Interview: Roger Kellaway
Today is Roger Kellaway's 80th birthday (happy birthday, Roger!). Roger is an exceptional jazz pianist with a stunning technique who appears on many of my favorite jazz albums, including Oliver Nelson's More Blues and the Abstract Truth (1964), Wes Montgomery's Bumpin' (1965) and Sonny Rollins's Alfie (1966). His leadership albums also are extraordinary, so much so you can't believe your ears.
To celebrate his birthday, Roger will appear at New York's Birdland Theater on November 15 and 16 (at 7 and 9:45 p.m.). He'll be backed by guitarist Ron Ben-Hur and bassist Jay Leonhart. He'll also appear that evening upstairs (at 8:30 and 11 p.m.) as a special guest with the Django Reinhardt Festival. For tickets and information, go here.
Roger also has a new CD out—The Many Open Minds of Roger Kellaway (IPO), featuring Roger on piano, Bruce Forman on guitar and Dan Lutz on bass. It was recorded live at the Jazz Bakery in 2009. You'll find it here or here. You can listen here...
Recently I had a chance to catch up with Roger...
JazzWax: What was life like in the 1940s when you grew up in Waban, Mass.?
Roger Kellaway: Waban was a small New England town with one policeman, one drugstore, one bank, one market, one shoe-repair store, one barbershop, one library and one community center where we used to watch Laurel & Hardy movies on Saturday mornings for a nickel. Locomotive trains up there were still powered by steam. At some point, I started playing a little guitar.
JW: When did you start taking piano lessons?
RK: I began formal piano lessons at age 7. At age 11, I discovered George Shearing’s I’ll Remember April. I bought the sheet music. and the song became my piano solo for several years. After Shearing, I listened to pianists Billy Taylor, Oscar Peterson and Horace Silver. My listening habits were mostly classical but I quickly added jazz and big bands. In junior high school, eight kids tried out for the piano in the orchestra. So I started playing the upright bass. I taught myself how to play. Four years later, I played fourth bass in the Massachusetts All-State Orchestra under Frederick Fennell.
JW: Did you play jazz bass during this period?
RK: Yes, in the King’s Men, our local band. Dick Sudhalter was in the band playing cornet. I continued on the bass until I arrived in New York in 1960. At that time, I sat in on bass with Jimmy Giuffre (above) and Jim Hall. Jimmy offered me the gig, but due to complications in my personal life, I decided not to do it. I often think back to that time and realize that Jimmy's next band was with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow.
JW: Who was most helpful to you early on?
RK: In school, I had two influences pushing me in two different directions. First, was Dick Sudhalter, pushing me toward Dixieland. His father had played alto sax in early Dixieland bands. Dick was strongly influenced by Bix Beiderbecke. The second influence was Dave Schreier who played tenor sax and was pushing me toward modern jazz.
JW: Who were you listening to most at this point?
RK: Igor Stravinsky and other Russian composers. I also discovered Fats Waller. Two other strong musical influences at the New England Conservatory were multi-instrumentalists Dick Wetmore and Leroy “Sam” Parkins. Dick played cornet, baritone horn and violin. He had the most beautiful lyrical style of playing on all three instruments. I played bass with him at Boston’s Hotel Buckminister in the basement where we played a mixture of Dixieland and modern jazz. However, every other Sunday featured the beginnings of jazz and poetry. Someone would read poet E.E. Cummings, and we'd accompany the reader with improvisations based on some of Dick's 12-tone rows. Needless to say, by this point, I was listening to Dixieland followed by Arnold Schoenberg.
JW: What else can you share about Sam Parkins?
RK: Sam played tenor sax and clarinet. I played bass with him at a Dixieland gig on Cape Cod. The drummer was Tommy Benford, who had been around the world twice with Fats Waller. Tommy's drum solos, to me, were more interesting than Max Roach’s. By then I was a Clifford Brown and Max Roach fan. At the end of the Cape Cod gig, Sam and I drove to his house in Brookline, Mass. I stayed overnight, and for hours we improvised four-handed atonal sonatas on his piano. All of these events with Dick and Sam were playing and listening moments more than teacher-student moments. Playing with Dick and Sam provided me with a different lesson. As I listened closely to how they played, I figured out how to accompany them and reach the highest musical experience. [Photo above of Sam Parkins courtesy of Ed Berger]
JW: Do you remember much from one of your first recordings, the album with Mark Murphy? That was some group of musicians.
RK: You're referring to Mark Murphy’s That’s How I Love the Blues for Riverside in 1962. That was a sensational moment in my life. However, the first recording I did with Mark was a Gene Lees song, Fly Away My Sadness backed by the Al Cohn Orchestra. I'm not sure the recording was ever released. [Here's the Mark Murphy Riverside single It's Like Love and Fly Away, My Sadness...]
JW: What made Ben Webster special?
RK: Ben Webster and I never hung out together, so I got to know him only on recording sessions. How do you accompany Ben Webster? You listen to his every note and phrase, and stay out of the way of his gorgeous sound. I recorded three albums with Ben: More, with Clark Terry, on which I wrote all of the arrangements; More Blues and the Abstract Truth; and See You at the Fair. I played on half the latter album, loving the tracks with piano and disliking intensely the two tracks that I had to play electric harpsichord—an early synthesizer experience. The keyboard’s action was so loose that it was difficult to control.
JW: More Blues and the Abstract Truth has a wonderful cinematic feel. What was arranger Oliver Nelson like to work with?
RK: More Blues and the Abstract Truth is one of my very favorite albums, along with Sonny Rollins’s Alfie and Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’. The title track was the hardest chart. We took it home to work on and recorded it the next day. All the other tracks were done in one take. At this time in New York, studio players could sight-read the music and make it sound as if they had been playing it for weeks. The studio scene was highly energetic and passionate then, especially for someone like Oliver. His music made you feel that way. So, the end results were high-quality music. Oliver, this nice and gentle guy, would give a simple downbeat and unleash all of this sun power. What a sound!
JW: What did you think of Wes Montgomery? You're on two of his albums.
RK: Wes was pretty quiet. He didn’t say much. For Bumpin', we rehearsed for four days, giving Wes an opportunity to memorize the music, since he didn’t read music. The rehearsals were supervised by
Don Sebesky, who later arranged the strings and harp overdubs. My second Wes encounter was a gig at New York's Half Note, where I would spend 2½ years with the Clark Terry/Bob Brookmeyer quintet.
JW: How did you wind up on the gig?
RK: I was subbing for Wynton Kelly. This was just after Bumpin’ was released. For some reason, Wynton couldn't make it. He must have liked my work on Bumpin' and recommended me for the gig. What a happy moment. The bass player was Paul Chambers and the drummer was Jimmie Smith. What a wonderful time. That was the only opportunity I had to play with Paul. I played later with Smith on an album called Just Friends with Zoot Sims and Harry “Sweets” Edison. The bass player was John Heard.
JW: Montgomery’s Goin’ Out of My Head was a big turning point in jazz-pop. What do you recall from that session?
RK: I don't have any memory of the session. Except for the opening left-hand octaves, there's not enough piano in the mix to tell whether it's me or Herbie Hancock. I know I played on half of the album. But, those tracks were taken from the Bumpin’ recording sessions—even the outtakes from that album.
JW: Who were you listening to during your period in New York?
RK: In the early 1960s, my listening habits were shape-shifting again, adding Olivier Messiaen, Lucciano Berio, John Cage, Edgar Varese and various avant-garde composers of electronic music and musique concrète.
JW: What do you remember about Sonny Rollins’s Alfie album?
RK: Alfie was another one of my favorites. Can you imagine—Sonny Rollins and Oliver Nelson? Everything on the session was sheer joy. Track #4, Transition Theme, has two of my piano solos. In the middle of Sonny's solo, he stopped playing and moved off-mike. When I saw him do this, I grabbed the space for a second piano solo.
JW: Trombonist J.J. Johnson’s Betwixt and Between in 1968 with trombonist Kai Winding has an unusual sound.
RK: I played piano and electric keyboard on there. I arranged Just a Funky Old Vegetable Bin. It's unfortunate that the style of the album didn't give me much of a chance to play with J.J. or Kai Winding.
JW: How did you come to work as singer Bobby Darin’s music director?
RK: I was coming off a year as musical director for comedian Jack E Leonard. Jack used to be a dancer and he always liked a band behind him. Drummer Stan Levey recommended me to Bobby. I rehearsed a few tunes with Bobby on a Thursday and got the gig. We were to open at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas the following Tuesday. He sang me a concept he had for The Shadow of Your Smile. Then he asked me to check his files for the arrangement. I searched but didn’t find the chart. When I told him no such arrangement existed in his file, he said, without skipping a beat, “Well, there will be by next Tuesday.” That was Bobby. [Photo above, from left, of Michael Kollendor, Roger Kellaway, Tony Ensiago and Chuck Domanico on Bobby Darin's world tour in 1967]
JW: How did the Dr. Dolittle album come together?
RK: Bobby was very direct and clear about what he wanted musically and how he wanted the stage show to be handled. I took a lot of musical dictation from him for the first year regarding several arrangements. Then, out of the blue, in 1967, he called me and had me join him in his suite at the Flamingo. He presented me with Leslie Bricusse and Lionel Newman’s music to the Dr. Doolittle film that came out that year. We found his keys on each tune. Then he gave me the name of the recording studio and the instrumentation—a 35-piece orchestra. He said we’d be recording in three weeks. With just one year of experience under my belt, I delivered the arrangements for what would become Bobby Darin Sings Dr. Doolittle. I’m still extremely proud of the album and my arrangements.
JW: What do you think of Darin?
RK: Bobby will always be one of the greatest performers I ever worked with. He swung with ease, he used to stage with ease, he related to the audience with ease and confidence. He walked on and every move was perfection. What a teacher. I learned my stage timing from Bobby Darin. And Jack E. Leonard.
JW: How did your fabulous cello quartet album in 1970 evolve? Those three albums remain gorgeous.
RK: In 1969 I was writing pieces for cello and piano. I wanted to play piano against original cello music. Edgar Lustgarten was my favorite studio cellist, so I asked him to come by my house and play through my new pieces with me. He agreed. In my mind, that was the beginning of my cello quartet albums.
JW: Were the musicians carefully selected?
RK: Absolutely. I picked Chuck Domanico on bass and Emil Richards on percussion. I wanted the group to express the sound of wood. Also, three of us could improvise in unusual time signatures. For example, Sunrise, from my first album, Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet (1970) is in 15/8; and Esque from the same album is in 5/4.
JW: Why call it a cello quartet when there’s only one cellist?
RK: The music I was writing for this group was put in a stack I called “Cello Quartet.” The other stack was called “Sax Quartet,” relating to my group with Tom Scott. So, I kept the name “Cello Quartet.” Remember, Bartok had a piece called Clarinet Trio that didn't feature three clarinets. Along the way, I met Steve Goldman, who said he'd like to produce the album. I was with A&M records at the time, so, I took the idea to Herb Alpert. He said, “Go,” and the Cello Quartetwas born.
JW: How did you get the job writing Remembering You, the closing theme to TV's All in the Family?
RK: Dave Grusin had just finished a film with Bud Yorkin, a partner of Norman Lear. Given his schedule, Dave didn't have time for this TV sitcom project. So he recommended me. I read the pilot script and wrote a theme song, not knowing they had already hired Lee Adams and Charles Straus to write Those Were The Days. I drove into Hollywood and played my song on the cello for director John Rich, Norman Lear and Carroll O’Connor.
JW: What did they think?
RK: They loved it immediately. I recorded it on piano. So, the first six episodes had an end credit with two songs—Lee Adams and Charles Straus for Those Were the Days and Roger Kellaway and Carroll O'Connor for Remembering You. My wife, Jorjana, suggested I go to Norman Lear and tell him that we didn’t need Adams/Straus on the end-theme credits. All in the Family was the first TV show to have an opening theme and a different closing theme. [Here it is...]
JW: What are five of your favorite Roger Kellaway albums and why?
RK: The Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet (A&M/1970). This is an important album in my life. Because of this album, I began being called the “father of crossover.” I'll take it!
In Japan (All Art Jazz/1986). This is my first Japanese CD. The original title of the album was Kellaway Plays Broadway, but our Japanese producers thought that Kellaway and Broadway was too rhyme-y."
Meets the Duo (Chiaroscuro/1992). This was my first opportunity to record with the piano-guitar-bass format. It was a wonderful group—me with guitarist Gene Bertoncini and bassist Michael Moore. I had played duo with Michael for two years, and Michael played duo with Gene for about five years.
Live At Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 11 (Concord/1991). This is one of my favorite solo piano CDs.
Inside & Out (Concord/1995) was recorded with cornetist Ruby Braff. I first met Ruby when I was a teenager. So this CD links to my childhood. I love how much music we made together.
Albums with Red Mitchell. Red was my partner for eight years. We made eight CDs together. I loved every one of them.
Heroes (IPO/2005) is my tribute to the old Oscar Peterson Trio. It won the French Jazz Academy's Classic Jazz Prize.
Duke at the Roadhouse (IPO/2012). Here I recorded with Eddie Daniels on clarinet and James Holland on cello. It won the French Jazz Academy's Grand Prix Award.