matt Pierson, but from fans as well.

“You look for lyrics that you can wrap yourself around, and hopefully you can relate to it to some degree. You don’t have to have had your heart broken all the time to be able to sing all those songs, but it helps to know something about it or know something about being in love, or whatever it is that helps bring that song across. So you have to be able to convince someone that you’ve been in this situation. Consequently, you have to have lyrics you can appreciate that mean something to you.

“A great love song will never go out of style,” he says, paraphrasing, of all people, Barry Manilow. “And I really believe that. That’s something that in my live shows has always been more successful than anything else.” Thus the concept of My Romance. “The whole thing was to be just love songs and ballads, something that you can sit back and relax with. That was really it, there’s not a whole lot of magic to it. Just sit back, relax and enjoy.”

No follow-up record is in the works yet, but when the time comes, it might be along the same lines. “Some of it may depend on how well My Romance does. I think if this one does as well as we’re anticipating, there might be, for lack of a better title, My Romance II. There are still a lot of great love songs and ballads out there that either haven’t been covered or can be done again that people would love to hear.”

Further down the road, he hopes to work more with big bands, “little” big bands and other vocalists. He aspires to sing with Nancy Wilson, Williams and Jon Hendricks, but he dreams of working with non-jazz vocalists, too, like Barbra Streisand and Luciano Pavarotti. Until that day arrives, he has his work cut out for him, and the Readers Poll gives him extra incentive.

“I’m definitely flattered to be accepted, because the lineage of these polls is incredible, the past winners. So, now to be included as one of them is really a great honor. And hopefully it won’t be the last time to be included as one of these artists. We know that just because you win it once doesn’t mean it’s over, or that you should stop now and everything is OK, you’re an established star. No, it’s not that at all. In fact, if nothing else, it means you need to start working harder to maintain an integrity of music. That’s what I want to try and do. That’s why, as much as I enjoy the critics’ accolades, my personal preference is for the Readers Poll because these are the people who go out and spend the money on you. And believe me, they’ll never know how much I appreciate that, even though we try and tell them every time we perform by going out and doing the best we can. This means a lot to me, probably more than most people realize.” —John Janowiak

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