Grover Washington Jr. was 10 years old when he sneaked into the Colored Musicians Club and picked up a saxophone.
From that point, until his death on Friday from a heart attack, Washington, 56, took his music from the streets of the East Side, all the way to the White House and beyond.
"Grover took the Buffalo sound around the world," said Van Taylor, a fellow musician and, like Washington, a member of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. "I think Buffalo played the most significant part in Grover's musical style. He played what he learned here: jazz, R&B and funk."
Washington lived most of the past threedecades in Philadelphia but never forgot his hometown.
"Buffalo provided a warm, creative atmosphere for me and my family," Washington told The Buffalo News in 1992, after being honored with a room in his name at the Buffalo Convention Center. "I was taught to share the experience of music. That's what I learned in Buffalo, and I'll never forget it."
Washington also is a member of the Shea's Performing Arts Hall of Fame and in October was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. He died Friday (Dec. 17, 1999) after suffering a heart attack a few minutes after taping a performance for the "CBS Saturday Early Show," said a spokesman for St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York.
"Grover Washington was as versatile as any jazz musician in America, moving with ease and fluency from vintage jazz to funk, and from gospel to blues to pop," President Clinton said in a statement Saturday. Washington played for and with Clinton, another saxophonist, at a White House concert in 1993. Washington also played for Clinton at his inaugural and the president's 50th birthday party.
"I will miss both the man and the music," Clinton said.
Taylor said he spoke to Washington on the telephone just three days ago.
"He was in good spirits because he had just finished working on a new CD," Taylor said. "We talked about some projects and maybe playing together. We had been talking a lot, since his induction into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame two months ago."
The man who inducted Washington at that event was musician Macy Favor, who at 6:30 tonight will be host to a tribute to Washington in the Colored Musicians Club at 145 Broadway.
"Grover's approach to music was so special," Favor said Saturday. "He took jazz and combined with it other styles to make it popular. Some jazz purists might call it pop, but Grover never sacrificed jazz; he just made it different."
Favor tells the story of how the late James "Graff" Young and the late Elvin "Shep" Shepherd took young Grover under their wings at the Colored Musicians Club. Washington lived on Glenwood Avenue and his father played saxophone and his mother, Lillian, sang in the church choir.
Washington, though, wanted to play jazz and his mother asked Shepherd to give him lessons.
"Oh, man, Grover loved that saxophone," Shepherd once told The News. "The thing that made Grover special is that he was willing to work hard and dedicate himself to his instrument.
"I stressed to him that music comes from the heart. You have to work on the sound and tonal quality, but the most important thing is that you have to love the music you make. If you don't, no one else will."
Washington had the love and became a member of the All-High Band while at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School. He moved to Philadelphia and his big break came in 1971 with the release of the album "Inner City Blues."
The album showed Washington's range and willingness to combine jazz with other sounds. "He had a singular style and a Buffalo sensibility," said Bobby Militello, who like Washington is a local native with an international reputation for his sax talent.
Washington had a string of hit albums, including 1980's "Winelight," which won two Grammy Awards. Pop fans know Washington best for his 1980 Grammy-winning song "Just the Two of Us," with a vocal by Bill Withers.
The 1974 album "Mister Magic" sold more than 500,000 copies, a number then unheard-of for a soul-jazz record. Washington released 20 jazz albums during his life, but some might be surprised to learn that in his early days, he had a passion for classical music. The segregation of the 1950s created an obstacle for him.
"I always loved classical music," Washington once told The News. "I studied all the classical artists and then I found out there were no black classical players."
Washington did break down racial barriers. "As a black musician, he opened a lot of doors for me and others," Van Taylor said. "Nothing came easy for Grover, and he never forgot where he came from. He always made time to help people out in Buffalo.
"When you run the way Grover ran, and you give everything you have to music, it takes a lot out of you," Taylor said. "Grover didn't do it for money, he had more than he needed, but he had to keep playing and touring."
"This is a high-pressure business and the road can burn you out," Militello said. "You're playing all the time, no matter how you feel, and a guy like Grover is going to go all out to put on a good performance no matter what."
Washington -- whose immediate family includes his wife, Christine, a son, Grover III, and daughter, Shana Bly -- had no choice when it came to making music.
"That's what he lived for," Van Taylor said.