Pianist and saxophonist Kamau Kenyatta is known as a performer, producer, and a lecturer in the University of California's Jazz Studies Department.
“I’m from Detroit, and I was living in Tampa, Florida, for a couple of years. It’s a nice place to live, but not enough work, industry-wise. I thought I’d move to Los Angeles, and I have a cousin, Tanya Lewis, that lives here who invited me to stay with her while I made the transition. She was a life-saver. I drove back and forth for every audition, but things didn’t take off the way I wanted them to, and I thought, San Diego.”
His versatility comes from his early exposure to a vast array of musical styles. Kamau has worked with jazz greats such as Hubert Laws, Earl Klugh, and Donald Byrd. World tours have taken him to over 20 countries and included stints with Donald Byrd, Carl Anderson, and the Supremes.
Kamau has also collaborated with Hubert Laws in writing the score for Small Steps, Big Strides a Fox network documentary concerning the history of African-American film. He has also written and supervised music for The Dawn at My Back, a Sundance Film Festival award-winning interactive DVD-ROM memoir. He has also worked with Mimi Klein, local Joe Garrison, and others.
His project "Celebrating Neruda," intertwines dance, Latin American music, and the poetry of the Chilean genius, Pablo Neruda. His album Destiny was released in 2007.
Kenyatta's protégé Gregory Porter won Best Jazz Vocal Album at the 2014 Grammy Awards for Liquid Spirits, an album Kenyatta produced. Kenyatta met Porter while subbing as a teacher at UC San Diego for George Lewis.
“It was a jazz ensemble and there really wasn’t any material for Gregory. He was just singing horn parts. I was very clear on his talent from the beginning and I approached him after class and said, ‘Let’s craft a repertoire.’ And he took me up on it, and we immediately became very close. He always calls me a mentor, which reminds me of our age difference, but I don’t think of it like that. I just think of him as a friend. I grew up in Detroit, and I had a lot of help from older musicians; it’s just how we did things up there. And I was carrying on that tradition.”
In 2017, Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley, again assisted by Kenyatta, earned top prize for “Best Jazz Vocal” at that February's Grammy Award ceremony.
Kenyatta’s early 2019 project was a collaboration with singer Alicia Olatuja (Intuition: Songs From The Minds of Women) that took him out of town for a week. “I had to travel to New Jersey, and Manhattan to make that record, in a blizzard, no less!” he recalled for the Reader. “But I got to work with so many top musicians; it was very exciting.”