By Noah Hubbell
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By Tom Murphy
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During the late Eighties, people interested in working at the Kansas City branch of the Internal Revenue Service probably spoke with Kevin Mahogany. A onetime employee in the IRS's mail room, Mahogany climbed up the government-employee ladder to a comfortable slot in the personnel department, where he interviewed people eager to audit you within an inch of your lives.
No doubt a real jerk, right? Hardly. Not only is Mahogany polite, sweet-tempered and gracious, he's also extremely talented. With Dennis Rowland and Kurt Elling, the Kansas City native is one of the voices of jazz's future--heir to the legacies of Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Eddie Jefferson, Mel TormŽ and Frank Sinatra.
As you might expect, he's a tad embarrassed about his former line of work. "Hey, I stopped working there a while back," he protests, laughing. "That was some time ago. I've even had other day jobs since then." He adds, "I haven't had to work a day job for a while--not really. I'm hoping I don't have to."
The improvement in Mahogany's fortunes corresponds with his 1992 decision to move to New York in search of a recording contract. Thanks to his gorgeous, flowing baritone, he succeeded: Enja, a highly regarded jazz imprint, inked him to a three-album deal. Mahogany's debut, Double Rainbow, hit the streets in June 1993 and quickly earned both critical and popular acclaim; its successors, 1994's Songs and Moments and last year's You Got What It Takes earned even more. In 1994 and 1995, he was named the male vocalist most deserving of wider recognition by the participants in Down Beat magazine's international critics' poll. And last June, the same publication paid tribute to Mahogany's skill at self-promotion, specifically citing his mailing list, which is partially financed by the club owners who book him. Such efforts have certainly paid off. Mahogany recently signed with Warner Bros., a company capable of taking him to even higher levels. He's in the process of wrapping up his first Warner disc, set for May release.
Mahogany is becomingly modest when asked to explain how he's managed to come so far so fast. "I don't know what makes me special," he says. "But can we count the hard work I've put in? I've got some of the other things everyone else has. But I also have perseverance--and other people don't always have stick-to-itiveness, if there is such a word.
"When I came to New York," he goes on, "I didn't have any doubts. I knew this was going to happen. I just had a feeling that it would. Plus, this is what I've been aiming for and planning for just like anyone else does in their career. You set a goal and you try to achieve it. Fortunately, I did." He concedes, "It's sure nice when that happens."
Now that he's got a platform for his music, Mahogany is determined not to fall into the trap that's ensnared so many of jazz's neo-traditionalists. He doesn't want to simply repeat what his heroes have done in the past. He wants to take the style to a new place.
"Jazz was always a good-time music," he emphasizes. "It was a dance music in its own time. So why shouldn't we take our dance music and make our own jazz tunes? If Monk and Mingus and Bird and those cats were alive today, they wouldn't be redoing their old stuff. They'd be moving forward. They were moving forward at that time, so can you imagine what they'd be doing today with all this technology at their fingertips? We need to create our own standards, move the music forward. That's the only way we're going to be able to do this and keep the music alive."
Still, Mahogany isn't one to criticize artists, like Sinatra, who refuse to hang up their microphones when their skills begin to deteriorate. "I portend to say that if I want to sing when I'm sixty, then I'm going to sing," he says. "Just because I want to, not because I have to. I don't want to be in that situation where I have to keep working and keep making money. You know, regardless of what field you're in, I imagine everybody hopes to retire someday."
Such considerations shouldn't cause Mahogany any sleepless nights. Right now he's in his vocal prime, and he plans to take advantage of it. "I'm just going to keep going and hope that people like what I'm doing regardless of the label that is put on it." He pauses before noting, "I think that's a lot of the problem out there today. People are so busy labeling stuff that they don't listen anymore. The labels are the thing that's really killing us. Now, I'm not naive enough to think that will ever go away. But I'm doing music, and no matter what style I do, it's going to be good music. If people want to buy it because they think it's a jazz album, that's fine. But if they want to buy it because they like my voice or the music, that's even better, because that means I'll be able to do what I want."
And what Mahogany wants today has nothing to do with your tax returns.
Kevin Mahogany. 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, March 8 and 9, Vartan Jazz, 231 Milwaukee, $15 (reservations required), 399-1111.