Talk about smooth jazz with fans of the genre and chances are someone will mention Gerald Albright, the silky-toned saxophonist described by one reviewer as “a polished example” of the format, widely admired for his “sophisticated but heartfelt” sound.
Over a career spanning more than 40 years, he has performed with some of the greatest artists around—among them: Anita Baker, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston and Quincy Jones—while also establishing himself as a successful solo act. His 22 albums have earned eight Grammy Award nominations.
Albright’s music has also received two presidential nods. The first came in 1993 when he was one of 10 sax players invited to perform at the inauguration celebrations for President Bill Clinton, who was an enthusiastic amateur player. A picture of that moment has a place of pride in the former president’s personal music room. The second came last year, with the receipt of a President’s Lifetime Achievement Award signed by President Joe Biden.
Having carved out a successful and enduring career through all the upheavals and changes in the music industry, Albright has some elder-statesman advice for newcomers that can be applied to any field of interest. “Know that there are no shortcuts,” he says. “You have to do the work. Wherever and whenever you practice, you really have to take the time to refine your craft.”
Next, identify those mentors “that really speak to you … Don’t copy them, but get enough of their essence to where you can develop your own sound, which in turn develops your own brand.” And while you are honing your craft, he adds, don’t neglect your character. “Just be the best person you can be,” he advises. “Treat people well. Treat people the way you would want to be treated in the business and outside of the business and always keep great people around you.”
Now resident in Castle Rock, Colorado, a commuter drive from Denver, Albright grew up in Los Angeles’ South Central, where his parents signed him up for weekly piano lessons. Learning scales while his friends were outside playing football or basketball didn’t appeal to the eight-year-old. So, after a few weeks of minimal progress, his teacher, George Turpeau, suggested to his parents their son try a different instrument.
“The next lesson, he brought an old King alto saxophone to my house,” Albright remembers, citing Turpeau as his first waymaker. “He opened the case and you could smell the history . . . it had been in his garage for many years. So, we had a lesson and when I made my first squeak, I loved it . . . and I’ve been squeaking ever since.”
Albright describes his musical style as a marriage between his two saxophonist mentors, Maceo Parker and Cannonball Adderley, “with a sprinkle of GA in the middle.” He first discovered Parker as the soloist on some of the James Brown (“a huge influence”) records he and his brother listened to. In recent years, he’s enjoyed the “blessing” of getting to actually play live with Parker at jazz festivals. Albright admires Adderley, part of the legendary Miles Davis’ band before striking out on his own, for being able to “play pretty much anybody under the table with a jazz improvisation . . . he had so much soul in his approach.”
Albright felt “an immediate oneness” with the sax. “It came from nowhere,” he says. “I never dreamt to be a saxophonist; I owe all of that to my [first] music teacher.” There would be others who would nurture his talent when he got to high school and first started to think seriously about music as a future. Locke High School was “a breeding ground” of talent. Best friend and longtime Earth, Wind & Fire saxman Gary Bias was a peer, with other alumni including Rick James’ sax player Daniel LeMelle, jazz pianist and singer Patrice Rushen and Grammy Awards and Super Bowl musical director Ricky Minor.
“I’m around these people and I’m living and breathing all this talent,” recalls Albright. “That was the platform that I had to show up in and play around every day. So, I had to keep my game up, you know, and then it became a competition with other musicians. And then, obviously, you just get better as you’re trying to get to the next level.
“I knew that there was something going on within me and the horn that was special and that was a passion for me, and that was something that I really wanted to improve.”
His connection with Bias was special. “We sounded alike because we would play side by side with one another in marching band and concert band and jazz band,” Albright explains. One of their teachers would send the two boys down to M10, the private rehearsal room, to practice.
“If Gary had learned a new lick on the saxophone, he would be anxious to show me it and then if I learned a new lick, I’d say, ‘Gary, check this out.’ So, we were playing the same licks for years up until we went to college. We went to separate institutions and when we came back to play together, we sounded totally different.”
Given their close bond, it was a special moment for Albright when, many years later, he was invited to play his longtime friend’s classic solo in an Earth, Wind & Fire show during a guest appearance with the band (see sidebar).
Fresh out of college, Albright took a job as a trainee assistant manager at Woolworth’s. After a few months there he got a call from Rushen, on whose 1982 hit single, “Forget Me Nots,” he had played, inviting him to join her horn section for a tour. Albright speaks appreciatively of his boss, Mrs. Hutchens, who knew that he wasn’t looking to make Woolworth’s a career. He went to tell her about the opportunity he had been presented with and explain that taking it would mean he couldn’t give the customary two weeks’ notice.
“I wanted to know if I could be exempt and she said, ‘Absolutely, Gerald. I knew that this day would come. You have been a great employee and I would never want to dilute your passion in any way, so go do it.’”
The spot with Rushen opened up new doors, touring with other artists and steady session work. Albright’s solo career began with 1987’s Just Between Us, featuring a song with Luther Vandross (“So Amazing”) that brought his first Grammy nomination. Other collaborators have included Will Downing, Bebe Winans and Albright’s singer-daughter, Selina, who appeared on his first holiday album, 2019’s Not So Silent Night.
His 2020 G-Stream EP was inspired by the coronavirus pandemic and other difficult events. “Even in the worst of times, music has always been celebrated as a source of enjoyment, therapy and emotional enhancement,” Albright said on its release. Recently, the follow-up G Stream 2: Turn it Up reached No. 1 on the Billboard smooth jazz charts.
Acknowledging the help and encouragement he’s had along the way, Albright emphasizes the importance of relationships in reaching your potential. They are “probably the biggest part of the pie in terms of escalating whatever your passion is,” he says.
“Someone once said that if you hang around nine losers, more than likely you’ll be No. 10. If you hang around nine wealthy people, more than likely you’ll be the 10th wealthy person. And so, I found myself wanting to stay, to be amongst great people and just keep that happening on a daily basis—making new relationships, keeping things positive, internally saying to myself every day, ‘Hey, I want to do something better today that I didn’t do yesterday.’”
It’s about simply trying to be a better person on a daily basis, he adds. “That’s basically been the story of my life. I’ve been put in certain positions where, because I was there and I was ready for whatever was happening at that time, I was able to get a gig because of my reputation that preceded me, and the way that I conducted myself.”
Longing—passion—is key to longevity, he believes. “If you’re doing something that you would do for free, I think it will last,” he says. “And I think the other part of the pie is having good integrity, good business relationships with people: when they call you, show up on time, be prepared, go that extra mile that they didn’t expect . . . just being the best person . . . being in a giving mode versus a taking mode all the time. If you give, you’ll receive tenfold, a hundredfold.”
Another factor Albright cites for his continued success in a business where careers come and go in a blink is his decision to go independent a few years back. After cycling through a half-dozen labels and several managers, booking agents and lawyers, he “woke up and said, ‘I’ve got to take my career back into my own hands.’”
If you rely on other people, you’re taking a bit of a chance, he believes. “If you have your finger on the pulse with every aspect of your business, I think it’s easier [these days] because the only one that can fail at that point is you, so you’ve gotta make it work . . . It’s all a mindset: you just have to be ready to take on the task and if you go from A to Z, through your vision, you’ll make it work.”
In taking the reins of his career—which includes owning his own record company and a signature line of saxes with Cannonball Musical Instruments (they feature an engraving of intersecting golf clubs, a nod to his love of the sport)—Albright draws not only on his years of experience in the business but his education. He graduated from the University of Redlands with a minor in music performance and a major in business management.
“You’ve got to know how to read contracts and read the fine print and the whole deal,” he says. The internet has opened up opportunities for anyone wanting to be an independent recording artist, he believes. “There’s a lot of millionaires that have developed through YouTube, through Instagram, just sitting at home, figuring out their concepts that people will monetize for you.”
Remaining popular for an extended period does present a problem of its own. With so many releases under his belt, “it gets harder and harder to figure out which songs to play for folks,” he acknowledges. “Everybody has their favorite.”
With a two-year-old grandson (Gavin, the inspiration for recent single “G-Wiggle”) and a granddaughter due soon after this interview, Albright says, “Life is good right now. I’m content. I can’t complain, man. God has been very good.” It’s a hint at the faith he speaks about more in the FAQ section at his website (www.geraldalbright.com).
“I put my trust in the Creator to guide me through life,” he says there. “I believe that I am a channel that He uses to move the masses in a particular fashion, and I use my talent humbly through Him and for Him.” And the way his fans tell him his music has impacted their lives “lets me know that I’m in the right place.”
From an interview with Louis Carr