Wynton Kelly was one of the most influential Jazz piano soloists of his time. He utilized his gift of infusing individuality into the music, thereby etching his phrases onto the mind of the listeners. His popularity particularly stems from his unique block-chord style and strong, rhythmic sense of groove. Kelly worked with a few of the most well-known artists, namely: Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington and Lester Young.
Kelly’s musical career kicked up when he was just a teenager, performing with various R&B bands, first with Ray Abrahams and later on with Hot Lips Page, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis. This polished his pianist skills to a considerable degree, when in 1951 he became Dinah Washington’s accompanist, which served as an even greater opportunity. When he was just 19, Kelly acquired more recognition by making his recording debut as the leader of the Blue Note label.
Having performed with the combos of Lester Young and Dizzy Gillespie, Kelly gained greater ground with his enticing melody and sense of swing. His talent expanded in maturity due to his notable performances with J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobeley. Kelly’s time accompanying Miles Davis, 1959-1963, proved to be a treat for Jazz fans as he produced memorable symphonies such as the ‘Freddie Freeloader.’ In the years to come, he teamed up with bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb to record his own albums. Kelly reached the peak of his career while backing the guitarist Wes Montgomery.
‘Kind of Blue,’ ‘At the Blackhawk,’ and ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ are the most notable albums that imbue Kelly with bragging rights as Miles Davis’s favorite accompanist. He recorded various albums and singles with notable labels, including The Blue Note and the Riverside Records. The memorable album, ‘Kelly Blue’, among many others, pays homage to this inspiring pianist.
Wynton Kelly was born on December 2, 1931, in Jamaica, West Indies. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Wynton Kelly was inclined towards music from a very young age and professionally adopted it as his career when he was only 12 years old, making his first professional debut.
Initially, Kelly played with many R&B bands, with his first notable performance being the one with R&B tenor saxophonist, Ray Abrams, in 1947. Later on Kelly also worked with R&B artists Hot Lips Page, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis. The prime motivation behind his mature yet refreshing music is the experience he gained working with Babs Gonzales’s band in the late 40s, which was comprised of J.J. Johnson, Roy Haynes and Sonny Rollins.
In 1951, Kelly gained a strong reputation among many of the leading jazz artists when he served as Dinah Washington’s accompanist. In the same year, he also marked his recording debut as a leader on the Blue Note Label recording, with as many as 14 titles in a trio, with Lee Abrams (drums) and Fred Skeete (bass) at the age of 19. After enjoying small gigs with bebop musicians such as Lester Young and Dizzy Gillespie, Kelly recorded as a pianist with Gillespie’s quintet in 1952, producing the fine Sittin’ In album. From 1952 to 1954, Kelly performed his military services, to return later to pursue his love for Jazz.
Kelly received great acknowledgment for his work with Washington (1955-1957), Charles Mingus (1956-1957), and the Gillespie band (1957) after his return. But the most promising era of his career began with his work for Miles Davis (1959-1963), who invited him to fill in for Bill Evans. This proved a treat for Jazz lovers with the production of albums such as the Kind of Blue, At the Blackhawk, and Someday My Prince Will Come. The famous track ‘Freddie Freeloader’ was an instant hit, proving Kelly to be an equally talented artist as his predecessors Red Garland and Bill Evans. While working for Davis, Kelly recorded the much renowned Kelly Blue which served as an inspiration for pianist Benny Green.
In 1963, after leaving Davis, Kelly formed his own trio with bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, later to be known as the ‘Wynton Kelly Trio.’ This trio produced some of the most famous jazz recordings of the 60’s. The trio worked with the guitarist Wes Montgomery, which marked the height of their popularity. The recording made by this gifted group was described by guitarist Pat Metheny as ‘the absolute greatest jazz guitar album ever made.’
In spite of suffering from epilepsy, Kelly never let his music be affected. Before his death, he recorded for labels like the Blue Note, Riverside Records, Vee-Jay, Verve and Milestone. On April 12, 1971, in Toronto, Ontario, an epileptic fit cost Kelly his life. He never gained widespread recognition but would always be remembered for his individualistic and exuberant music. Davis used the following words to explain his favorite accompanist’s worth in jazz:
‘Wynton’s the light for a cigarette. He lights the fire and he keeps it going. Without him there’s no smoking.’
Wynton Kelly entered into the world of music with R&B, at a very tender age of 12, in the ever flourishing era of Rhythm and Blues of the late 40’s. But, what popularized Kelly among the masses was the distinctive and satisfying style of jazz he developed out of this tradition. He was uniquely known in the bop and hard-bop worlds. Kelly is more commonly known for his distinguishing style of swing and his ability to accompany all artists in accordance with their respective styles.
Wynton Kelly’s much acclaimed single ‘Kelly Blues’ represents his alluring sense of swing and soulful approach. He skillfully synchronized the subdued notes and gave his individual touch to the music without overpowering the other musicians’ interpretations of the chords. His individualistic touch in music stems from his passion for jazz and years of unearthing experience that incorporated his personality into his music.
Kelly had the admirable qualities of leadership in order to drive the rhythm of the music. There was a ‘take charge’ air about him that made it impossible for anyone to evaluate his performance in a band.
Kelly’s music signified the fine line between an ‘average’ and an ‘exceptionally good’ form of jazz. This is the reason he was acclaimed as Miles Davis’s personal favorite accompanist. The ‘Penguin Guide to Jazz, 6th Ed’ declares the reason for Kelly’s captivating rhythm as ‘…his lyrical simplicity or uncomplicated touch…. [Or] the dynamic bounce to his chord [voicings].’
Kelly’s much appreciated block-chording is due to his exceptional attribute to interpolate the bops and the blues with a taut sense of timing. But what remains to be the most distinguishing feature of Kelly’s music is his sense of producing a calculated rhythm without appearing to do so. This simple approach to clarity made his music exuberant, without being overt.
Kelly worked with some of the most noted hard-bop artists including Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and alongside many others, and quickly became the most in-demand accompanist of his time. In spite of such vast acclaim for his work, Kelly remained an underrated artist for the time. As quoted by Orrin Keepnews, Jazz producer and writer: ‘Wynton’s situation is worth noting as a startling example of the strange irrelevance of merit to fame in Jazz.’
Videos and Recordings
The Wynton Kelly Trio plays On Green Dolphin Street:
Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise: