Keith Ingham: Speaking On Jazz Piano History

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Listening to jazz educators, you would think that jazz started with John Coltrane and Miles Davis. —Keith Ingham
Pianist Keith Ingham came to New York from England in 1979. While in England, he had been a pianist of choice for touring U.S. greats in Europe, such as trumpet great Roy Eldridge, Henry "Red" Allen, the famous New Orleans trumpet contemporary of Louis Armstrong, and saxophonist Bud Freeman. It was at the suggestion of such greats that Ingham came to America.

By 1985, he had played piano for Benny Goodman, accompanying the master, then in his mid-70s, at a performance in Vermont. Occupying the room next to Goodman in the hotel, Ingham heard him practice. "You knew you were in the presence of a master musician" says Ingham. Goodman liked what he played. "I laid down a solid beat for him.."

Ingham, age 66, says he was fortunate to be around at a time when he was able to play with some jazz legends. He also recorded albums with vocalist Maxine Sullivan (two are being re-released), and Peggy Lee, and has played with legendary jazz guitarist and personality Eddie Condon.

A special passion of Ingham's is what may for some these days pass as "pre-historic jazz." That is, all the jazz before bebop.

"Listening to jazz 'educators,'" says Ingham, "you would think that jazz started with John Coltrane and Miles Davis." He then points out the pivotal figures of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, templates for much of jazz music. He says, "Duke Ellington was completely new. Nothing like what had been heard in music before."

As a pianist, Ingham was keen to discuss some of the piano legends of jazz, in particular the names from the first fifty or sixty years of the music.

James P Johnson was a pianist that Duke Ellington learned from, by placing his hands over the keys raised up and down by the piano rolls he inserted into the player piano machines of the day. Johnson's most influential record was the famous "Carolina Shout." Ingham says Johnson was the best of the stride-style pianists of that era, and was, in the words of Duke Ellington, "pure magic."

Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented jazz, yet Ingham says he was "stuck in a ragtime feel. But he was a wonderful composer, with beautifully structured pieces. For example his tune 'The Pearls.'"

Earl "Father" Hines, who partnered with Louis Armstrong on his classic Hot Seven recordings, was a founding pianist of jazz, and Ingham is a fan of his brilliant work with clarinetist Jimmy Noone on the latter's "Apex Club" recordings of 1928.

Willie "The Lion" Smith (usually photographed with his cigar and hat) was influenced by Debussy, says Ingham. "His left hand originates in Chopin's waltzes." On a radio documentary that included one of the famous jazz history Library of Congress recordings, where the Lion was interviewed, Smith reverentially played, for the tape recorder, some early, little known Irving Berlin compositions, demonstrating what was in the air in the second decade of the 1900s. One tune, "Sand Dune," sounds a little like a Chopin miniature.

Ingham also commented on two essentially forgotten Chicago pianists and band leaders of the 1920s, Jimmy Blythe and Tiny Parham. Ingham said that Blythe was a great accompanist. Parham was more of an "oompah musician." In the collaborative melting pot of Chicago in that era both pianists accompanied the famous Johnny Dodds, the Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven clarinetist. Ingham says Goodman told him he loved Dodds. "The south side of Chicago was the main center for jazz in the 1920s," he adds. "New York only had Fletcher Henderson."

The 1930s and 1940s were dominated, pianistically, by three pianists: Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, says Ingham. Tatum was "everything—a freak." Fats Waller was "essentially a stride pianist, with a powerful left hand and a beautiful touch." And Wilson was the pianist for the Benny Goodman trios and quartets, "so perfect. Al Haig (a pianist for a time with Charlie Parker) adored him. I used to sub for Al, and I played at his wake."

The 1950s saw the rise of "cool jazz," following the bebop revolution. Ingham says of Miles Davis' pianist Red Garland, "(I) love him. You hear one note and you know who it is. A wonderful touch." Ingham says Garland brought a huge repertoire to Miles Davis, for example "You're My Everything" and "If I Were A Bell."

Of Ahmad Jamal, Ingham insists he was "not a cocktail pianist. He says Jamal's bassist Israel Crosby was a great player, as was his drummer of the time, Vernel Fournier. Says Ingham, "I recorded a marvelous double LP with Fournier in the late '80s," released under the names of Ingham and clarinetist Bob Ritmeier as Plays The Music Of Victor Young (Jump Records, 1989).

Noting that Ahmad Jamal throws in quotes from other songs in his playing,. Ingham says, "Oh he loves the quotes, man. He's a master of that. But he did make great music out of a dumpy thing like 'Music Music Music,' if you remember that song."

On Bud Powell: "Love him. Great composer. I would say that not only was he a genius pianist, but his composition was fabulous," says Ingham. "They are marvelous pieces, marvelous structure. The man was a genius. Percussive, and crazy too. He had that element of: you're right on the edge, bordering on the edge. It always comes out with him."

Wynton Kelly, also a famous Miles Davis alumni, was "most swinging," says Ingham. "He was on so many records before he joined Miles. He was from the West Indies. I actually got to see him when I was playing on a ship from England. I came here, and he was playing with Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers. That was Miles' rhythm section. They were doing a little thing—I don't know why they were playing it, but they were playing "Surrey With the Fringe On Top" and it was a knockout. I remember that. It was a promotional thing. A friend of mine who worked in Sam Goody's Record store when it was Sam Goody's was an English guy... He had his hear to the ground (about what was going on), and he said 'Come on, they're playing and it's free.' I forget where it was, in a hotel room. They floated on air, those guys... We've lost it all now, we really have. (It's all) anger and ego (now)... Nonsense."

He says those faults apply to all genres of music. "Everything is image now, of course, and it's visual. If you looked like Ella Fitzgerald you wouldn't get a chance to sing (now)... Well , she came up singing on radio, but nobody cared with radio. You couldn't see them."

Ingham has some interesting reflections on the nature of the piano as an instrument.
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