Kevin Mahogany, the versatile and velvet-voiced vocalist who became one of the Kansas City jazz scene's more well-known exports, died Sunday. He was 59.
Mahogany had been living in Miami, but moved back to Kansas City in August after the sudden death of his wife, Allene Matthews Mahogany, over the summer, says Mahogany's sister, Carmen Julious.
The two had been married for 25 years, and Julious says Mahogany's grief had aggravated longer-term health issues.
"He really missed her," Julious says. "They met in Kansas City and immediately took to each other. All these years, they traveled the world together and had a lot of wonderful experiences, were each others' soul mates. One without the other was like a left shoe without a right shoe."
Though Mahogany was known for his big smile, his big laugh and his "big warm personality," Julious says, he was actually an introvert.
"He would be thinking about music and arrangements. He really loved music and that was his connection with people. Anybody who could talk with him about music was instantly a friend, a buddy."
"Kevin was one of the first jazz singers I heard in person, and without realizing the gravitas he held in the international jazz scene, I was taken with his warmth and jubilant sound," says Clint Ashlock, artistic director and conductor of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, with whom Mahogany occasionally performed.
"Later in life, I was privileged to work with him on numerous occasions, typically in a backing band, and it was always a pleasure," Ashlock says. "He was always swinging, and such a wonderful representative of Kansas City — both the historical legacy of its music and the soul it still embodies in today’s scene."
Mahogany was born in Kansas City and began playing instruments as a child. He attended Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, Pembroke Hill and then Lincoln High School, where he played in the band and taught clarinet, alto sax and tenor sax lessons at the Charlie Parker Foundation.
While still in high school, Mahogany played his first professional performances with Eddie Baker's New Breed Orchestra. He also studied with Kansas City jazz legend Ahmad Alaadeen before earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in music, English and drama at Baker University.
"After college he went to grad school for a little bit in Texas," Julious remembers. "Then he came back to Kansas City and started a little group doing R&B covers around Kansas City. He was playing the sax at first, but for whatever reason he started to sing. And from that moment on he became a vocalist. He put the saxophone down and really never played it again."
Starting with his 1993 debut Double Rainbow, Mahogany released around a dozen records over the course of a career that also saw him touring the world with acts such as T.S. Monk, the Ray Brown Trio, Marlena Shaw, Roseanna Vitro, Carl Allen, Barbara Morrison and Elvin Jones, and performing in Robert Altman's 1996 movie "Kansas City."
In a 2012 interview with KCUR's Up to Date, Mahogany told host Steve Kraske that his international audiences were even bigger than the ones he'd seen in the United States.
"Being a guy from Kansas City, Missouri, I never expected I would have been to Russia over a dozen times," he said. "Walking around and seeing things a lot of people only dream about, I'm having an opportunity to see them first-hand."
He was also a master teacher at Berklee College of Music in Boston and at the University of Miami.
"He had a lot of respect for older jazz musicians — he was very respectful and admiring of the older names in jazz, and was very supportive of the new folks coming in, coming up," Julious says, remembering seeing her younger brother play a recent gig at the Ball and Chain in Miami's Little Havana.
"A singer had driven an hour or so to come hear him sing," Julious says. "She walked up to him and started talking to him about things she wanted to do with her career. He immediately started talking with her, and during his show he called her up to the mic to do a little something with his band. She was overwhelmed. He was very sharing, welcoming, always supportive of musicians and singers — very unselfish."
Even though he had been gone for nearly two decades, Julious says, Mahogany loved Kansas City.
"That was always home, no matter where he was," she says. "He loved the jazz legacy of Kansas, he loved the environment, he was a Kansas City guy through and through. Kansas City was in his heart."
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.