Grover Washington Jr. was a famous soul jazz, funk, and early fusion saxophonist. He is also considered one of the founders of the smooth jazz genre.
You might’ve heard his playing on “Just the Two of Us”, a smooth jazz-pop ballad sung by Bill Withers that was released in 1981. This hit was the source of rapper Will Smith’s later rendition in 1998, bearing sampling from the original in addition to the same name.
He’s also the man behind “Soulful Strut” and the soloist on “A Sacred Kind of Love” sung by Phyllis Hyman. His take with David Brubeck on “Take Five” is also well known.
Grover was born in Buffalo, New York in 1943. He began on the alto at the age of 10, growing up with plenty of his dad’s (also a saxophone player) gramophone records to absorb and emulate. As a young man, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he met Billy Cobham. Billy became his drummer and connection to other New York musicians. He bounced to the Philadelphia scene in the 1967.
His break was in 1971, when Hank Crawford couldn’t make it for a recording date with Creed Taylor’s Kudu Records. Soon after, he premiered his first album, Inner City Blues (1971). Mister Magic (1974), his fifth album, featured Eric Gale on guitar. It had much success for its excellent mixture of jazz, R&B, and smooth arranging. “Just the Two of Us” came from his 1980 platinum album Winelight. It earned him loads of radio airplay and a Grammy in 1982 for Best R&B Sound on “Just the Two of Us” and Best Jazz Fusion Performance on the title track, “Winelight”.
Grover passed away from a heart attack on December 17th, 1999 during a show taping of The Early Show. His posthumous album, Aria, was issued in 2000. Aria is Grover’s take on many classical arias, combining orchestral backing and solo jazz to interpret Puccini, Bizet, and others composers with his subtle class and mastery via soprano, alto, and tenor saxophone. (If you like this style combination, you may also like Gerry Mulligan’s Symphonic Dreams album.)
Check out this video of Grover playing “Just the Two of Us” live in concert: