The Great Wynton Kelly
Today is Wynton Kelly’s 80th birthday anniversary. As an accompanist, Kelly made Dinah Washington, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley , Cannonball Adderley and other jazz greats sound even better, and he made recordings of his own beginning with his Blue Note debut in 1951 at age 19. Kelly's strong beat and bluesy lyricism were hallmarks of a style that was showcased in Miles Davis's Quintet between 1959 and '63. Wynton tends to be eclipsed in the annals of Miles by the pianists who preceded and succeeded him, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, but he helped define a Davis era that spelled great tunes and infectious swing. He also lent his name to Wynton Marsalis, whose father Ellis knew and admired Kelly.
I never saw Kelly in person, but I got a good sense of the man at the IAJE conference in Toronto in 2003 where a panel discussion was devoted to his life and legacy. Jimmy Heath and his brother Tootie, Jimmy Cobb, Larry Ridley, and a young woman from Melbourne, Australia whose Master's thesis focused on WK, offered lively and humorous recollections that brought the Jamaican-born pianist to life. By all accounts, Kelly enjoyed having a good time, and he stayed rooted to the Brooklyn neighborhood where he was raised. His manner, like his playing, was highly agreeable.
Sadly, Toronto was where Kelly died in 1971 at age 39 during an epileptic siezure. There isn't much of the pianist to be seen on film, but here's a choice clip of John Coltrane accompanied by Wynton, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, who worked as a trio after leaving Miles in 1963.
We'll hear more of Wynton Kelly's music in tonight's Jazz a la Mode.