Obituaries

Kevin Mahogany, 59, jazz vocalist and ex-Berklee teacher

Kevin Mahogany performed at Birdland in 2014.
Alan Nahigian/New York Times
Kevin Mahogany performed at Birdland in 2014.

In a voice class Kevin Mahogany taught at the Berklee College of Music, a student neglected to cue the pianist at a key moment. Stepping in to demonstrate, Mr. Mahogany showed the student how to stand slightly sideways so the band’s rhythm section could easily spot a singer’s cues.

“I prefer not to hold the mike,” he explained, “but whether I hold it or not, I make sure that every gesture is done above the waist.”

A jazz singer who toured the world, Mr. Mahogany was also a respected educator who lived in Brookline for a time while teaching at Berklee. He performed often in Greater Boston, before and after his tenure at the school, and his rich, luxurious baritone at times evoked the sound of a baritone saxophone — his principal instrument as a youth before he realized singing was his true talent.

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“I just eliminated the saxophone and did it with my voice,” he told LondonJazz News in 2013. “I had the thoughts, but my fingers wouldn’t co-operate enough, so I just went ahead and said, ‘OK’ . . . I started singing it and it just seemed to work out.”

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Mr. Mahogany was 59 when he was found dead in his Kansas City, Mo., home on Dec. 17. His sister, Carmen Julious, confirmed his death, the Associated Press reported. A cause was not disclosed. He had moved last year from Florida to Kansas City, where he grew up, after the early summer death of his wife, Allene.

He began attracting attention internationally in the 1990s with three albums on the Enja label, followed by three with Warner Bros., but he was always a little uneasy being known simply as a jazz singer. In 2002, Mr. Mahogany released “Pride & Joy” on the Telarc label — an album with 11 jazzy versions of Motown hits. “It’s the music of my youth,” he said. “Jazz never was about just singing the same 40 songs,” he told the Globe just after the album came out. “Jazz has always been creative and innovative. A lot of people will tell you, ‘If it doesn’t swing, it’s not jazz.’ Ask Sonny Rollins. He doesn’t swing all the time. It’s not that they can’t, it’s that they choose not to.”

In another Globe interview a year earlier, he explained that “the ‘jazz’ tag can inhibit you, but so can ‘rock’ and ‘pop’ in a world where certain people refuse to play something with the wrong label. That’s why I just call myself a ‘vocalist.’ ”

His preference for transcending labels didn’t stop music critics from praising him as a first-rate jazz singer. Globe critic Bob Blumenthal called Mr. Mahogany a “force on the short list of male jazz vocal powers,” when he performed at Scullers in 1997. “He has an appealing baritone voice that stays in tune when it wanders high and low,” wrote Blumenthal, who added that Mr. Mahogany “possesses the rhythmic confidence to trade percussion riffs with drummer Tony Reedus.”

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Nearly two decades later, Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich said Mr. Mahogany’s “baritone sounded fuller, deeper, and richer” than it had when he “was the next big thing in jazz singing” early in his career.

“Yet there was no mistaking his inherent sense of swing, nor the seeming effortlessness with which Mahogany bounded up and down scale, swooping from low notes to high pitches and back at the drop of a sixteenth note,” Reich wrote of Mr. Mahogany’s Jazz Showcase performance in 2016.

A commanding presence on stage, Mr. Mahogany had been tapped to play a character based on legendary blues shouter Big Joe Turner in Robert Altman’s 1996 film “Kansas City.”

“But to think of Mahogany as a throwback blues shouter would be a mistake,” Los Angeles Times reviewer Bill Kohlhaase wrote of a 1999 performance, adding that Mr. Mahogany “was at his most inventive while scatting, especially on the few up-tempo numbers. Agile and full of ideas, he brought the same winning qualities of tone and phrasing that mark his lyric presentations and turned them into an instrumental-like attack.”

“A lot of my improvising style came from my instrumental playing,” Mr. Mahogany told LondonJazz News. “I’m more of an instrumentalist when I’m thinking about what I’m improvising, as opposed to trying to worry about being a vocalist.”

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Born in Kansas City in 1958, Kevin Bryant Mahogany was in the third grade when he began playing piano. He subsequently added the clarinet to his instruments, and then took up the baritone saxophone in earnest, joining a local big band when he was 12.

He studied operatic singing while attending Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., which didn’t have a jazz program. Mr. Mahogany initially performed in rhythm and blues ensembles in Kansas City after graduating. “I had just quit my R&B band to play jazz gigs in Kansas City when a friend called me for a single gig in Chicago,” he recalled in a 2001 Globe interview. In that Chicago audience was an Enja records representative. Their encounter led to Mr. Mahogany’s recording career, ultimately included starting his own label, Mahogany Jazz. He also had published a magazine, The Jazz Singer.

Of his time living in Boston, Mr. Mahogany told the Globe that “when you’re coming from Kansas City, where the people are warm and friendly, you find the people here are cold and not outgoing. It’s hard to make friends here. And they’re the worst drivers in the world.” Then he cut Boston drivers a smidgen of slack: “No, they’re second to Sicily. Sicily has the worst drivers in the world.”

In 2001, Mr. Mahogany told the Globe he wanted the opportunity “to shape this music from within” and avoid being pigeonholed. “I want to be myself, not a poor man’s version of my idols,” he said. “An audience may want you to give them nice memories by being Joe Williams or Johnny Hartman or Mel Torme for an hour, but I want to create new memories.”

In addition to Carmen Julious, Mr. Mahogany’s survivors include three brothers, Craig Hampton, Lawrence, and James. Information about a memorial service was not available.

After his wife died last year, Mr. Mahogany posted on Facebook that he planned to return to Kansas City, where the couple had grown up. “I want to thank everyone for your prayers and condolences,” he wrote, adding that he and his wife occasionally would sing together. “She loved all the musicians I worked with and we both interacted with. She loved all kinds of music and we enjoyed all kinds. . . . For 22 years she put up with the lifestyle of a musician.”

Upon returning to Kansas City, he posted on Oct. 1 that he was settling into his home and the changes in his life, and had even cooked his first meal at the house — “chicken tenders with roasted potatoes and green peppers. There will be a lot more of these . . . I am a pretty good cook!”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.