Kevin Mahogany ’81, leaves behind a rich legacy in the music community at Baker University and beyond. Dubbed the “standout jazz vocalist of his generation” by Newsweek, Mahogany achieved great success as a musician and will be missed by many. Mahogany was 59 when he passed away in his Kansas City, Missouri, home on Dec. 17. He had moved back last year following the death of his wife, Allene.
Born in Kansas City, jazz was in Mahogany’s DNA. As a child, he easily picked up a variety of instruments, including piano, clarinet, and baritone saxophone. But it was in high school where he found his true calling: vocals. After studying professionally at the Charlie Parker Academy with Ahmad Aladeen, a longtime figure in the KC jazz scene and one of Mahogany’s inspirations, Mahogany attended Baker University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in music, English, and drama.
In a 2013 interview with the Baker Orange, Mahogany said he will always be proud to have graduated from Baker University, where students have the opportunity to try new things and to discover new talents and grow through hands-on experience. It was that hands-on experience and ability to explore that led Mahogany to pursue a degree in music. Baker University’s Department of Music allows students from other majors to join music groups and continue to explore their passions, and when Mahogany failed his chemistry class and decided to leave his chemical engineering dreams in the past, he easily found a home in the Baker music department.
William Gaeddert, professor emeritus and Mahogany’s private voice teacher while at Baker, had the pleasure of working closely with him as a student. Gaeddert said that Mahogany’s remarkable talent was obvious from the beginning, but it was his persona that really set him apart.
“Kevin was a tremendously talented individual with a big personality,” Gaeddert said. “He was great on the stage and he could just really charm people. He had this big personality that was so engaging when he was performing, and I think that really went a long way toward moving his career along too. He was just an absolutely wonderful person.”
While at Baker, Mahogany established both a jazz and gospel choir, was a drum major, and sang opera. After graduating from Baker, Mahogany left for the booming and influential jazz scene in Kansas City where he made a lasting mark. After forming two groups, The Apollos and Mahogany, he released the debut album “Double Rainbow.”
“It was really quite wonderful,” Gaeddert said.
Best known for his broad baritone and soulful signature, Mahogany’s success took him around the world. He toured with acts such as T.S. Monk, the Ray Brown Trio, Marlena Shaw, Roseanna Vitro, and Carl Allen, and played legendary blues singer Big Joe Turner in “Kansas City,” a 1996 movie by Robert Altman. During his career, Mahogany released 11 albums, two of which he recorded on his own label, Mahogany Music: To Johnny Hartman (2004) and Big Band (2005).
Mahogany also published the magazine The Jazz Singer, taught at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and the University of Miami, and received an honorary degree from Baker in 2001. More recently, he was honored with the 2016 Jazz San Javier Award at the 19th San Javier International Jazz Festival in Spain. This award was established to recognize influential and exceptional music figures and their contribution to the history of jazz.
Dr. J.D. Parr, instructor of woodwinds and former director of the Baker Jazz Ensemble, has a favorite memory of Mahogany from the 2015 Baker University Jazz Festival. Mahogany often came back to his roots to teach students and perform on campus, but this experience was a bit different. Parr had booked another performer for the event, Ken Peplowski, a world-renowned jazz clarinetist. Upon arriving at Parr’s office and seeing a signed photo of Mahogany behind the desk, Peplowski called up his old friend, who happened to be in the area, and convinced him to join him in Baldwin City.
“Kevin came dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, and performed with my guest artist,” Parr said. “It was just a real treat for everyone in the audience. Totally off the cuff, the performance was all improv and unannounced. My students were just giddy with euphoria watching him perform.”
Diana Gish, ’82, has fond memories of performing alongside Mahogany in musicals and in jazz band as an integral part of her Baker experience. She remembers him as kind, funny, and thoughtful, but most important, he was dedicated to his art.
In October, Gish had the opportunity to watch Mahogany perform for a final time at the Blue Room at 18th and Vine in Kansas City. While waiting for the sold-out show to begin, she struck up a conversation with Wayne Bates, ’82, another fellow classmate and jazz band member. The two enjoyed the “thrilling” performance and caught up with Mahogany afterward.
“It was amazing,” Gish said. “The crowd was so happy and lively, just enjoying him as a musician. I was bursting with pride that he was my friend.”
Gish believes that Mahogany’s success came from two things: his personality and his deep respect for the jazz community and his role in the jazz tradition. She called him an “ambassador of KC jazz” and is proud to have known him.
“I feel really honored to have been friends with Kevin,” Gish said. “I feel really, really sad that he’s gone too soon. He’s a person of whom Baker should be tremendously proud.
Parr agrees, and believes Mahogany leaves behind a rich legacy that helped establish Baker as a strong jazz institution.
“It’s a real source of pride that one of the world’s greatest male jazz singers went to Baker,” Parr said. “He’s considered one of the most elite jazz vocalists in the world, and it’s just something we should all be proud of. He was a world ambassador for Baker University.”