Wynton Kelly

The favorite accompanist of such musicians as Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley, pianist Wynton Kelly (1931-1971) found his own distinctive voice in the bop and hard-bop worlds. Born in Jamaica, he grew up in Brooklyn and was a professional musician by the time he was a young teenager. Kelly played r&b with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Hal Singer, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, recorded as a leader as early as 1951, and had stints with Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lester Young. Although a period in the military interrupted his career, in 1955 Kelly was back, spending two years as Dinah Washington’s accompanist. He also worked with Charles Mingus and the Dizzy Gillespie big band. In 1959 Kelly replaced Bill Evans with the Miles Davis Sextet, a position that he held for four years.

Piano features Kelly a year before he joined Davis but already interacting with the trumpeter’s sidemen bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, in addition to guitarist Kenny Burrell. The pianist’s light swinging style and soulful approach is very much in evidence. Kelly Blue, from 1959, has Kelly, Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb as the core group. Cornetist Nat Adderley and flutist Bobby Jaspar expand the group on a few numbers. In listening to these Riverside projects, one can hear where today’s pianist Benny Green gained some of his original inspiration.

After leaving Miles Davis in 1963, Kelly formed a trio with Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, his main group for the remainder of his life. The Wynton Kelly Trio sounded especially in prime form while backing guitarist Wes Montgomery for some classic performances.

The group, with Ron McClure on bass, is in fine shape on Kelly’s lone Milestone recording, Full View, from 1967. Listening to this swinging hard-bop music, it is difficult to believe that Wynton Kelly would pass away less than four years later when he was just 39.