Grover Washington Jr. bandmates reunite in tribute and friendship

Jazz artist Grover Washington Jr. playing for students in 1998. Washington died a year later.

Jazz saxophone titan Grover Washington Jr., though born in Buffalo, N.Y., will always be regarded as a Philadelphian: He lived and raised a family in the area from 1967 until his death in 1999. As a player and composer, he could do it all — fleetingly atonal improvisation, smoking funky R&B, straight-ahead jazz, urbane opera covers (the posthumously released Aria) — but Washington was mostly heralded for his smooth, soulful, contemporary jazz, with Top Ten hits in the pop charts.

“Did you know Grover used to sub for Maceo Parker in James Brown’s band when Maceo was ill?” says keyboardist, arranger, and longtime Washington bandleader Bill Jolly. “There wasn’t a sound around that he didn’t love to play, and would whenever he had a chance.” Jolly said that, while on tour, the twosome would finish a gig “at an arena or amphitheater,” then hunt down local jazz watering holes or hit the hotel lounge’s after-hours just to keep playing. “He just wanted to go.”

Those who want hear Washington’s sound can rejoice. For the first time in more than 20 years, his band — Jolly, bassist Gerald Veasley, drummer Steve Wolf, percussionist Pablo Batista, keyboardist Donald Robinson, guitarist Richard Lee Steacker — will reunite and play with two saxophonists who followed in Washington’s footsteps (Gerald Albright, Najee) and vocalist Jean Carn for a showcase Tuesday, July 18,  at the Temple University Performing Arts Center, at the urging of the Philadelphia Jazz Project, WXPN-FM (88.5), and WRTI-FM (90.1).

Jolly is quick to remind that he got his gig with Washington when the keyboardist was Carn’s music director and the saxophonist produced sessions that yielded her Omni label album, Closer Than Close. “We had a gig at the Valley Forge Music Fair, in 1987, and he and I got to talking,” says Jolly, who wound up playing keyboards for Washington soon after and made 1989’s Time Out of Mind, their first recording together. “I worshiped him forever – even had a high school jazz band that used to play his “Mister Magic” … not well,” he says, giggling. “Still, for me, doing the albums weren’t the thing. They were cool, but they were snapshots. Being with him in a live gig was where it all soared. That’s where he came alive.”

Veasley started work with Washington around the same time, with 1987’s Strawberry Moon as his debut Washington recording session. “My first performance with Grover was actually at a Friends’ Central School assembly, when I was working with Dick Klein, a drummer who also happened to be a Philadelphia judge,” he says with a laugh. “Dick invited Grover to perform because their kids all attended Friends Central. After the performance, Grover asked for my card. I thought he was being polite, but he ended up calling me first for a play he composed music for,  Split Second.” Working with Washington was, for Veasley, a dream come true. “I used to stare at Grover’s Live at the Bijou album cover and imagine being in that band.”

Both Veasley and Jolly were gleeful when discussing where Washington’s always-innovative, always-soulful aesthetic took them. “The thing I loved the most about him,” says Jolly, “maybe why he was misunderstood, was that he was completely open-minded. A New Orleans funeral march, a classical piece, dirty funk – for him, it was: Do it openly and to the best of your ability. He could play any tune — any — in the standard book. And he continued to take sax lessons through his career, staying sharp.”

Along with pointing out Washington’s humility, Veasley remarked on the great pride the saxophonist took in making sure everyone on his bandstand was thoroughly prepared. “Because we were, and Grover was very confident, he was very willing to showcase his band members. Everyone had an opportunity to shine,” says the bassist. “Grover was open to the organic nature of how songs would change over the course of playing them night in, night out. Inevitably, this organic process would take the the music too far to the left, but Grover always brought us back to the center.’ ”

Jolly, Veasley, and company welcome the opportunity to get back to that creamy center Tuesday for the gig reuniting Washington bandmates, even though the group has stayed together off the stage.

“Donald Robinson is still in my band, so we’re close. Pablo, too. And Bill is one of my closest friends so we get together often,” says Veasley.

“Gerald is my son’s godfather, and I’m his son’s godfather,” says Jolly, who mentions that he’s never lost touch with Washington guitarist Steacker, who had played with the saxophonist since the 1970s.

“It was only after Grover died that I understood the depth of my relationship with Christine [Washington’s wife] and Grover,” says Veasley. “It was more than bandleader-to-sideman relationship. It truly was, and is, a familial connection.”

Jolly continues that same family connection by restating something he just discussed with Christine Washington. “If Grover was alive today, who would his band be? The players that you’re going to see on Tuesday night.”

Grover Washington Jr. Band with Gerald Albright, Najee and Jean Carn

Tuesday, July 18, 7:30 p.m., Temple University Performing Arts Center, 1837 North Broad Street, $30. Info: philajazzproject.org