Connie Kay, the drummer for the longstanding Modern Jazz Quartet was born Conrad Henry Kirnon on April 27, 1927, in Tuckahoe, New York. The self-taught drummer played with Sir Charles Thompson in the 40s along with Miles Davis and Cat Anderson.
By the late forties to the mid-fifties he played off and on with Lester Young, Beryl Booker, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and others. But it wasn’t until 1955 when replacing Kenny Clarke, that Kay found his home with the Modern Jazz Quartet, an association that would last nearly twenty years.
After the dissolution of the MJQ, Connie played with Chet Baker, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Heath, Jim Hall and Paul Desmond. In the 70s he worked with Tommy Flanagan, Soprano Summit, Benny Goodman and became the house drummer at Eddie Condon’s club.
In 1981 the MJQ reorganized to play festivals and later on a permanent six-months-per-year basis. When Kay’s health began to suffer, the drummer was replaced first by Mickey Roker and then by Albert “Tootie” Heath.
Kay was known for his subtle and quietly effortless playing with the MJQ, but beyond that memorable interaction he was an invaluable asset to everyone he came in contact with. He played with great discretion and restraint making his contribution to one of the great aggregations of all time.
Connie Kay died in New York City on 30 November 1994. He was sixty-seven years old.
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Thomas “Tommy” Benford was born in Charleston, West Virginia on April 19, 1905 the younger brother of tuba player Bill Benford. He studied drums and music at the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina and went on tour with the school band traveling to Europe in 1914. By 1920 he was working with the Green River Minstrel Show. He returned to Europe in 1932 becoming part of the expatriate community, for the next nine years toured and played with all the great jazz musicians who came to the continent.
He returned to the United States in 1941 and throughout his long career Benford played and recorded with Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Eddie South, Coleman Hawkins Bill Coleman, Joe Turner, Django Reinhardt, Sidney Bechet, Noble Sissle and Willie “The Lion” Smith. He is credited with helping Chick Webb to play drums and shaped early jazz drumming alongside Sid Catlett.
For the last several decades of his life he was a member of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band and with Bob Greene’s World of Jelly Roll Morton. Jazz drummer Tommy Benford passed away at the age of 88 on March 24, 1994 in Mount Vernon, New York.
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Stan Levey was born in Philadelphia, PA on April 5, 1926, the son of a car salesman and boxing promoter. A self-taught prodigy, at age 16 Levey went to a local club where Dizzy Gillespie was headlining and convinced him to let him sit in on drums. So impressed was Dizzy that he offered the youngster an opportunity to join the group full-time. Taking some heat for recruiting a white, Jewish 16 year old to anchor his band, Dizzy simply responded – “show me a better black drummer and I’ll hire him”.
Levey joined the group, relocated to New York City with Dizzy, joined a small band led by Coleman Hawkins featuring Thelonious Monk, cut his first recording session with Art Tatum, played with Ben Webster and sat in with Woody Herman’s First Herd when regular drummer was unavailable.
In 1945 Levey joined Charlie Parker’s Quintet and when Dizzy and Charlie joined forces later that year they kept Levey and brought in bassist Al Haig and pianist Curly Russell. Considered the first and most innovative bebop lineup in history and it was during this period that classic standards like “A Night In Tunisia”, “Manteca” and Groovin’ High” were written.
During the late 40’s Levey toured with Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic, in 1951 returned to Philly and formed his own band, worked five years with Stan Kenton, settled on the West coast joining Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars and his drumming would influence the emerging West Coast jazz sound. He increased his session playing backing the likes of Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Holiday and Streisand. He played on over three hundred soundtracks for television and film, and turned his passion for photography into shooting a number of record covers.
Levey retired from music in 1973 to pursue his love of photography and he covered everything from fashion spreads to industrial photos to record jackets. On April 19, 2005 he passed away in Van Nuys, California at the age of 79. He never returned to music.
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Paul Motian was born Stephen Paul Motian on March 25, 1931 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but was raised in Providence, Rhode Island. After playing guitar during his childhood, he started the drums at twelve, which led to his eventual touring New England with a swing band, followed by enlisting in the Navy during the Korean War.
A professional drummer since 1954, Motian came to prominence in the late 50’s in the Bill Evans band from 1959 to 1964. He briefly played with Thelonious Monk, then in the sixties played with Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Lennie Tristano, Warne Marsh, Joe Castro and Arlo Guthrie, Carla Bley, Charlie Haden and Don Cherry. As his career progressed Paul went on to play with many great jazz musicians.
From the seventies on Motian became an important composer and bandleader and by the early 80’s was leading a trio featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonists Joe Lovano. The trio invited occasional guest appearances from the likes of Lee Konitz, Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, Geri Allen and others.
Paul continued to have an affinity for his first instrument, the guitar, leading the Electric Bebop Band featuring two and sometimes three electric guitars, while his other groups were absent of piano most times, working in an array of contexts. He played an important role in freeing the drummer from the strict duty of timekeeping. Drummer, percussionist and composer Paul Motian passed away on November 22, 2011 at the age of 80 in Manhattan, New York.
Drummer and singer Lee Young was born on March 7, 1914 as Leonidas Raymond Young in New Orleans, Louisiana to parents who were both musicians and teachers. The younger brother of tenorist Lester Young, his father drilled music into his children long before they started school, preparing them for the carnival and vaudeville road. The family finally settled in Los Angeles.
Steeped in the roots deep in New Orleans jazz, Lee played and recorded with Fats Waller in the thirties, and helped forge a burgeoning and vibrant jazz scene in Los Angeles in the ‘40s, and in 1944 he was drumming with Les Paul, J. J. Johnson, and Illinois Jacquet at Norman Granz’s first Jazz At The Philharmonic. In the Fifties he conducted and drummed for Nat King Cole.
Young was the first Black musician to be a regular studio musician in Hollywood and taught Mickey Rooney to play drums for a movie. By the 60’s he was a successful A&R man and record producer for Vee-Jay and Motown with a reputation for predicting what would sell.
Young is considered one of the most significant figures in jazz who directly connected the world to the early glories of jazz: the birth of jazz in New Orleans, the jazz age, the swing era and bebop. He led an integrated band at a time when it was not fashionable. He worked with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Les Hite. Lee Young passed away at the age of 94 on July 31, 2008.
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