Along with contemporaries George Duke and George Benson, Patrice Rushen made a major transition from cutting respected acoustic jazz material to hitting the upper reaches of the club and R&B charts. A dynamite keyboardist with a limited but sweet voice, Rushen debuted at the age of 20 on the Prestige label, working with maverick saxophonist Joe Henderson. Within a matter of a few years, legendary club DJ Larry Levan was spinning her carefree but sophisticated post-disco singles released on Elektra. Rushen continued releasing R&B albums into the '90s while never completely departing the jazz world; she also became a barrier-breaking musical director.
Born September 30, 1954, in Los Angeles, CA, Rushen's parents enrolled her in music classes at USC when she was three. In her teens, she won a solo competition at the 1972 Monterey Jazz Festival. The attention garnered from this earned her a contract with the Prestige label. After recording Prelusion (1974), Before the Dawn (1975), and Shout It Out (1976), and establishing herself as an in-demand session player on albums such as Donald Byrd's Caricatures and Eddie Henderson's Heritage, for which she contributed "Kudu," Rushen signed with Elektra. Forging an engaging jazz/R&B/funk fusion, she found a new audience through Patrice (1977), Pizzazz (1979), Posh (1980), Straight from the Heart (1982), and Now (1984). Most of these sets impacted both the jazz and R&B charts, and several singles off them were heard on dancefloors and across airwaves. 1980's "Haven't You Heard" and 1982's "Forget Me Nots" were the most successful of the lot; both of them went Top Ten on the R&B and club charts. The latter was sampled heavily for Will Smith's 1997 hit "Men in Black," while the former became the basis of Kirk Franklin's 2005 gospel crossover smash "Looking for You."
From the mid-'80s onward, Rushen's solo recordings were relatively sporadic, including sets for Arista, Sindrome, and Discovery; some of these were her most jazz-oriented releases since the mid-'70s. During the early '90s, she established herself as a musical director, guiding Janet Jackson's janet. world tour. More significantly, in 2004, she became the first woman to serve as musical director for the Grammy Awards. Throughout the decade, she continued to record, lending her skills to releases by Lee Ritenour, Stanley Clarke, George Benson, Babatunde Lea, and Jill Scott, not to mention the Hidden Beach label's Unwrapped series of hip-hop reinterpretations. ~ Ed Hogan & Andy Kellman