Wynton Charles Kelly (December 2, 1931 – April 12, 1971) was a Jamaican American jazz pianist and composer. He is known for his lively, blues-based playing and as one of the finest accompanists in jazz.
He began playing professionally at the age of 12, and was pianist on a No. 1 R&B hit at the age of 16. His recording debut as leader occurred three years later, around the time he started to become better known as accompanist to singer Dinah Washington, and as a member of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s band.
This progress was interrupted by two years in the army, after which Kelly returned to Washington and Gillespie, and played with other leaders. Over the next few years, these included instrumentalists Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, John Coltrane, Roland Kirk, Wes Montgomery, and Sonny Rollins, and vocalists Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, and Abbey Lincoln.
Kelly attracted the most attention as part of Miles Davis’ band from 1959, including an appearance on the trumpeter’s Kind of Blue, often mentioned as the best-selling jazz album ever.
After leaving Davis in 1963, Kelly played with his own trio, which recorded for several labels and toured the United States and internationally. His career did not develop much further, and he had difficulty finding enough work late in his career. Kelly, who was prone to epilepsy, died in a hotel room in Canada following a seizure, aged 39.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Kelly was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 2, 1931. He began playing the piano at the age of four, but did not receive much formal training in music. He attended The High School of Music & Art and the Metropolitan Vocational High School in New York, but “They wouldn’t give us piano, so I fooled around with the bass and studied theory.”
Kelly started his professional career in 1943, initially as a member of R&B groups. Through this, he improved his playing – the bands’ “music had to be accessible, entertaining and easy to dance to”; this influenced his later playing.
Around this time he also played organ in local churches. In his local area, he played with brothers Lee and Ray Abrams, as well as Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Ernie Henry, and Cecil Payne, who went on to have careers in jazz.
At the age of 15, Kelly toured the Caribbean as part of Ray Abrams’ R&B band. Kelly made his recording debut aged 16, playing on saxophonist Hal Singer’s 1948 “Cornbread”, which became a Billboard R&B chart-topping hit.
In the following year, Kelly recorded with vocalist Babs Gonzales; these tracks included his first recorded solos. Other R&B bands that Kelly played with included those led by Hot Lips Page (1948 or earlier), Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson (1949), and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (1950).
Material from sessions on July 25 and August 1, 1951 formed Piano Interpretations, a trio album that was Kelly’s recording debut as leader, released by Blue Note Records later that year.
Critic Scott Yanow indicates that, at this stage of his career, Kelly’s main influence was Bud Powell, but that his playing “displayed some of the joy of Teddy Wilson’s style along with his own chord voicings”.
Kelly became better known after joining vocalist Dinah Washington’s band in 1951. After this, he played in bands led by Lester Young in the spring of 1952, and Dizzy Gillespie, recording with the latter later in 1952. In September of that year, just as Kelly was beginning to build a reputation, he was drafted into the army.
After a period at Fort McClellan in Alabama, Kelly was part of a Third Army traveling show. He recruited fellow draftee and future jazz pianist Duke Pearson into the show; together they were able to convince their unit to involve more black musicians, as they were initially the only two out of around two dozen performers. By April 1954 Kelly was “Private First Class Wynton Kelly”, musical director of the show.
He ended his military service with a music performance for an audience of 10,000 in the Chastain Memorial Park Amphitheater in Atlanta, Georgia.
Kelly was released from the military after two years, following which he worked on and off with Washington and Gillespie again. Kelly was also part of Charles Mingus’ group for a tour of Washington DC, California, and Vancouver in late 1956 to early 1957.
He left Mingus to rejoin Gillespie, who led a big band that toured Canada and the southern United States. Commenting on Kelly’s ability to move from a small group to a big band setting, saxophonist Benny Golson, also from Gillespie’s band, said that “He kept his identity; yet he was able to add something to the band, not only melodically (which he was known for) but rhythmically.
He would set up patterns – never interfering with the arrangement, but he was able to get into the cracks and he would always be adding something, giving it impetus, more energy.”
In 1956, Kelly recorded with vocalist Billie Holiday, including for the original version of her song “Lady Sings the Blues”, as well as for the Blue Note debuts of saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins. After leaving Gillespie again, Kelly formed his own trio.
Kelly was much in demand as a sideman for recordings, and appeared on albums by most of the major jazz leaders in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In April 1957, for instance, he appeared as a guest in an enlarged version of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, for an album later released as Theory of Art; this band included trumpeter Lee Morgan, with whom Kelly had recorded a few weeks earlier.
The recording sessions continued four days later, with Kelly joining Blakey, Morgan and others on Griffin’s A Blowin’ Session; this was followed by three studio days for Gillespie, and another for trumpeter Clark Terry, before the end of the month.
Later that year, Kelly made a rare appearance playing bass, for one track of vocalist Abbey Lincoln’s That’s Him!, after the regular bassist, Paul Chambers, became drunk and fell asleep in the studio.
Early in 1958, Kelly recorded his second album as leader, the quartet Piano, more than six years after his first.
In the same year, he played for recordings led by, among others, vocalist Betty Carter, and made the first of several appearances on albums led by Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Blue Mitchell, and Hank Mobley.
Kelly also played organ on one track of Pepper Adams and Jimmy Knepper’s The Pepper-Knepper Quintet, an unusual departure from his usual instrument.
Kelly died in Toronto, Canada, following an epileptic seizure, on April 12, 1971. He had travelled there from New York to play in a club with drummer George Reed and vocalist Herb Marshall. Kelly had a longstanding epilepsy problem, and had to monitor his condition carefully.
An account of his death was given by his friend, Cobb: “Wynton called his girlfriend in New York and said, ‘You know, I don’t feel good.’ She said, ‘Why don’t you go downstairs to the bar and if something happens somebody could tend to you.’ We don’t know if he did that, because when they found him he was in the room.” Kelly was found in his room in the Westminster Hotel on Jarvis Street by Marshall. He was reported to have had almost no money at the time of his death. A memorial concert was held on June 28 in New York and featured numerous well-known musicians of the period.
Kelly was survived by a daughter, Tracy. Bassist Marcus Miller is a cousin of Kelly’s, as are rapper Foxy Brown, and pianist Randy Weston.
Kelly drank a lot; saxophonist Jimmy Heath described him as “an alcoholic” who “could control his drinking” and not let his playing be affected by it. Kelly was known “for being a very warm, generous human being”. Bassist Bill Crow reported that Kelly was “full of fun”: “He was often the center of backstage laughing sessions as we told stories on each other.
Wynton had a removable upper front denture. While on stage, if he saw some of us standing in the wings listening, he would turn around so the audience couldn’t see, give us a stern look, and drop his upper plate forward onto his lower lip, creating a grotesquely comical effect. Sometimes he heightened it by sticking his tongue out at us over his upper teeth.”