It is not very often that you have an opportunity to speak with a music icon as celebrated as Roger Kellaway and it is even less often that you get to talk to him on his birthday (67th). I had the opportunity to do both recently and found the pianist/composer to be one of the more congenial people that I have spoken to inside or outside of the music industry. Kellaway took time to reflect about the relationships he has forged, time spent in the late sixties as the arranger and pianist for Bobby Darin, the numerous films he has scored and his forty-one year marriage to Jorjana.
Now entering his sixty-eighth year, Kellaway is not a man stuck in the past, but quite the contrary. He spoke of the need to ensure his own music and career is more firmly entrenched in the digital age. Inspired by Maria Schneider’s success in the digital age Kellaway says, "I am much more interested in it right now than I ever have been because I just don’t think there is any other possibility (for selling music on a large scale)."
He talks about new projects and musical adventures he would like to pursue. You can hear the vitality in his voice whether he is recalling a fond memory or in his responses to questions that solicit his opinion.
Kellaway revels what he refers to as a 'forty-one year art lesson’ at the hands of his father-in-law, his wife and her uncle. It is fitting then that although he did not design or have input to the cover of his most recent CD Heroes, it is very Picasso or Degas like. "The cover that I like the best is Heroes. Everyone seems to like it the best," he says.
Speaking of Heroes, I asked Kellaway why he chose this particular time in his life to create this type of record. "These days, particularly in the last few years and with the last few CDs, I have been looking for a common theme. Heroes is dedicated to the first two Oscar Peterson trios. The first one was with Barney Kessel and the second one with Herb Ellis," he says.
Kellaway made a point of doing some heavy-duty research about the Peterson trios. It also helped that he had played with Herb Ellis and renowned bassist Ray Brown who had also performed with Peterson. Familiarity with the Peterson repertoire made song selection for Heroes easy.
Kellaway says the reason for recording songs such as Benny Golson’s "Killer Joe," Duke Elington’s "Cotton Tail" and Kellaway’s original composition "I’m Smiling Again" was to commemorate the person who was the single most prominent force during my teenage years. Oscar (Peterson) was a tremendous force in my (musical) upbringing." After he had introduced Kellaway to Peterson, jazz historian Gene Lees asked Kellaway for his opinion of the jazz legend. Kellaway replied, "The world is a swing." Lees thought that was a great phrase and adopted it as the title for his book.
The album Heroes is part of a bigger mission that Kellaway has embarked on. "This is what my new trio is all about. I am feeling a legacy about swinging because most of the people that I learned it from are gone. The younger generation seems to be responding to swing, at least in terms of dancing. It certainly is a part of jazz that needs to be addressed."
With twenty-six film scores to his credit, including titles such as A Star Is Born, Breathless, The Paper Lion and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it was surprising to learn that Kellaway is not overly eager to return to that medium.
"I have looked at film music again, but colleagues have told me horrendous stories of working with people in the industry that essentially don’t know anything about music. There are projects with (as many as) fourteen producers so I have decided not to go in that direction," he says.
Recently, however, Kellaway finished writing a score for a documentary his wife, Jorjana, was completing. Other than Jorjana’s project, he has, however, decided against, "Going back into music per se unless someone comes along that just adores what I do. It has to be a small independent project with some parameters to it. (It cannot have) fourteen people with opinions. That isn’t how music is made!"
Kellaway says three vocalists in particular stand out in his mind when he thinks back over the years he has been associated with jazz: Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Bobby Darin. About Vaughan he observes, "When I did piano bars in the sixties, I used to sing a lot of those swooping phrases of hers. I always loved her style. You are talking about a time when singers actually sang the melody (versus) what happens nowadays. You are talking of a time when songs were made of melodies. Not only were the songs melodic, but the singers were melodic oriented."
Kellaway enthuses about his relationship with Carmen McRae. He created arrangements for her in 1975. He says he loved working with both Vaughan and McRae and you can still hear the fondness in his voice.
"The other person whom looms largely in my life is Bobby Darin. I was with him from ’66 to ’68. In ’67, after taking a year of dictation, he gave me Doctor Doolittle," says Kellaway. He describes Darin as, "an expert on the kind of things and orchestration that he wanted to hear," and, "We were the first people to do the music of Doctor Doolittle."
Other influences early in Kellaway’s career included working with Clark Terry from 1962-64. He played with Bob Brookmeyer and was a part of quintets led by Al Cohn and Zoot Sims (1963). The music of George Shearing, Billy Taylor and Horace Silver served as a magnet for the young Kellaway.
Kellaway credits Dick Sudhalter with introducing him to Dixieland jazz. Those ties were strengthened when Kellaway had an opportunity to hone his craft at Boston’s Mahogany Hall, a venue owned by George Wien and adjacent to Wien’s Storyville jazz club.
With the diversity of music that influenced his early career, it does not come as a surprise to Kellaway that his own music is very eclectic. He says, "If I am writing something that is very melodic and harmonic, I can only go so far before I want to do something serial and twelve tone."
Kellaway says, "Every aspect of music has its own language and message." If that is true, then we might easily conclude that Roger Kellaway is a connoisseur of languages. We would be hard pressed to think of any other individual who has become so accomplished in as many different aspects of his craft, as has been the case with Roger Kellaway. He has performed with Bobby Darin, Elvis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Joni Mitchell, Quincy Jones and Henry Mancini. He received a Grammy Award for his music on Memos From Paradise. His film score for A Star Is Born received an Academy Award nomination. He was commissioned to write the music for a ballet presented by choreographer George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet. He has recorded and written chamber music, jazz music and classical charts.
Despite all of his accomplishments, I never once got the impression during our all too brief hour together that Roger Kellaway has become self-absorbed or convinced that there is not more to learn about his craft. He remains optimistic about his future and the future of jazz. He is grateful for his experiences and the numerous friendships they have brought him.
Roger, your in-laws may have given you an art lesson, but you have given me a life lesson. Thank you.