Wynton Marsalis is one of the biggest names in music circles in the 21st Century. That is a well known fact. What is not known is that Marsalis is named after Wynton Kelly.
Wynton Kelly was an A-List musician. Kelly played on the best selling jazz albums of all-time. Miles Davis employed him on the Kind of Blue album and John William Coltrane used him on the chestnut “Naima.”
One of the most underrated jazz pianists of all time, he also played bass and saxophone. Kelly was born on December 2, 1931, in New York City. He died in Toronto, Canada, on April 12, 1971, from an epileptic seizure.
An African born in the United States, his father was from Jamaica and his mother from Trinidad and Tobago. He was raised by the Trinidadian side of his family.
The T & T side of the clan produced several musical luminaries; the multi-talented genius Marcus Miller, like Kelly, played with Miles Davis, and another cousin, Foxy Brown, has made musical and other headlines. His brother on the Jamaican side Milton Kelly Jr., at one time was the leader of the New York City chapter of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League.
Kelly recorded 11 albums under his own name, the first for Blue Note in 1951, the last for Milestone in 1967. Among his many original compositions, “Kelly Blue,” “Old Clothes,” “Kelly Roll,” “Bobo” and the aptly titled “Keep It Moving” can be singled out.
He appears on many jazz classics. He was on the “Freddie Freeloader” track, replacing Bill Evans on the Kind of Blue album because Miles Davis wanted the special Kelly feeling for that item. He played with Sonny Rollins, Kenny Dorham, Paul Chamber and Max Roach on Abbey Lincoln’s first jazz album That’s Him.
Forty years ago, jazz pianist Kelly was to perform at the Cav-A-Bob on Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada, along with drummer George Reed, bassist Elgin Vines and vocalist Herb Marshall. If the group worked out the owner of the club, Harold Tater, told Reed and Marshall that they would have a job there indefinitely. Reed and Marshall spent a week in New York looking for Kelly until they were told that Kelly’s father had a church in Brooklyn. Kelly’s father led them to his son.
After driving back from New York City, Reed and Marshall and Kelly (along with Vines who didn’t make the trip to (NYC) were set to open up Monday April 12, 1971. Kelly checked into the Westminster Hotel on Jarvis Street. Before the band’s first rehearsal, Kelly died of an epileptic seizure.
His death ended a dream that both Reed and Marshall had shared of performing with the legendary pianist. The term legendary is not used here lightly; no less a person than Miles Dewey Davis said, “Wynton‘s the light for the cigarette. He lights and fire keeps it going. Without him, there’s no smoking.”
Marshall, who once resided in Toronto remembers meeting Kelly in the early 1950s. They met at the world famous Minton’s Playhouse in New York City where musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie would come and jam on Monday nights. However, Kelly and Marshall developed a more solid relationship in 1957 when Kelly was working at Trudy Heller’s Place in Greenwich Village.
Marshall, who found Kelly’s body in his hotel room, remembered the pianist. “Wynton has always been a laid-back kind of a guy. Nothing eccentric. Actually, he was never a loner or an introvert, he was an extrovert. He was a genial type of a guy; he liked to joke a lot—nothing heavy.”
Kelly was one of the greatest pianists of the 1950’s and 1960’s. He was influenced by Bud Powell, but also showed a keen awareness of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. He never made the charts in Billboard, and neither has the Grammy Awards inducted him into its Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, he was deeply loved and respected by his musical peers.
When musicians speak of Kelly they say he was a wonderfully warm human being. It was said that even his faults tended to either be victimless or to hurt him more than anyone else.
Orin Keepnews, the producer of Kelly’s albums on Riverside Records, pointed out, “I know that he was inevitably late for record dates—almost just exactly a half-hour late—as if he had a built-in wrongly-set clock. (I once decided to combat this by telling him that we had a 2p.m. start, but telling everyone else to arrive at 2:30. No one gave away my plot, but nevertheless, that day Kelly showed up at the studio precisely at 3 o’clock.)
“But the most important thing about that was that he always showed up ready to play, knowing what was expected of him and capable of doing the job swiftly and pretty near perfectly.”
Kelly spent his formative years in Brooklyn, New York. He was noted for his quick grasp of musical situations, his ability to swing, his work as an accompanist and his rhythmic approach to the piano.
Being a quick learner, he made his professional debut as a pianist at age twelve. At 15 he toured the Caribbean with Ray Abrams and Cecil Payne and was only 19 when his first trio recordings were made for the Blue Note label.
Duke Ellington said years ago “that if music don’t have that swing it don’t mean a thing.” Pianist McCoy Tyner noted that Kelly could swing with the best of them. “John Coltrane used to mention that,” said Tyner. Before moving into the jazz world, Kelly spent several years in rhythm and blues bands. His playing at that time was aimed at the feet.
He received his final professional polish as accompanist with vocalist Dinah Washington who he worked with for three years. Dinah said Kelly was her favorite piano player.
Tyner remembers the first time he met Kelly. “The first time I was introduced to Wynton was back in the 1950s, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I was in the Lee Morgan quartet, and Wynton came through with Dinah Washington. I was really impressed because they seemed so close—she really depended on Wynton.”
Kelly began to attract national attention while working with Dizzy Gillespie in 1952 (he had also worked briefly with Lester Young, but was drafted that year and remained in the Army until 1954). He then rejoined Gillespie who had a Big Band at that time, leaving in late 1957 to form his own trio.
From 1959 to 1963, he was with Miles Davis and then again formed his own trio, this time with his rhythm section colleagues from the Davis group: bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb. This trio often worked with Wes Montgomery, both in person and on records. Then Herbie Hancock replaced Kelly in Miles Davis’ band. The late Cannonball Adderley made the following observation, “It’s a funny thing, all the great piano players who came after him have a little bit of Wynton in them. I used to listen to Miles’ band after I left and Herbie Hancock then had so much of Wynton’s influence.”
Cannonball’s brother Nat also speaks highly of Kelly’s musical ability. “Wynton was the greatest piano accompanist I have ever played with. He could play with you better than anyone else that I ever played with,” says Nat.
Kelly’s Caribbean background is attributed to his rhythmic approach to the piano. Nat Adderley again points out, “West Indians from the Islands didn’t have the instrumental technical training that the people in the States had. But the rhythmic concept is so much different. The rhythmic concept is what West Indians add more than harmonic melodic. We don’t have that much harmony and melody in West Indian music but that rhythmic concept is more basically African than what we have.”
The words of Nat Adderley are once again apropos to close this tribute to Wynton Kelly. “When we’re talking about Wynton Kelly, we’re talking about a man that I loved. Cannonball loved Wynton. Most of the records I made at Riverside had Wynton on them. No matter who our piano player was, I got Wynton—because I loved him—just loved him.”