Calvin Keys Brings It to Healdsburg for Opening Night

The durable jazz guitarist will kick off the Healdsburg Jazz Festival Friday night at the Krug Event Center.


Over a long and illustrious career that's still going strong, Calvin Keys has played with most if not all of the great jazz organists of the past 50 years: Jimmie McGriff, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith -- "Man, he was a beast!" And of course Ray Charles, with whom Keys played for over a decade on the road and in the studio. 

So it's fitting that Keys' first time as a headliner in the where he plays on Grove Street, he's bringing that classic organ quartet sound to town, featuring young Brian Ho on the Hammond B3. (Concert is sold out.)

"He's learning, he's going to get better too, so I been helping him as much as I can," said the 70-year old guitarist of his new keyboard accompanist. "That's what we gotta do, we got to pass it on to these youngsters. He gives me a lot of respect, and I love him and work with him as much as I can."

Keys plays on Ho's CD of last year, "Organic," and you can expect to hear some of that bluesy jazz with a modern twist - maybe some Wes Montgomery followed by an Amy Winehouse tune. Other musicians on stage Friday night will include Art Maxwell on sax and flute and Leon Joyce on drums, the core of today's Calvin Keys Trio.

According to the Oakland Tribute, "Keys' most famous work is his 1971 debut, 'Shawn-Neeq,'  which many consider a stone-cold classic." That album, originally release on Black Jazz Records, was re-released this January on vinyl only - no CD is available - with a celebration concert and party at Yoshi's in Oakland.

I spoke at length with Keys earlier this week about his career, his favorite kinds of music and his coming performance in Healdsburg. Keys is a jazz guitarist whose experience is matched only by his influences, and his own influence has become almost unmatched among today's jazz guitarists. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

You're bringing an organ quartet to Healdsburg. Why do you think you're recognized as a guitarist who plays so well with organists?

I don't know why earlier in my career, I  played with a lot of different organ players. We just jumped and played whenever the situation called for it. That’s what most guitar players did, it caused them to take a step forward because it worked so well with the organ. Especially after you heard Jimmy Smith and Kenny Burrell, who did not like that guitar with that organ?

It was a natural sound, because the guitar is one of the few instruments that can cut through that organ too.

How did you get started in music?

I'm from Omaha, Nebraska - I moved to Oakland in 1974, but I've been coming to the Bay Area playing since 1961. I was travelling with Frank Edwards, an organ trio out of Kansas City.

Frank Edwards, he was a master organ player. Like Jimmy Smith, Jackie MacDuff, he was on that level. At that time it was a learning process. He's the one [Edwards] that hipped me to all the jazz standards, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, to name a few.

I started out with Frank Edwards, then I ended up in Denver and there was an organ player named Al Moore, Al "Mr. Hammond" Moore, we never did any recording but I stayed around about  a year and worked with him. I got a chance to work with Bill Doggett at one time.

Jimmy Smith,  he was a beast. On the organ, wow. I got a chance to play with him several different times, but he was a beast on organ.

Was Black Jazz a kind of political alternative to white recording studios?  

Not really. The name can fool you. We were going through some things then in terms of trying to get our identity, and Gene  Russell was the founder of Black Jazz Records. I think it was during the time when them brothers gave the black power salute at the Olympics [1968].  It was a movement going on in the country about equal rights and getting away from that slavery mentality and all that.

That album, 'Shawn-Neeq.' We had Bob Bray on drums, Lawrence Evans on bass, Larry Nash on piano, and Owen Marshall playing hose-a-phone, boo-nette and flute. Now a hose-a-phone, Owen Marshall had taken a garden hose about 3 feet long, put holes in it, put a reed mouthpiece on it with a [trumpet] bell at the end. Did the same thing with a piece of bamboo, he called that the boo-nette.

So that was the sound that I was getting on the first album, and the closest I could get with that was Art Maxwell playing a bass clarinet. I did a concert of that album at Yoshi's on January 9, this year, and man, it was beautiful. And the vinyl was re-issued on January 10, in vinyl only. They reviewed me in Downbeat and got four stars. I'm bringing him (Maxwell) up there with me, too.

Tell me about playing with Ray Charles, was he a beast too?

He was incredible. That was some  of the greatest moments in my musical career, working with Ray. And then I got tired of doing that organ thing, I wanted to get into a trio, but I had no idea it would be the Ahmad Jamal Trio.

To me Ahmad was one of the greatest piano players that ever lived. I had the chance to play with him not only for a few days, I worked with him for a few years. It was incredible. Someone said to me, Cal, Miles is looking for a guitar player. I said, So?

Tell me about your disco period. I'm asking everyone that now.

Disco? Disco? I mean, we always played funk! That's what the disco's about. And that stuff they call smooth jazz? Oh, come on. Hank Crawford. Grover Washington, Jr.  King Curtis. You dig? Go back and listen to that music they was playing, that's what these cats are calling smooth jazz now. We been doing that all along. Now these youngsters come up with it and it's valid, you know, I got a couple of albums on Wide Hive records. I'm a funk master!  I can play that stuff. You got to be kidding.

How did you learn to play guitar?

When I was growing up in Omaha we had about four or five different guitar players. One was Wayne Bennett. You know Wayne played with Bobby Blue Bland all those years. And Wayne he had a younger brother named Jerry Bennett, that was a beast, and there was another cat named Papa Luther Guitar Woodrow, the Night Rider.

If you couldn’t play Freddie King's 'Hideway,' or Gatemouth Brown 'Okie-Doke Stomp'? Or 'Honky Tonk'? That was the funk. We all played that funk, and that's what it was all about.

Till I heard Tal Farlow. I heard Tal Farlow and I said My God, now that's some guitar playing there. He was actually the first jazz artist guitar player that I heard, with some substance. The rest of those guys was just they came out of that … Grant Green, and then Kenny Burrell, then Wes (Montgomery) hit the scene, then my God, it was toast.

Kenny Burrell's going to be up here, too, on June 9.

Yeah, I'm going to try to get back up there for that. He is my beautiful guru, man, he has always inspired me to play, from the first time I met him - at the Five Spot in New York. I was with Ray Charles and we had three days off. I said, I want to go see Kenny.

We got there on a break. And when he got back up on the bandstand and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to get the set started now, but we got to acknowledge some of Ray Charles' musicians in the house. And as a matter of fact I want to have his guitar player, Calvin Keys, come up here and play some."  Man, I  almost fainted. That's how I met Kenny Burrell.

Don’t you know that all these people are sitting around right now saying, 'Man, I got a chance to play with Calvin Keys.'

Really? Wow. But you know I'm saying the same thing about them, because that was a learning process.

Do you enjoy playing for a live audience?

I do. It feels so - refreshing to be able to play and have people enjoy your art. That's the blessing.

To me it's a way of sharing love. It's a love affair. Like I tell the audience, I say 'Hey, I want to thank you all for coming down and spending the evening with me, because this is a love affair. If you don't have any love in your heart, you can get up and leave now, please.' In a nice respectable way. Cause that's what this music is about, Love. And everything else. That's where my life is.

You don't get older, you get better at what you do. You know I had a setback about 15 years ago, I had a quadruple bypass. And I had to change some directions. I'm a musician, I'm human and I ain't perfect. I had to change a few things in my life that weren't agreeing with me. I change my diet, start exercising, start taking medication. Like I said, it's been 15 years.

I remember everything that's happened to me from a musical standpoint. God has blessed me, He's really blessed me. Like I say, I’m enjoying playing now more so than I ever have.

More about this concert and ticket links can be found on the Healdsburg Jazz Festival website.


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