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Kevin Hays: Creative Flow

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

If you aren't familiar with pianist Kevin Hays, you should be. He's recorded and toured with many of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. And those who call him can't seem to get enough of him. His recent projects as a leader on Artistshare have been stunningly beautiful. I've been a fan ever since I came to New York. I heard him with Eddie Henderson's band many times, and I heard him with many other projects, including his own. I caught a bit of his trio set at the 55 Bar in New York in August and asked him if he would do an interview for Jazztruth. He said yes and we agreed to meet in Central Park on a lazy summer afternoon. Hays was very insightful about music, in a philosophical way, but also in a very practical way. I found the interview to be most illuminating. (Note: It took a long time to find the time to transcribe this. I had to hide in various rooms of my apartment to focus on it. Sorry, family!)

George Colligan: We are here with Kevin Hays—jazz pianist extraordinaire, composer, and vocalist? We might discuss that at some point.

Kevin Hays: [laughs] We might dispute that at some point!

GC: I just want to say right off that I'm new at this, so it's pretty loose. I don't edit much and I like to let people talk as much as they want. I think that's what the real fans want, they want the real information from the musicians, not just "Musician X has a new CD out, blah blah blah...."

KH: PR time!

GC: So be as candid as you want. If you wanna dish, dish! OK...What are your earliest memories of your musical life? As far back as you can remember. What made you want to become a jazz musician?

KH: Well, my earliest memories are of my father playing the piano. He was an amateur pianist. He would plunk through some standards now and then. So I would hear him on the piano we had in the house. I remember watching him. Sometimes he had some broken "stride" piano stuff happening, which I liked. That's probably my earliest memory—the first music I heard. There [were] also records played in the house. My parents had some George Shearing records, and they had a Jimmy Smith record called Organ Grinder Swing.

GC: We were just talking about that record with Jimmy Greene!

KH: Yeah, it's so great, I remember "Satin Doll." And he had some Oscar Peterson. So those were the early jazz guys I was into. Now, I didn't immediately get really into jazz. I was into rock, and whatever was on the radio, some Barry Manilow! I was born in 1968, and I guess by the time I was 10, I was into various kinds of music. I'm the youngest of four siblings. My older brother was into some fusion, some YES, some Jeff Beck, and some prog-rock. I started taking piano lessons, some classical lessons, at a local conservatory in Westchester, although I grew up in Connecticut. So I got into it pretty young. And in my early teens I started really getting into jazz. And then there was a local jazz pianist named Lou Stein who used to play around—he was on some of the Bird With Strings recordings. So he would play at a local restaurant, and my father wanted to take lessons with him, and then finally I started to take lessons with him. So Lou Stein was my first real jazz piano teacher. And then I went to Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan for a few summers, and I took a "crash course" in jazz piano there, you know, voicings and basic stuff. And this was when I was really off to the races. I really got the bug then. I felt like I really was understanding the sounds I was hearing on recordings, you know, left hand voicings like 7/ 3/ 13, and it all started to make sense.

GC: How old were you at the time?

KH: I was around 14 years old. I was playing "Color My World" before that! So this was a huge eye-opener for me. I think one of the things that got me was the rhythm of jazz, the swing rhythm. I played drums a bit in junior high and my brother [also] had a garage band, which had a huge drum set, and I used to play on it sometimes.

GC: So you moved to New York when you were around 18?

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