Back to the Beginning

Walter Beasley's musical journey began in the early 1970s in his hometown of El Centro, California. When he was only nine years old, his aunt gave him a record by Grover Washington, Jr. It opened Beasley's young ears and mind to the limitless possibilities of the saxophone. Before long, he bought a copy of the classic Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway collaborative album. It was these two records that marked the beginning of Beasley's musical awakening.

"I fell in love with Hathaway's voice, as well as the writing on that album," he recalls. "My favorite song on that album was 'Be Real Black for Me.' That really opened up my imagination - opened up my world, really. And then there was Earth Wind and Fire's 'That's the Way of the World.' After that, I was gone. All I wanted to do was figure out how I could move people the way I was moved by those records."

By his early teens, Beasley was playing saxophone in various bands around southern California. "I started singing in Spanish at around 14," he says. "I was like an anomaly - the black kid in southern California, singing in Spanish. People got a kick out of it. I learned from playing Latin music how important romance was, and is, in music. Singing and playing those songs, I think, forever shaped the way I wanted to convey messages to people."

Beasley graduated from Berklee College of Music in the early '80s, alongside some wellknown classmates including saxophonist Branford Marsalis and vocalist Rachelle Ferrell. He took a teaching position at the school a year later - initially as a short-term gig, but one that has lasted more than 20 years. "I was only planning on staying for a year or two, getting a record deal and then moving back to California," he says. "But once I saw musicians move an audience through the use of techniques that I showed them, I was a sucker for teaching. It was a joy. It moved me. At that point, I made a decision to learn as much about teaching as I could. It's very important that I give something back and experience as many students as I can."

He recorded his self-titled debut album in 1987 on Polydor, followed by a string of releases on Mercury and Shanachie over the next several years. Throughout those years, he has toured and/or recorded with Stephanie Mills, Vanessa Williams, Brian McKnight, Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, Bob James, Ronnie Laws, Everett Harp and Norman Brown.

What sets him apart from other contemporary jazz artists is his unique mix of instrumental and vocal talents. "Singing enables me to communicate in ways that other instrumentalists can't," he says. "On the flip side, I can invoke emotions and stimulate imagination when I pick up the saxophone. When you combine both of those elements with the fact that my background is in R&B and I come from a soulful instrumental tradition, there is a certain uniqueness to the music I create both as an instrumentalist and a vocalist."

Between composing, recording, performing and teaching, Beasley's schedule is a hectic one, but these various facets of his career have had an energizing effect that fuels his creative side. The benefits are exponential, not just for him but for anyone within the sound his music.

"To know that I can play, sing, record, tour and teach - all on my own terms - is the greatest blessing one could ever ask for," he says. "That's where I am at this stage. It's a great thing. There's really nothing that I can say I want to do differently than what I'm doing right now."

updated: 10 years ago