Obituary: Kenny Drew
Friday 06 August 1993
SUCH was his virtuosity that it took Kenny Drew only three years from taking up the piano at the age of five to giving his first public recital when he was eight. In his youth he was much influenced by Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. His first professional work was as an accompanist at the Pearl Primus Dance School. He studied at the High School of Music and Art in New York and was at his most impressionable as a teenager in the turbulent years of the bebop revolution of the Forties when his heroes were the pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. When Drew's own style matured it reflected all these interests, and it was unusual for a pianist of his era to refer back in his playing to Waller and Wilson.
Drew was a clear-thinking improviser who created long melodic lines which, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, resolved naturally, giving his work a great strength of form. On the other hand he was not a sensational player and his cerebral approach usually controlled his emotions. Consequently - in an over- simplification - he will be unfairly remembered as the sort of guy who turned up on time and knew all the tunes.
He was a superb accompanist and, beginning with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Milt Jackson and Charlie Parker, worked with most of the top jazz musicians of his day. His mature playing meant that he could solo well alongside such diverse talents as Dinah Washington, whose accompanist he was at one time, and Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane.
He moved to California in 1951 and recorded with many of the West Coast stars such as Joe Maini and Jack Sheldon. When he formed his superb quartet in 1952 the bebop clarinettist Buddy DeFranco hired Drew along with the drummer Art Blakey. The altoist Frank Morgan recalls: 'I went to jail for the first time in my life in 1953, San Francisco. Kenny Drew and I got busted together. I was working with Oscar Pettiford and he was with Buddy DeFranco at the same club.' While Morgan was in and out of jail for the next 30 years for drug offences, Drew seemed to have brought his problem under control.
The list of Drew's recordings, which includes sessions with veterans Benny Carter and Ben Webster, reads like a history of modern jazz. His first were made in January 1950 with the trumpeter Howard McGhee and he was pianist in the Sonny Rollins quartet which recorded the following year. He made several albums with his own trio in 1953 and signed with the Riverside label in 1957, for whom he recorded copiously over the next few years. In September 1957 he joined some of the best young musicians of the day to record for Blue Note under the leadership of the tenorist John Coltrane. The resulting album, Blue Train, was a powerful element in the tide which changed the direction of jazz at the end of the Fifties.
After working with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers he joined Buddy Rich's band in 1958, staying with the drummer for a year. He visited Europe in an acting and playing role in The Connection, a play about drug addiction in jazz. As a result of his first visit he moved to Paris in 1961, where he stayed until he finally settled in Copenhagen in 1964. Here he played at the Montmartre Jazzhus, one of Europe's finest clubs, and soon became the resident pianist, working in the trio of the drummer Alex Riel, which also included the bassist Niels- Benning Orsted Pedersen. The partnership between Drew and Pedersen was to last for the rest of Drew's life and they frequently worked as a duo. At the Montmartre Drew was able to work for long periods and often record with visiting Americans like the tenorists Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz (each of whom also took up residence in Denmark at this period), Sonny Rollins, Zoot Sims, Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley, Yusef Lateef, Joe Henderson and the maverick violinist Stuff Smith.
Drew married Mariann, daughter of a Danish bandleader and their son, Kenny Drew Jnr, is a gifted jazz pianist with trio albums under his own name.
From the late Seventies onwards Drew devoted a lot of his time to composing and orchestrating. He formed a successful music publishing company and was co-owner of the Matrix record company. He was prominent in European radio circles and his many compositions included Suite for Big Band, written for the Danish Radio Orchestra.
Earlier this year he won Denmark's coveted Palay Bar jazz award.
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