Roger Kellaway: Musical Chameleon

Few musicians on the contemporary scene can claim a record of more continual growth than Roger Kellaway. The former Angeleno has been associated, as composer and/or pianist, with every major facet of jazz, classical and popular music.

Consider these credits: composer of the famous closing theme of television’s “All in the Family”; of the film scores for “Paper Lion,” “A Star Is Born” and “Breathless”; of a ballet commissioned by George Balanchine; musical director or arranger for Bobby Darin, Joni Mitchell and Carmen McRae; longtime associate of Tom Scott in small combo jazz; writer of a work commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic; arranger for the “Supersax Plays Bird With Strings” album.

The man behind this impressive list is a bearded, articulate genius who can trace his musical lineage back to Dixieland (before becoming a professional pianist he played bass with Jimmy McPartland’s traditional band).

He lived in Los Angeles from 1966 until 1983, when he moved back to New York. It was in New York in 1959, after two years at the New England Conservatory of Music, that he first established his locus operandi .

Recently, back in Los Angeles to visit relatives of his wife, Jorjana, he explained what had taken him away and how his life has changed.

“I didn’t necessarily think I could do better in New York; I just wanted to reacquaint myself with life in the East,” Kellaway said. “My feeling very soon was ‘Why did I wait so long?’ It’s not the answer to everything, but back there I do feel really in place.


“Soon after arriving, I found a manager. She knew nothing about me or my background, but after only a couple of weeks she told me, ‘Every place I call, they want you, and they know who you are. Who the hell are you anyway?’ I was delighted that people remembered me from the 1960s.”

And so his career took a turn from mainly composing to principally playing. “I have two sets of fans. There are the ones who remember me from albums such as ‘More Blues and the Abstract Truth’ with Oliver Nelson, ‘Alfie’ with Sonny Rollins, ‘Bumping’ with Wes Montgomery; and the others who never heard anything I’d done but react to me like I’m the new guy on the scene. Sure, I’m new, except that I’m 49 years old and I’m arriving totally mature in how I feel about music.

“Both these groups welcomed me with open arms; meanwhile I’ve also been going to Europe and I feel like I’m taking it country by country. The bassist Red Mitchell, who lives in Stockholm, is an old friend; I often go and work with him.”

A legacy that Kellaway left behind in California is a series of recordings with the Cello Quartet, a unique group with classical overtones imparted by Kellaway’s writing and by the presence of virtuoso cellist Edgar Lustgarten.

“I wanted to avoid the regular drum sound of cymbals and tom-toms and bass drums, so I got Emil Richards to play miscellaneous percussion, mainly mallet instruments. Without drums we had chamber music.”

The Cello Quartet played a few gigs a year through the 1970s and left three superb albums. “Then Edgar passed away in 1979 and I couldn’t continue it without him--at least, not until now.”

Another reason for Kellaway’s plan to return occasionally to Los Angeles is the imminent rebirth of the Cello Quartet. “I’ve found another fine cellist, Fred Seykora, who played next to Edgar on all my film scores. I’ll have the same bass player, Chuck Domanico, plus a violinist, and this time we’ll use three percussionists, playing everything from congas to hand drums and mallets, for Balinese and African sounds. I want it to be a group that can go in any direction, span the entire world of sound.”

What pointed the way to the cello revival was Kellaway’s association with Eddie Daniels, a dazzlingly virtuosic clarinetist, who commissioned him to write a suite, “Memos From Paradise"(GRP 9561), which included a string quartet. Seldom had his talent as a composer and arranger been more luminously displayed.

Before he gets going with the new cello quartet, Kellaway has to deal with what may be the greatest challenge of his renewed New York career: In 1986 he was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write a tuba concerto.

“I think the idea came from Roger Bobo, who recorded a cello quartet piece that I’d rewritten for him to play on an F tuba. So the tuba community of the world got to know me as a writer for that instrument, and after a meeting with (N.Y. Philharmonic music director) Zubin Mehta, it was agreed that I go ahead with this work.

“It’s been hard figuring out how to complete the job; after 2 1/2 years I’m still a few months away from finishing it. I wanted to employ some Ellington influences, such as the use of plunger mutes, as well as a harmonic density along the lines of Gil Evans. I feel a responsibility to keep that kind of textural writing alive. Often, since Gil passed away, I’ve had him on my mind when I worked on the piece.”

That he can summon the concentrated effort for such a task may be due in part to another aspect of Kellaway’s life, one that changed dramatically soon after he moved back to New York. “I gave up my bad habits--the booze, the cocaine--in 1984. Maybe it’s odd that I did this in an intense place like New York, but I really wanted to change, and it has provided me with a tremendous clarity.”

Curiously, Kellaway attributes his successful eclecticism to the fact that he doesn’t listen to jazz. “I’ve played it, fortunately, with the greatest players in the world, but when I go home I’ll listen to Berlioz, Stockhausen, Messiaen, Stravinsky. When it comes to jazz, Oscar Peterson was my original idol, and he’s still the most unbelievable master; to this day there’s nobody around to touch him.”

Kellaway’s schedule for 1989 will be typically diversified: a two-piano recital in March with his occasional partner Dick Hyman (“Now there’s a guy that can go in 10 more directions than I do”); a concert in New York with Yo-Yo Ma in May (“He wants to play my piano trio piece, ‘The Endless Life,’ dedicated to Jerusalem”); an album with Stephane Grappelli and Ma; finishing touches on the tuba concerto; another piece for Ma, this time with the Cuban saxophonist Paquito d’Rivera; then back to New York for an October appearance at Carnegie Hall with David Grisman’s band, Grappelli and Ma.

“So that’s how the next nine months look. You know, in the five years I’ve been back in New York, I’ve only done two or three commercial projects. I’m just playing with the people I want to play with and I’m writing for the people I want to write for. Everything’s happening just the way I hoped it would. That’s a pretty good life.”