Kevin Mahogany, Jazz Singer with a Big Sound and a Soulful Style, Has Died at 59

Dec 18, 2017

Kevin Mahogany, a big-voiced, broad-shouldered singer who dipped into the wellsprings of jazz, blues, pop and R&B during a career spanning three decades, died on Monday in Kansas City, Missouri. He was 59.

The news was announced by his niece, Lawrencia Mahogany, who confirmed his death to WBGO.

Mahogany, once hailed by Newsweek as “the standout jazz vocalist of his generation,” came out of a tradition that combined the formal intricacies of bebop with the emotional depth of the blues. One of his core influences was Eddie Jefferson, a pioneer of vocalese, the art of setting lyrics to a musician’s solos. Two other major heroes — Jon Hendricks and Al Jarreau, also masters of that art — died earlier this year.

Combining his influences in a soulful and sepia-toned signature, Mahogany released more than a dozen albums as a leader. His first was Double Rainbow, released on the Enja label in 1993 — the same year he appeared on an Enja album by the master drummer Elvin Jones, Don’t Mean a Thing.

Among his other albums for Enja are You Got What It Takes, and Pussy Cat Dues, an homage to Charles Mingus. On those recordings, Mahogany displays a versatility evidenced by his interpretations of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Wes Montgomery, Billy Strayhorn and Charlie Parker.

During the second half of the 1990s, Mahogany made four albums for Warner Bros: Kevin Mahogany; Another Time, Another Place; My Romance; and A Portrait of Kevin Mahogany. He later released one album, Pride and Joy, on Telarc. All of these albums served as a showcase for Mahogany’s flexible command of styles — notably jazz, R&B, Latin and Motown.

Mahogany recorded two albums on his own label, Mahogany Music: To Johnny Hartman (2004) and Big Band (2005). 

In 1996, Mahogany appeared in Robert Altman’s jazz-inspired film Kansas City, playing a character based on the legendary blues singer Big Joe Turner. While Turner’s name wasn’t mentioned in the film, Mahogany sang a song associated with him, “I Left My Baby,” from behind the bar.

Kansas City — which had been home to a booming and influential jazz scene that included Count Basie, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker — was in Mahogany’s musical DNA. Born in Kansas City on July 30, 1958, he grew up playing baritone saxophone and piano, and began singing in high school. He liked to say that his decision to become a vocalist was motivated in part by the flexibility he could naturally express across genre and style.

Still, his first professional gig was as a saxophonist, with Eddie Baker’s New Breed Orchestra in 1970. After studying with Ahmad Aladeen at the local Charlie Parker Academy, Mahogany attended Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas, where he graduated in 1981 with a B.F.A. in Music, English and Drama.

He moved back home and established a nine-piece band called Robinson-Pike, and two R&B groups called The Apollos and Mahogany. He toured with the NRE Trio in 1991 and also recorded with pianist Randolph Mantooth.

Mahogany left an indelible mark both on and off the bandstand. He published a short-lived magazine, The Jazz Singer, and taught at the Berklee College of Music in Boston as well as the University of Miami. He received an Honorary Degree from his alma mater, Baker University, in 2001, and hosted a number of jazz vocal workshops in the United States and abroad.  

In addition to Lawrencia, survivors include three other nieces, Michelle Mahogany, Marcia Mahogany and Beverly Hampton Lewis; three brothers, James Mahogany, Lawrence Mahogany and Craig Hampton; and a sister, Carmen Julious.

Along with his solo career, Mahogany remained a collaborator: he toured in the early 2000s with Four Brothers, an intergenerational vocal team conceived by his contemporary Kurt Elling, with Hendricks and Mark Murphy. And he worked often in recent years with musicians like the guitarist Dave Stryker. Mahogany’s most recent release is The Vienna Affair, released last year with a team of Austrian jazz musicians. 

Mahogany had lived in Miami in recent years, collaborating with organizations like the South Florida Jazz Orchestra. But after his wife, Allene Mahogany, died earlier this year, he moved back to Kansas City.  “That was always home, no matter where he was,” Carmen Julious told C.J. Janovy of KCUR 89.3. “He loved the jazz legacy of Kansas, he loved the environment, he was a Kansas City guy through and through. Kansas City was in his heart.”

A previous version of this obituary omitted several surviving family members, based on information available at the time.