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11 Nov

The light that fired the music: the jazz pianist Wynton Kelly by Mihalis Yianneskis

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In his relatively short life, Wynton Kelly, who was born on 2 December 1931, was an exceptional pianist, a greatly underrated talent, an often overlooked musician and someone who did not elbow his way into stardom. His story is «a startling example of the strange irrelevance of merit to fame in jazz». Mild mannered and fun to be with, a genial, laid-back type, an extrovert who liked to joke a lot, he played with most jazz greats of his time.

He contributed to what is probably the best-selling jazz album of all time, Miles Davis’ «Kind of Blue», because Davis wanted Kelly’s «special feeling» on a single track (instead of Bill Evans who played the piano on all other tracks). Kelly’s exceptional style, subtlety and sense of timing are most evident in that track, Miles Davis’ «Freddie Freeloader» (video below).

The list of the musicians Wynton Kelly played with reads like a Who’s Who of the jazz greats. It includes, among others, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins and Lester Young.

But perhaps Miles Davis’ group was the major catalyst for Kelly. Indeed, Miles Davis’ Quintet and his other groups formed the backbone for much of the jazz development in the mid-1950s and 1960s. Davis has often been called a «star maker», since many great musicians emerged from his groups, such as John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, and many more.

Much more than a sideman, Kelly was truly special as a musician. As Miles Davis said in his inimitable style, «Wynton’s the light for the cigarette. He lights and fire keeps it going. Without him, there’s no smoking». At another occasion, Davis commented «Wynton Kelly is the only pianist who could make that tune get off the ground».

His first album as a band leader, Piano Interpretations, was recorded in 1951 by Blue Note, when Kelly was only 19 years old. His youthful exuberance at the piano stands out exceptionally in that album, in «Cherokee» (video below)

A musicians’ musician, Kelly received accolades from most of his peers, collaborators and critics: «Disarmingly pleasant to play with», «what he does offer is playing ... that fills the heart with happiness, sets the feet tapping and gets the fingers popping the beat», «joyful and exuberant, ... pure spirit shining through the conception», and «a wonderfully warm human being». It is no wonder that the trumpeter Ellis Marsalis named his son Wynton, now a renowned trumpeter in his own right, after Wynton Kelly.

Influenced by the pianists Bud Powell and Art Tatum, and by his experience in rhythm and blues bands in his early years, Kelly developed a timing and style all of his own. «Four bars into a piece and you know it is him», is what fellow musicians would say of his individual style of playing. Joachim Berendt in his Jazz Book (perhaps the one nearest to a «Jazz Bible» status) considers Kelly to belong to the funk- and gospel-inspired hard bop pianists. His rhythm and blues experiences are evident in his albums.

As a leader in a combo with Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums), his colleagues from the Miles Davis band, Kelly produced some remarkable albums. One of the best was «Kelly Blue» (Riverside, 1959), that has Kelly in characteristic form in the piece Keep It Moving ( video below)

However, Kelly has also offered many examples of a less bluesy and mellower mood, in a style perhaps more akin to Duke Ellington’s, as in the piece On A Clear Day (viedeo below)

Wynton Kelly suffered from epilepsy and died of an epileptic fit on 12 April 1971. Perhaps due to his short life and modest nature, his projection in the jazz scene and his following is not as great as it should have been. His legacy however lives on, not least through the music of the many musicians influenced by him, which include Chick Corea and Brad Meldhau.

Mihalis Yianneskis

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 November 2015 11:17

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