Jazz singer Kevin Mahogany, a Kansas City native who had recently moved back to town, has died. He was 59.
News of his death was reported Monday morning on social media, including his Facebook page. At 11:30 a.m, the American Jazz Museum issued this tweet: “We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of our dear friend Kevin Mahogany. His broad baritone has been an essential piece of the jazz landscape in Kansas City and all across the world.” A cause of death was not reported.
“Kevin was one of the great musicians to come out of Kansas City,” said Bob McWilliams, director of folk and jazz at Kansas Public Radio and host of “Trail Mix” and “Jazz in the Night.”
“More than anyone, he carried on the Kansas City tradition in terms of jazz vocals. He had this wonderful baritone and ballad style, a lot like Johnny Hartman. And he was a great blues singer, and bebop singer and scat singer. So diverse.”
Mahogany’s discography comprises more than a dozen albums going back to 1993, including recordings on the Warner Bros. and Telarc labels.
He was also a jazz educator. He taught at the University of Miami and the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Mahogany was a 1981 graduate of Baker University, where he received a degree in music and drama. He gained recognition outside his hometown for his role in the 1996 Robert Altman jazz film, “Kansas City.” Mahogany was also an accomplished instrumentalist on the baritone saxophone, clarinet and saxophone.
Mahogany moved back to Kansas City late this summer, following the unexpected death of his wife, Allene.
“He missed her,” McWilliams said. “He posted a couple of weeks ago that he’d finally cooked himself a meal, something he hadn’t done for about 30 years.”
Fans on social media expressed their sorrow.
Jazz organist Ken Lovern posted on his Facebook page: “So sad to hear about Kevin Mahogany’s passing. Some of my first jazz gigs at the Point and other Kansas City venues were with Kevin. He was always a pleasure to work with. … I spoke to him a few weeks back and he was excited to be moving back to Kansas City.”
Pat Tomek, drummer for the Rainmakers: “This is terrible news. “I knew him from his days as a doorman at Blayney’s. … but (I) never heard him sing until after he moved away. I missed out. He had a great national and international success. He was a big guy and a total sweetheart, always with a kind word to say.”
“If I had to come up with one adjective to describe Kevin,” McWilliams said, “it would be ‘kind.’ He was the kindest person ever.”
Mahogany had a lot of plans in store. He was scheduled to perform New Year’s Eve at the Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center along with David Basse, Joe Cartwright and other Kansas City jazz musicians.
“He’d been working a lot and had a lot of gigs scheduled,” McWilliams said. Mahogany also had another recording in store.
“He checked in with me at the end of October about another project he wanted to work on,” McWilliams said. “He’d done an album that was a collection of classic soul songs called ‘Pride and Joy,’ and he wanted to do another like that. So we texted back and forth a few things about that. But that was the last direct communications I had with him.”
Mahogany was a musician of many influences. In a recent interview with the Napa Valley Register, Mahogany cited his earliest: “Listening to a lot of bebop — Eddie Jefferson- and Jon Hendricks-type stuff. I tend to lean toward a ballad singer like Johnny Hartman and also the blues with Joe Williams. He brought a different style to the same genre of music: the blues background to the jazz style of music.”
He also explained why he waited until college to focus on becoming a vocalist, for which he became most famous.
“I chose that direction because it allowed me to be more flexible in terms of different genres — jazz or R&B or rock or soul even,” he said. “I was able to do a variety of styles without any problem, vocally.”
Like many who knew Mahogany, McWilliams will remember him as a man who was as humble as he was talented.
“I met Kevin about 30 years ago,” he said. “It was at a jazz convention in New York. A young guy came up to me, very shy and respectful, and said ‘Mr. McWilliams’ — he was only a year or two younger than me — and he had a cassette for me. I think it was called ‘Mahogany.’ It was a lot of soul stuff, really good. After that, I got to know him better and within a few years, he really took off.
“This is especially painful because he thought moving back to Kansas City was going to be such a great thing for him.”