Johannesburg is a long way from Kirk’s hometown of Memphis, TN. Having grown up a pastor’s kid, it’s not surprising to learn that Kirk’s warm, melodic sound was birthed in the Baptist church. Born into a musical family, Kirk first expressed his interest in music on the drums, switching to saxophone in Jr. High School when he was impressed with the shininess of the sax. Kirk began playing local functions and clubs while still in high school. A music scholarship brought him to Texas Southern University in Houston, beginning his road to musical maturity. I became enthralled by the Texas Tenor sound and was able to spend many years gleaning from Arnett Cobb one of the fathers of that big Texas sound.
Having built a steady following as a sideman in some of Houston’s top jazz clubs, 1980 saw Kirk stepping out in faith and starting his own band. Houston was such a cool music town in the early ‘80s. There were so many live music venues then..everybody came through Houston. I have memories of hanging out with Sonny Stitt and Rollins.. I was like a spongejust sitting there with these giants and absorbing everything they threw my way. It worked. His musical reputation as well as his local following grew. Soon Kirk became the opening act for jazz shows that came to Houston and in 1983 he caught the ear of jazz pianist Bob James, who was so impressed with the young Whalum that two weeks later Kirk found himself in New York soloing on Bob’s album, Bob James 12. Kirk became a member of his touring band and eventually snagged a recording deal with Columbia Records.
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