In December 1995, when singer Kevin Mahogany was playing Buffalo’s old Calumet Arts Cafe, a fight broke out near the door. The staff acted fast and threw the two guys – who were still cursing and slugging – out into Chippewa Street.
Mahogany, on stage singing a ballad, didn’t miss a beat. Even now, looking back, he remembers the fight but laughs it off.
“Mostly I remember, it was right after that huge snow,” he said. “Driving in, I remember seeing cars parked on the side, a lot of cars on the highway just covered in snow.”
The last time he was here was less dramatic. He played with pianist Cyrus Chestnut in the Albright-Knox’s quiet, glass-walled auditorium as part of the series “The Art of Jazz.”
The shift of venue showed Buffalo’s changing jazz scene. And the scene continues to change; at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Mahogany will be singing outdoors, on the main stage of the Lewiston Jazz Festival.
He is the featured singer with Saturday night’s headlining act, a big-band tribute to the great vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton. Mahogany will be singing some numbers with a big band led by Jason Marsalis on vibes. Marsalis comes from the famous New Orleans family that includes trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and their father, pianist Ellis Marsalis.
It’s an ambitious act and, with the jazz clubs gone, there aren’t many places around here where you could conceivably hear it.
Luckily, the Lewiston Jazz Festival seems to get a little bit bigger every year.
“We’ve really grown the festival,” says Carol Calato, the festival’s board chairwoman. “We’re really excited to have this band. Lionel Hampton was a big name. And to have Jason Marsalis on vibes, playing all these Lionel Hampton favorites!”
This year’s festival has the trimmings fans love, including a jewelry show, an antique Jaguar show and booths selling an array of gourmet foods and wines. But really, Calato says, “It’s about the music.”
Friday night culminates in the best of local talent. Pianist George Caldwell leads a group at 5:30 p.m., followed at 9 by sax great Bobby Militello.
One new touch this year is a jazz class. At noon Saturday on the Rising Star Stage, Eastman School of Music professor Rich Thompson will take an audience through a history of jazz, with his students playing along.
“This is something we really want to build on, the educational segment of the festival,” Calato said. “Because the festival remains free to the public, we’ve exposed a lot of people to this great American musical genre, people who might not otherwise hear it. We’ve created jazz fans.”
No musical limits
Mahogany knows what it is like to come into jazz from the outside.
With his big, barrel-voiced baritone, he has been likened to great jazz singers of the past. Men like Jimmy Rushing (“Mr. Five By Five”) and handsome Joe Williams, both singers with the Count Basie Band. Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman, urbane singers of grace and depth. And the blues shouter Big Joe Turner, who shared Mahogany’s hometown of Kansas City, Mo.
Such comparisons are fine with Mahogany. “I don’t mind being compared with a singer as long as I like him,” he quipped, with his rumbling laugh.
But he is quick to point out that much as he admires those legends – he even played a Big Joe Turner figure in Robert Altman’s movie “Kansas City” – he did not grow up with their music in his blood.
“Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Joe Williams, those gentlemen, if jazz was the music of their youth, the music of my youth had to be Motown,” he said. “You can’t deny what you listen to, what you were brought up on, adding that to your repertoire. Motown was there before jazz for me. My older brother was the record buyer for the family. He would buy albums, 45s.”
Mahogany’s mother demanded that he and his brothers and sisters take piano lessons. (She took the lessons with them, to make sure they toed the line.) At 12, he began playing clarinet in a big band.
In college at Baker University in Texas, he had classical training, singing arias and art songs. “You’d be surprised with the parallels,” he said. “Basic singing is the same regardless of genre. You have to be concerned with pitch placement. You have to be in tune.”
One classical singer Mahogany admires is the great tenor Mario Lanza.
“The object of what I do, especially when you do a ballad, you want everyone in the audience to feel you’re singing just for them,” he said. “That’s what I get from Mario Lanza. “It always felt as if he were singing just for you. This beautiful sound and style that seem to cross boundaries. Again, even though it’s classical, it didn’t sound as if it had to stay there. He could have done anything, I think.”
Mahogany got used to crossing boundaries in his listening.
“In the ’70s, in the ’60s, the radio format was different,” he said. “You could hear a jazz record, a pop record, a country record – the formats were scrambled. Which to me was nice. You got to listen to a variety of stuff. You’d hear Stevie Wonder next to Led Zeppelin. To me, that’s great. I don’t listen to just one style. I don’t want to limit myself musically.”
Paging Tony Bennett
Talking with Mahogany on the phone is just plain fun. Calato crossed paths with him in California, where she worked in the office of the Monterey Jazz Festival, and was struck by how likable he was.
“They wanted me checking in with all the musicians, and I remember him playing there in the mid-’90s,” she said. “He was such a gentleman. He was so nice.”
Adding to his charms, Mahogany has a wicked sense of humor. It surfaces in some of his songs – he has written a few, although he won’t be singing them as part of the Lionel Hampton show.
One blues, for instance, is called “Tony Bennett Never Calls.” In the blues, Mahogany regrets that Bennett, who has recorded duets with everyone from Lady Gaga to Amy Winehouse, has never called him.
How did Bennett respond? “I have never heard from him,” Mahogany admitted. “I’ve met him a couple of times. I think he has enough of a sense of humor that he’d appreciate it.”
Not that the song is a complete joke. Every song Mahogany writes has, he said, “a little bit of a message.”
“I would love to do something with him,” he said.
Mahogany, 55, is younger than Bennett. But he has old-school sensibilities.
He misses vinyl, for one thing. “There was that great artwork on records.”
Finding himself talking to a fellow vinyl fan, he warmed to his subject. “Back then, when you heard your favorite artist had a record out, you went out and bought it,” Mahogany said. “Now it’s ‘I have to listen to it first.’ ” He laughed. “If Stevie Wonder, or Earth, Wind and Fire, or the Temptations, or whoever, had a new record, you didn’t have to say that. You didn’t have to say, ‘Marvin Gaye, I have to hear it first before I buy it.’ Now they have listening stations, preview stations. Give me a break.”
Mahogany’s repertoire includes some soul ballads, like “The Dark End of the Street” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” And though at the Lewiston Jazz Festival he will be singing Hampton songs, every now and then a note, or a vocal gesture, will recall the soul influences of his youth.
Perfect, in other words, for a free festival out to make jazz some new friends.
“You want to bring in new audiences,” Mahogany reasoned. “Which means you have to make the songs newer for them. Forties music is great for someone who grew up in the ’40s. Some will be drawn to that older style, but if you can just put enough touch on it in a new style, that’s half the battle.
“I have people come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know that was jazz – I like it!’ I say, ‘Don’t quit on me, now.’ ”
Historic Lewiston Jazz Festival
Music starts at 5:30 p.m. Friday and noon Saturday along Center Street, Lewiston. It is free. For info, call 754-8271 or visit www.lewistonjazz.com.