Lessons learned on countless bandstands infuse Calvin Keys’ jazz with soul. A squat brick building…
Lessons learned on countless bandstands infuse Calvin Keys’ jazz with soul.
A squat brick building on Omaha’s North Side, Allen’s Showcase hosted some of the greatest names in jazz when they passed through town. Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine and Lionel Hampton played the room, as did alto saxophonist and blues shouter Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, who lived in the area for a brief period and led a Sunday jam session. Eager to participate, but nervous at the prospect, a teenaged Calvin Keys would show up with his guitar and unobtrusively occupy a corner table. Eventually, Vinson noticed him and coaxed him on stage.
“The first time, I never will forget that,” says Keys, conversing by phone from his home in Oakland, California, during an early morning in September. “I got on up, tuned up, and he started calling these chords for this tune. I didn’t know the tune, but I followed the chords the best I could. So I went home and I remembered the chord changes, and I find out the name of the song was ‘Four’ by Miles Davis. I laid there all week and got me a couple of hot licks and felt pretty good. So I go back the next time, and he looked at me and he started smilin’, cause he seen that I couldn’t wait to get up on stage. So I got up, and he said, ‘I know you went home and figured out them chords, and you got you a couple of licks, didn’t you?’ I said, ‘Well, I think I might … .’ He said, ‘But we gonna do another tune.’ I said, ‘What?! Oh, OK.’ It was another one of Miles’ tunes, I can’t remember the name of it, and that’s how he got me to learn different tunes.”
Trial by fire served Keys well. He’d go on to play with Ray Charles, Ahmad Jamal, Pharoah Sanders and a holy trinity of Hammond B3 innovators — Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Groove Holmes. He’d also craft a notable career as a leader that resulted in some classic recordings of the soul-jazz era.
At the age of 80, Keys continues to add to his discography. His latest release, Blue Keys (Wide Hive), places him in the company of saxophonist Gary Bartz, trombonist Steve Turre, percussionist Babatunde Lea and bassist and longtime associate Henry Franklin. Keys’ distinctive single-string blues-picking style identifies him immediately, a sonic calling card he’s been refining at least since his 1971 debut recording, Shawn-Neeq.
Despite his mother’s misgivings, Keys gravitated toward a life in music early on, studying his uncle Ivory Smith’s fingers as he picked out tunes by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson on guitar. Wayne Bennett, Bobby “Blue” Bland’s guitarist, was another influence, teaching Keys about blues scales when he performed in the area. Blues was the coin of the realm, and you’d better have some in your pocket if you wanted to step on stage. “If you didn’t know ‘Hideaway’ by Freddie King or ‘Honky Tonk’ by Bill Doggett,” he says, “you wasn’t in the game.”
When Keys was 17, a saxophonist known as Little Walkin’ Willie invited him to join his road band. Of course, Willie would first have to obtain permission from Calvin’s mom, who turned him down flat; after all, her son was still in school. This didn’t sit well with the young guitarist. “I was really upset about that,” he says. “So I told my mother, ‘Mama, I’ve decided that I’m gonna go on the road with Little Walkin’ Willie. If I have to go while you go to sleep, I’m gonna slip out the door.’ ” Grudgingly, she let him go.
After that first outing, Keys was hooked. He toured extensively, traveling with Kansas City organist Frank Edwards’ band from the Midwest through San Francisco and Oakland, and eventually moving to Los Angeles in 1969. Along the way, he increased his jazz sophistication, studying with pianist Ernest Crawford and guitar legend Irving Ashby. A two-week engagement with Ahmad Jamal at the Troubadour in West Hollywood led to a long association with the pianist, with whom he worked when he wasn’t touring with the Ray Charles band. Keys was also a regular at an after-hours coffeehouse run by bassist Larry Gales, a place where musicians came to hang out and jam. It was here that he met Doug and Jean Carn, the husband-and-wife team with whom he’d record the soul-jazz gem Adam’s Apple, as well as Gene Russell, who invited him to record for his fledgling Black Jazz Imprint.
Shawn-Neeq, his inaugural Black Jazz release, was named for a newly born niece and suffused with positivity during some challenging times, particularly for the Black community. “I tried to [capture] the beauty of a brand-new baby being brought into the house,” Keys says. His follow-up, Proceed With Caution!, sought to raise consciousness rather than ire, its melodic music somewhat at odds with cover photos of a fierce-looking Keys, dressed in a leopard-print daishiki and wielding a spear. “The country was going through a thing, man, with African Americans and the police and the killings and all that. It was crazy,” he says. “I said through this album that whatever you do, you got to proceed with caution. And a lot of people turned on to it and they got the message. Today it’s more relevant than ever.”
Unfortunately, Keys didn’t exercise caution when it came to smoking. In 1997, he underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery. While in the hospital, he was visited by musician and Wide Hive label chief Gregory Howe, who was determined to get him into the studio. In 1998, Keys released Detours Into Unconscious Rhythms, his first album for the imprint, which was succeeded by two more, including Vertical Clearance, with Sonny Fortune on alto sax. In addition to Bartz, Lea and Turre, Blue Keys, his fourth, features Howe and other musicians from the Wide Hive stable, who provide extra muscle on horns and rhythm. He has another album in the can, Silver Keys, which pays tribute to a personal jazz hero, Horace Silver, and is slated for release in 2023 on the LifeForce Jazz label.
Although he never met Silver, Keys played with musicians who knew him well. From an early age, he understood the value of information gleaned from seasoned musicians on and off the bandstand. “There’s certain things you learn from traveling with different artists that you don’t learn in no school,” he says, adding that he passes along these lessons to younger players, as well. An interviewer once asked him the difference between his playing now and in his earlier days. “I said, ‘I ain’t no different. I’m playing the same thing that I was playing 50 years ago,’” he says. “The only difference is I think that now I’m playing it better because I know it a little more. Same thing, but different knowledge.” - Bob Weinberg