So, Is It Jazz? A Roger Kellaway Anecdote
As Told by Terry MacDonald
Described as an “international jazz treasure,” Roger Kellaway has played with everyone from Jimmy McPartland to Sonny Rollins, really, a Who’s Who of jazz royalty. He’s also played with one musician that few others in the jazz world have, namely the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The occasion was the 1989 recording in Paris of the album Anything Goes, which featured violinist Stéphane Grappelli, along with Yo-Yo Ma. Roger was the pianist, arranger and music director for the session. (Note also that Jon Burr was the bassist on the recording and Daniel Humair the drummer.)
I spoke with Roger by phone soon after the recording was made, and he was appropriately excited about the experience. He also shared some interesting background with me.
“Yo-Yo, of course, is a classical musician, and he doesn’t improvise at all. So I wrote out for him what otherwise might have been improvisation.” In other words, Roger had essentially created in his own mind cello solos in the context of the playlist, which Yo-Yo read and performed under Roger’s direction.
The only thing I could relate this to was the practice of writing out would-be “improvisations” to be played in school jazz bands for the benefit of kids who can’t improvise. But here was Roger doing it for one of the world’s preeminent cellists.
Is it jazz? Well, it sounds like jazz. And, interestingly, Roger was even able to tease out of Yo-Yo a jazz “feeling” in his performances, a feeling you don’t hear in Yo-Yo’s more familiar classical context.
But see what you think. Here’s Cole Porter’s Easy to Love from the album.
The theme of this anecdote (or perhaps these anecdotes) continues. In 1998, a year after Stéphane Grappelli died, Roger participated in a tribute to the great violinist at Carnegie Hall in New York, performing this time with the world-renowned classical violinist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg. Again, Roger employed his “written improvisational” skills, now in the famous Django Reinhardt composition “Nuages,” which of course Grappelli had played many times with his late guitarist/partner.
Jump ahead once again to 2001. Roger’s great friend and neighbor in Ojai, California, the late writer/lyricist Gene Lees, along with his wife, had been hosting a young Chinese classical violinist named Yue Deng, who was visiting America and studying at the Music Academy of the West. At the time, she was about to move to New York City to work on scholarship toward a Master’s degree at Juilliard. But she needed a tape to show her abilities.
Gene wondered if Roger might have a written piece for violin and piano and, if so, if he’d be willing to record it with Yue. Roger, of course, recalled the adaptation of “Nuages” he’d written for the Carnegie Hall Grappelli tribute and suggested they try it.
Now, some background: Growing up in mainland China, Yue had never heard jazz in her life—that is until about two days before she recorded “Nuages” with Roger Kellaway in his home studio. (Yue had been in the car two days earlier with Gene Lees’s wife and heard a recording by Dizzy Gillespie.) Here’s what Roger told me about Yue’s playing of “Nuages.”
“She played the music as if she’d been playing jazz all her life. The music was written, but it sounded like jazz, it felt like jazz. ‘How did you know how to interpret that music, how to get that feeling into it?’ I asked her,” Roger told me.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just watched your face, and I could tell by your expressions what you wanted me to play.” Whew.
Later, Roger produced a recording with Yue, one that included “Nuages.” And now you can hear it.
“I had a date booked at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles for the following week [after the recording of the initial demonstration tape] and I put her on the bill,” Roger related. “Alan and Marilyn Bergman [the famous lyricists] came the first night, and were so amazed they came back the next night bringing Sydney Pollack and Mark Ryder, who were equally impressed.” A few years later, Roger was booked into Birdland in New York and again put Yue Deng on the bill. My wife and I were in the audience for one of those Birdland performances. Needless to say, we too were equally impressed.
Okay. So is it jazz? I guess I’ll leave that up to you.