Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wynton Kelly: 1931-1971 - “A Pure Spirit”



“Wynton’s situation … is worth noting as a startling example of the strange irrelevance of merit to fame in Jazz.”
- Orrin Keepnews, Jazz Producer and Writer

“Nothing about his playing seems calculated .. there was just pure joy shining through his conception.”
Bill Evans, Jazz Pianist

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Amazingly, given his background, Wynton Kelly is an often overlooked figure in modern Jazz circles.

One would think that a pianist who had worked with Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie’s 1950s big band, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery, let alone with his own trio made-up of Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, would be more widely known and respected.

But such is not the case for Kelly who is sometimes more acknowledged because he has a first name in common with the phenomenal trumpet player and leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – Wynton Marsalis – whose father, Jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, named him after Kelly.

The editorial staff thought it might be fun to spend some time developing a JazzProfiles feature about Wynton, Kelly that is, as a way of paying tribute to his memory.

In the liner notes that he wrote for Kelly at Midnight, one of the earliest album’s that Wynton made under his own name [VeeJay VJ-03], Nat Hentoff commented:

“Miles Davis was being asked one afternoon for a verbal analysis of Wynton Kelly's musical worth. Miles character­istically scoffed at using such imprecise tools as words to describe what happens in jazz; but finally he said: ‘Wynton's the light for a cigarette. He lights the fire and he keeps it going. Without him there's no smoking.’

Another judicious tribute came from Cannonball Adderley who had worked with Wynton in the Miles Davis band. ‘He's a fine soloist, who does both the subdued things and the swingers very well. Wynton is also the world's great­est accompanist for a soloist. He plays with the soloist all the time, with the chords you choose. He even anticipates your direction.’

Somewhat earlier, I'd been talking to King Curtis, a Texan now in New York and a specialist in rhythm and blues. ‘Wynton worked with me for a while, and naturally I've heard him with Dinah and with Miles. What struck me was that wherever Wynton worked, he fitted in. He's not limited to one kind of playing. With Dinah, he had the taste and supportive power of a superior accompanist. With me, he had the fire and the straightaway swinging my bands have to have. And with Miles, he can be as subtle as Miles requires.’

As is usually the case, Wynton was being discussed enthusiastically by musicians before there was much atten­tion paid him in the public prints. …”


And in another of Wynton’s VeeJay LP’s, Kelly Great [VeeJay VJ-06], Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, the great alto saxophonist and, as noted previously, Wynton’s bandmate in the Davis group, said this about Kelly:

“When Sid McCoy of VeeJay Records asked Frank Strozier (phenomenal young alto saxophonist) who did he wish to play piano on his VeeJay record date, Frank immediately said Wynton Kelly. So answered Bill Henderson and Paul Chambers. It is next to impossible to evaluate the role played by Wynton Kelly in a band, for he has a ‘take charge’ quality in a rhythm section such as a Phil Rizzuto or Eddie Stanky had on a baseball team.

Many jazz listeners are unaware that such intangible qualities as fire and spirit make the margin between greatness and ‘just good’. Leading jazz musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis (Wynton's current employer), are cognizant of this fact. A short time ago Miles Davis made an album using another pianist, who at that time was a member of his band, but added Wynton for one selection, explaining, ‘Wynton Kelly is the only pianist who could make that tune get off the ground.’

What does Wynton have that is so different?”

Perhaps the difference lies in what Richard Cook and Brian Morton have described in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.  as “… his lyrical simplicity or uncomplicated touch… [or] the dynamic bounce to his chording …,” or because, as Cannonball Adderley, asserted: “Wynton combined the strength of pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans, his predecessors with Miles Davis.”

Or maybe this difference lies in the following description of Wynton’s playing by fellow pianist Bill Evans as quoted in Jack Chambers, Milestones:

“When I first him in Dizzy’s big band [in the mid-1950s], his whole thing was so joyful and exuberant, nothing about it seemed calculated. And yet with the clarity of the way he played, you knew that he had put this together in a carefully planned way – but the result was completely without calculation, there was just pure spirit shining through the conception.”


Like Bill, Brian Priestley may have also identified the essence of what made Wynton Kelly so unique as a pianist in the following description of his style in Jazz, The Rough Guide: An Essential Companion to Artists and Albums:

“An important stylist, but largely unrecognized except by fellow pianists, Kelly’s mature style was hinted at in his earliest recordings. He combined boppish lines and blues interpolations with a taut sense of timing quite unlike anyone else except his imitators. The same quality made his equally individual block chording into a particularly dynamic and driving accompanying style that was savored by the many soloists that he backed.”

More about Kelly’s special qualities as a pianist can be found in the following paraphrase from Peter Pettinger’s biography of pianist Bill Evans – How My Heart Sings:

“Evans held Kelly’s bright and sparkling style in high regard since hearing him in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, responding to Wynton’s particular blend of clarity and exuberance. This reaction was typical of Evans’s appreciation of the work of his fellow pianists; from Oscar Peterson to Cecil Taylor, he was full of admiration for their diverse talents and generous in his praise.”

As detailed in Groovin’ High,  Alyn Shipton’s life of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, the unique character of Kelly’s piano style may have been the result of combining years of experience in playing in rhythm and blues bands with a fine Jazz sensibility.

Of his work with his own trio, John A. Tynan had this to say in a Down Beat review:

“It is one of the most cohesive and inventive rhythmic groups in small-band Jazz today.”

Musicians commenting about Wynton’s work on their recordings state: “The presence of Kelly may account for the difference …,” “… the album would not have been excellent without Wynton Kelly’s sterling support,” and “… he is disarmingly pleasant to work with, the very model of a mainstream pianist.”

The Jazz writer and critic, Barbara J. Gardiner closed her insert notes to the 1961 VeeJay 2-CD compilation Wynton Kelly! [VeeJazz-011] with the declaration that “You would expect Wynton Kelly to be comprehensive as well as creative. Hasn’t he always been?”

Although she was referring to the material on these CDs “… tried and proven, mixed in with a bit of the fresh …,” this could also serve as an apt way of describing Wynton’s approach to Jazz piano: wide-ranging and inventive.

One is never far away from the Jazz tradition when listening to Wynton Kelly, but what he plays is himself; he has incorporated his influences into his own musical “personality” and recognizably so. Four [4] bars and you know its him.

Wynton is not a pianist who overwhelms the listener with startling technique or originality of conception.

But what he does offer is playing that is full of joy, funk and a feeling for time that fills the heart with happiness, sets the feet tapping and get the fingers popping the beat.

Wynton Kelly is the pianistic personification of swing, or if you prefer: “smokin’,” “cookin’” or “boppin’.” 

When Wynton plays Jazz piano, you feel it.

Nothing cerebral here in any deep or complicated sense, just – “Clap hands, here comes, Wynton.”

Hear it for yourself in the following tribute to Wynton that features him along with Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones. The tune is Rudolph Stevenson’s On Stage” from Kelly at Midnight [VeeJay-03] and it displays vintage performances by all three members of one of the greatest rhythm sections in modern Jazz history.