Today In Jazz

Happy Birthday Billy Kyle!

July 14

Pianist Billy Kyle is born July 14, 1914 in Philadelphia, PA. Kyle came to fame as a member of the John Kirby Sextet from 1938 to 1942. “The Biggest Little Band in the World,” as it was known, was the most successful “chamber jazz” group until the Modern Jazz Quartet was formed in the mid-1950s. Kyle’s single-note style–which he said he had borrowed from a saxophonist he’d worked with in 1934–broke from the Teddy Wilson model prevalent at the time. And while Kyle’s approach was dynamically reminiscent of Earl Hines, his melodic sophistication was original and sometimes was expressed with a deliberate humor. Kyle’s fluid, inventive lines meshed perfectly with Kirby’s bass playing and the drumming of O’Neal Spencer. And while many people — listeners and critics alike — tended to overlook Kyle, the musicians didn’t. One pianist who fully absorbed Kyle’s style while constructing his own was Bud Powell, the first–and most would say the finest–pianist to work fluently in the bebop idiom. Powell cited Kyle as an influence on his playing. Kyle was forced to leave the Kirby ensemble by the Army, with which he spent three years. When he finished his tour of duty, in 1945, he played with Sy Oliver’s group and freelanced for the next six or seven years, during which time he played in various Broadway show pit bands, including two and a half years with Guys and Dolls. In 1953, he joined Louis Armstrong’s earliest incarnation of the All-Stars. Kyle stayed with Pops for the next 13 years, until his death in 1966. Kyle had started his career playing for the big bands of Lucky Millinder (a popular attraction at, among other places, Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom) and Tiny Bradshaw, before signing on with Kirby. The Kirby sextet was quietly revolutionary, in the words of critic Nat Hentoff, who wrote that “Other musicians would come to marvel at the collective precision of it all – the subtlety of dynamics, the stunning ensemble virtuosity, the way the soloist was so integral a part of the continually floating, soaring, driving, whizzing whole. This was cool jazz before anyone had thought of the term, before Miles Davis and those Capitol recordings. This was tightly linear interplay before the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. This was a prototype of how disciplined jazz could be before the Modern Jazz Quartet. This was John Kirby.” Listen to Kyle assay “St. Louis Blues” from the 1958 LP, Louis Armstrong at the Crescendo, vol. 1, here: