When San Diego musician Kamau Kenyatta learned that his protégé Gregory Porter had won Best Jazz Vocal Album at the 2014 Grammy Awards for Liquid Spirits (an album Kenyatta produced), he was momentarily indisposed: “I was playing a house party in Santee,” Kenyatta says, laughing. “I got the phone call from my wife, Murugi, saying we won, then I went on to the next tune.” No celebration? No jumping in the air? “I really didn’t. The challenge for me is always just making good music. I did think this would mean a lot in the music business — but as a personal accomplishment — I’m happy; it makes my parents proud — but, no, I didn’t jump for joy, I really didn’t.”
Kenyatta met Porter while subbing as a teacher at UC San Diego for George Lewis. “It was a jazz ensemble and there really wasn’t any material for Gregory. He was just singing horn parts. I was very clear on his talent from the beginning and I approached him after class and said, ‘Let’s craft a repertoire.’ And he took me up on it, and we immediately became very close. He always calls me a mentor, which reminds me of our age difference, but I don’t think of it like that. I just think of him as a friend. I grew up in Detroit, and I had a lot of help from older musicians; it’s just how we did things up there. And I was carrying on that tradition.”
The UCSD lecturer has produced all three of Porter’s albums, each one of them earning Grammy nominations. Did he have a feeling that 2014 was Porter’s year? “Honestly, I’m always more focused on the music than the accolades,” Kenyatta tells the Reader in a conversation conducted at his well-appointed Mission Valley condo. “But if you asked me, I would have said that this one would win. There’s no one that really sings like him, and on top of that, he’s a really talented songwriter, and he has this accessibility. He’s selling a lot of records, especially in Germany and the U.K., where he’s crossing over into the pop charts and the radio is a little more loose than it is here. He’s already at 500,000 units, so it’s already turned gold. We’re not supposed to start working on the new one until March of next year.”
So, how has life changed, following the big win? “I get a lot of calls from vocalists — and that’s fine for me because most of my favorite musicians are vocalists. I love the beauty and the timbre of the voice. I did a project with an 18-year-old singer, Mimi Klein, and I’m starting a project with Kathy Kosins. I’m excited about that, and there are a few other serious projects that I’m considering....
“I also continue to work with [big-band composer] Joe Garrison. There’s the ‘Odd Couple’ for you. Joe is like the guy with a thousand ideas — and I’m the guy who can put a period on those ideas. He’s a fountain of creativity; he just needs, like, a light to come on and say, ‘Okay, it’s done now.’”
How does Kenyatta approach his role in the studio as a producer? “When I work with an artist, be it Gregory Porter or Joe Garrison or even Mimi Klein, I’m not there to dictate what goes on. I’m hopefully going to reveal what the artist had in mind in the first place — to help them realize their original intent, not to shade it with my thing so much.”
For Kenyatta, the road to San Diego was circuitous. “I’m from Detroit, and I was living in Tampa, Florida, for a couple of years. It’s a nice place to live, but not enough work, industry-wise. I thought I’d move to Los Angeles, and I have a cousin, Tanya Lewis, that lives here who invited me to stay with her while I made the transition. She was a life-saver. I drove back and forth for every audition, but things didn’t take off the way I wanted them to, and I thought, San Diego.
“I love the city. Just love it. The weather and the neighborhoods. On top of that, the music scene and the musicians — it’s a friendly place — not so cliquish. I would say that when I first came to town, I got more help from fellow piano players than anyone else. I came in ’91 and there was so much work in San Diego, they’d throw me something. Then I started working with [saxophonist] Hollis Gentry. In those days, Hollis had a big following.”
One thing led to another at UCSD. “They kept asking me to do more,” says Kenyatta. “And I love being here — a lot of my students are science majors or pre-med — it’s all the same to me. If someone is sincere about music, whatever level they come in at — we can do something.”
Kenyatta’s musical career includes work with flutist Hubert Laws, trumpeter Donald Byrd, and the Supremes, with whom he toured the world for several years. Even with a loaded school schedule and recording sessions to guide, there are still personal commitments to the piano and saxophone: “I have to practice a couple of hours every day just to maintain. I’m not one of those gifted musicians that can just play anything. I’ve got to put the time in. I’m still learning!”