A Jazz Giant and Philly Fixture
Did you know that April is National Jazz Appreciation Month? Many jazz greats have a connection to our local jazz scene, including Sun Ra, Byard Lancaster, Stanley Clarke, Eric Gravitt, Michelle Beckham, Tony Williams, and Grover Washington, Jr., the latter of whom received a Germantown Historical Society Hall of Fame award 25 years ago this spring and is the focus of this month’s Time Machine article.
Born in Buffalo, New York in 1943, Washington was given a gift of a saxophone from his parents as a child and he took very quickly to it, beginning to play professionally by the time he was 12. He visited many clubs while growing up in Buffalo, and quickly became involved in the local jazz scene. He was later drafted into the Army, and after he was released, Washington freelanced in New York City before finally arriving in Philadelphia, in 1967, where he settled in West Mount Airy.
His career took off in the 1970s and 80s, starting with the release of his Inner City Blues, in 1971, followed by All the King’s Horses, Soul Box, and Mister Magic. The 1980 release of his album, Winelight, was received with accolades, and the LP won two Grammy awards for “Best Jazz Fusion Recording,” and for “Best R&B Song” which Washington received for his “Just the Two of Us.”
The 1980s brought continued successes for Washington, including his 1987 Strawberry Moon LP, in which he was joined by legendary blues guitarist B.B. King. He would also play with other legends including Tommy Flanagan, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Though Washington enjoyed commercial success through the 1980s, it was one of his later albums, All My Tomorrows, which received notoriety for its creativity, upon its release in 1994.
With the success of his work, Washington became a fixture in the Philadelphia cultural scene, and was a frequent guest at venues throughout the City, playing the National Anthem before Philadelphian 76ers games (during which he became close friends with Julius Irving, “Dr. J”), as well as at Fourth of July celebrations at Penn’s Landing. More locally, he taught at the Settlement Music School, at 6128 Germantown Avenue. His fame was not limited to the Philadelphia area, however; for example, he played at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, in 1993.
Washington passed away at 56 as a result of a massive heart attack, on December 17, 1999, a short time before he was scheduled to play at Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street’s inauguration.
During his career, Washington had opened a studio at 8610 Evergreen Place in Chestnut Hill; after his death, his survivors opened their nonprofit organization, the Grover Washington, Jr., Protect the Dream Foundation, which its Executive Director, Tony Grandberry, stated in one of its publications, was opened to “…enrich the lives of young people through music education. At its core, the mission of our foundation is an extension of Grover’s philosophy of life. Mentoring, teaching, and providing resources and encouragement to young people interested in music gave him some of his greatest satisfaction.”
Unfortunately, the Foundation would be dissolved in 2008, while Washington’s studio on Evergreen Place would survive for approximately 10 more years, before being demolished.
NOTE: The subject files of the Germantown Historical Society were invaluable resources in the writing of this article, with newspaper clippings, and publications associated with the Protect the Dream Foundation helping to document Washington’s legacy and accomplishments, both here in our community and beyond.