He is an undeniable master of the saxophone, a songwriter and GRAMMY award winner. Kirk is a pastor with masters’ degrees in art and theology from Memphis Theological Seminary. He is a sage of life, people, fun and improvisation.
“I was interested when social media developed the word ‘sharing;’ it became so much more of a big deal than it was 10, even five, years ago. These big egos we have as musicians are sometimes misunderstood,” he says, breaking it down from a multiplicity of perspective.
“This big kid has something cool and wants to share it. I understand the paradox of kids and sharing. But kids do like sharing; they know the fun is exponential when you share it with your buddies or your sisters or your brother. Improvisation is the broader category of sharing. With the Creator’s assistance, we compose these melodies on the fly, and that is the gist of improvisation.”
Kirk was born in Memphis. He grew up singing in the choir at the Baptist church where his father was a preacher. His grandmother was Thelma Twigg Whalum, a piano teacher. His uncles included Wendell Whalum and Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum, both of whom performed with jazz bands around the U.S. He attended Melrose High School and met his wife, Ruby, when he was 15 years old and she was 14.
Kirk became a member of the Ocean of Soul marching band at Texas Southern University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music performance. He and Ruby married in 1980, and they are the parents of four children. Kirk and Ruby once moved their family to France to better learn the language. (Now they are learning Spanish together, after taking some introductory classes at church.)
In 1994, Kirk told EBONY MAN magazine that his roots grow from four primary genres: “Memphis R&B, gospel, rock, and jazz. The emphasis, though, is on melody, period.”
“Melody is absolutely the core of this communication endeavor. Without melody, it’s like a sentence without a verb. It’s fundamental to this passion that we have to share something,” says Kirk, who still practices saxophone most every day.
The path to world-renown has been rocky but clear for Kirk. Along the way to his 2011 GRAMMY award for Best Gospel Song, “It’s What I Do,” featuring Lalah Hathaway and written by his lifelong friend Jerry Peters, Kirk found himself touring for seven years with Whitney Houston. It’s his solo that we all love on her song “I Will Always Love You,” the best-selling single by a female artist in music history. In the journey from there to here, Kirk’s dabbled in everything from pop to R&B and smooth jazz.
“I was always this person. When you look back at the huge cover of my LP album FLOPPY DISK, it said, ‘God loves you and wants you back.’ On every record through the liner notes and the music itself, I’ve pursued the vertical connection between the listener and the Creator. I had this other agenda and admittedly so.”
Kirk’s spiritual infusion is sublime. “My relationship with the sages, with Jesus, the radicals…it’s in those moments that are my greatest inspiration. When I’m most prolific, if that’s the word, I’m in communion with Him and most times in a subliminal kind of way,” Kirk reflects.
“Sonny Rollins said, ‘You can’t think and improvise at the same time.’ That means you can’t be plugged into your brain and play your finest music. You have to be plugged-in spiritually to the source of creativity. If my iPhone is plugged into the charging case, I’m good for a minute. If I’m plugged into the wall, I’m good infinitely. He has the ability to give me one note that affects people so profoundly that there is no doubt in my mind who is the source for it.”
Yet, Kirk is no dogmatist. Like his music, his being reaches beyond boundaries. “I do not claim exclusivity to the process of improvisation. For example, if you’re a Buddhist, I know you have access through mediation.” Kirk refers to himself alternately as the most-liberal conservative you’ll ever meet and the most-conservative liberal you’ll ever meet. In Austin, where he lived for a time, Kirk fits right in.
“I was a jogger for many years before I blew my back out (so now I walk), but I love Town Lake. My wife and I would go and hit it,” he reminisces. “I remember the Fajita Man who would be on Sixth Street, and to this day, those are the best fajitas I’ve had. Tex-Mex, the Latino culture, Austin has a very Bohemian feel and community spirit. I think there’s an ethic with the young people there, with South By Southwest, that is very holistic and authentic, and those are the things I love about Austin.”
In 2005, Kirk recorded the BABYFACE SONGBOOK, recapturing R&B legend Babyface’s best songs for the prior 15 years, along with smooth jazz artists trumpeter Rick Braun, guitarist Norman Brown, soprano saxophonist Dave Koz, and guitarist Chuck Loeb. Kirk began recording THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JAZZ in 1998. The first chapter premiered that year, the second chapter in 2002, the third chapter in 2010, and he recently completed the fourth chapter, recording live in Brooklyn, New York. Joining him on the fourth chapter are singer Shelea; GRAMMY-winning guitarist Norman Brown; Rick Braun; Kenneth T. Whalum, III; John Stoddart; Gerald Veasley; and Doc Gibbs.
Beginning with both his grandmothers, Kirk comes from a long line of musicians. His nephew Kenneth Whalum, III, has a Number One album on iCloud. His nephew Kameron Whalum played trombone for Bruno Mars’ halftime performance at the 2014 Superbowl. Kirk’s son Kyle is a singer/songwriter who also plays bass or the country band TENNESSEE KINGS.
But Kirk shares the music beyond his family, beyond his fans. Again breaking boundaries, he devotes time to STAX Music Academy in Memphis, where he is the Artist in Residence. One aspect of the program is to help children with musical gifts develop them to the point where they can enter programs like the industry-standard Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts.
“Every town has kids who want to play music, and every town has the potential to develop that into opportunities where kids who are attracted to something can be passionate about it and it can be a driving success of their life,” Kirk says. “Though Memphis is kind of the stepchild of Tennessee, where Nashville has the Mojo going on right now, Memphis has always had a tremendous amount of talent, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, too many names to fit in one sentence. At Stax, we’re able to use that as fertilizer for what’s next. We call them, The Next Generation of Soul Communicators, and we are nurturing this crop of great musicians, whether classical, jazz, pop, Broadway, country, or whatever.”