Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Kelly, Wynton

Pianist Wynton Kelly played the blues with compassion and an unparalleled sense of swing. One of the most active sidemen of the postwar jazz scene, his sound made its mark on many albums in his brief career, including Miles Davis's Kind of Blue.

Kelly was born on December 2, 1931 in Brooklyn, New York, where his family settled after emigrating from Jamaica.

Something of a prodigy, by age fourteen Kelly was playing piano in rhythm & blues bands around the city. At age fifteen, toured North and South America with Ray and Lee Abrams. That same year, he joined Hot Lips Page's band for several months, then joined R&B singer Hal Singer for a brief stint in 1948. The late 1940s saw Kelly playing more R&B than jazz.

In 1950, Kelly began a two-year engagement with singer Dinah Washington, who brought the young pianist to the attention of the jazz world The year 1952 was a busy one, as he played early in the year with saxophonist Lester Young and that summer with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band.

After his stints with Young and Gillespie, Kelly served in the United States Army from September of 1952 through the summer of 1954. Upon his discharge, Kelly reunited with Washington and Gillespie. He also played Las Vegas with Benny Carter in 1955, and toured in late 1956 with bassist Charles Mingus.

In 1956, Kelly appeared on the Sonny Rollins album from 1956 entitled Sonny Rollins Volume One. Kelly can be heard on the song”Decisions.” In 1957, Kelly recorded with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on the album Theory of Art. Kelly performed on saxophonist Benny Golson's 1957 release Benny Golson's New York Scene, on such songs as "You're Mine, You.” Kelly also appeared on the first recording of Golson's elegy for trumpeter Clifford Brown entitled "I Remember Clifford.”

In early 1959, Kelly began his working relationship with trumpeter Miles Davis, and played in his quintet until 1963. Davis had already enlisted the services of pianist Bill Evans for Kind of Blue, but Kelly appears on the album’s second cut, "Freddie Freeloader," on which his riveting four-chorus blues solo sets the tone for the rest of the song.

Davis asked Kelly to add a touch of blues to the album, in line with the style of pianist Ahmad Jamal. Davis later called Kelly’s approach a combination of the driving rhythmic approach of pianist Red Garland and Evans’s delicate touch and refined harmonic sensibilities. Other highlights of Kelly’s tenure with Davis include 1961’sSomeday My Prince Will Come and At the Blackhawk.

Through his association with Davis, Kelly formed a close bond with the other musicians in his band, including saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Kelly appeared on Coltrane's 1959 release Giant Steps, performing on several cuts including the song "Naima.” Kelly also appeared on alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's album Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago, including songs such as "Stars Fell on Alabama.”

Kelly formed his own trio with Chambers and Cobb, and recorded albums as a leader for Blue Note and later Riverside. He appeared on even more Blue Note releases as a sideman. Kelly played with saxophonist Hank Mobley on his 1960 release, Soul Station,and with trumpeter Lee Morgan on 1960's Here's Lee Morgan.

Kelly's working trio with Chambers and Cobb began playing behind guitarist Wes Montgomery in 1961, with whom they recorded with through the mid 1960s. The trio appear on many Montgomery albums including Bags Meets Wes: Milt Jackson & Wes Montgomery and Fullhouse, both of which were released by Riverside.

After Montgomery switched over to Verve, the trio backed him on several other albums including 1965's Smokin' at the Half Note, which included the quartet's rendition of the Miles Davis song "No Blues.” The quartet also released Smokin' at the Half Note Volume II, which was recorded the same night in June of 1965 at the New York jazz club.

As a leader, Kelly released his first album, Piano Interpretations, on Blue Note in 1958. Kelly also released Piano in 1958 and Kelly Blue in 1959, both of which were released by Riverside.

Kelly suffered from epilepsy most of his life, and succumbed to a heart attack induced by a seizure in Toronto, Canada on April 12, 1971. He remained an active performer until the time of his death, and also recorded albums as a leader for Vee-Jay, Verve, Milestone and Xanadu.

Kelly is survived by a daughter named Tracy, who now goes by the name Tracy Matisak and resides in Philadelphia. Kelly's first cousin is the father of jazz bassist Marcus Miller, who also played with Miles Davis, making the two performers second cousins.

Selected Discography

as Wynton Kelly

Piano (Riverside, 1958)

Kelly Blue (Riverside, 1959)

with Miles Davis

Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)

Someday My Prince Will Come (Columbia, 1961)

with Wes Montgomery

Bags Meets Wes: Milt Jackson & Wes Montgomery (Riverside, 1961)

Fullhouse (Riverside, 1962)

Smokin' at the Half Note (Verve, 1965)

with Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins Volume I (Blue Note, 1956)

Newk's Time (Blue Note, 1957)

with Cannonball Adderley

Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago (1959)

with Lee Morgan

Lee Morgan Volume III (Blue Note, 1957)

Here's Lee Morgan (Blue Note, 1960)

with John Coltrane

Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1969)

with Hank Mobley

Soul Station (Blue Note, 1960)

Another Workout (Blue Note, 1962)

Contributor: Jared Pauley