Kevin Mahogany, the jazz vocalist of his generation, passes at 59

For jazz buffs coming of age in the late ’50s and early ’60s, particularly for aspiring singers, the litmus test was “Moody’s Mood for Love,” the lyrics added to James Moody’s solo on the standard tune. Eddie Jefferson penned the lyrics and, in effect, set in motion the art of vocalese.

If Kevin Mahogany had come along in those nights and days, he would have been inducted as a charter member of the vocalese society because no one did the song as passionately and authentically as he did. But that was just one song in his expansive repertoire. He could wrap his melodious voice around the full spectrum of show tunes, blues and, of course, those jazz evergreens that everyone from Billy Eckstine to Al Jarreau has popularized.

Mahogany died Dec. 17 in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo. He was 59 and seemingly with many years of success in front of him. Two weeks ago, Mahogany’s name was invoked in obituaries of singer/composer Jon Hendricks. The two of them, along with Kurt Elling and Mark Murphy, comprised the quartet “Four Brothers.”

Before he began singing, Mahogany was an instrumentalist, beginning as a child on piano, and then on the clarinet and baritone saxophone while in high school. Music was part of his family’s daily activities. “Piano lessons were a grade school staple for the whole family,” he told a reporter.

As a student at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., Mahogany’s major, as expected, was music, and he formed vocal ensembles while completing his BFA in music and English drama.

Upon graduation from Baker in 1981, he returned to Kansas City, and he received wide praise and recognition for The Apollos and Mahogany, groups he founded. In 1991, he was featured on Frank Mantooth’s CD, and two years later he had his first solo CD, “Double Rainbow.” Of even greater acclaim was his album “Kevin Mahogany,” and Newsweek magazine proclaimed him the “jazz vocalist of

his generation.”

More exposure arrived with his appearance in Robert Altman’s film “Kansas City” in 1996, in which the character he portrayed was presumably based on the great blues shouter Big Joe Turner.

When he wasn’t in the studio or on the stage, he was in the classroom, and for several years he taught at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and at the University of Miami.

If you’ve got a moment to hear Mahogany at his scatting best, check out his rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” and his amazing exchanges with the drummer Lewis Nash. It is vintage Mahogany.