Billy Kyle Centennial Celebration!

July 14 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great pianist Billy Kyle. I had just published my little tribute to Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, plus I've been drowning in trying to prepare everything needed for next week's Satchmo Summerfest, so this is almost two weeks late but I just had to post something on one of my favorite members of Louis's All Stars, so here goes.

Originally, I just was going to focus on Kyle's work with Louis between 1953 and 1966, but then I realized that to most jazz fans, all they know about Kyle is his association with Pops, an association that didn't begin until after he had been recording for about 18 years.

Kyle was born in Philadelphia but his hero was from Pittsburgh: Earl "Fatha" Hines. Kyle is always mentioned as a disciple of Hines and that cannot be denied. But to my ears, Kyle smoothed out some of Hines's rough edges and also eschewed Fatha's volatile left hand, and in the process, became a key transitional figure in those swing-to-bop days. Kyle's approach to the keyboard was more refined and much like another Hines disciple, Teddy Wilson, quite debonair. Of course, Hines's unpredictability and ability to take risks are what has led him to immortality. Kyle didn't cause a piano revolution but he did have an impact, most notably on young Bud Powell, who consistently named Kyle as one of his biggest influences.

So with the preamble out of the way, I don't want to do much writing, so let's spend the rest of our time celebrating the Billy Kyle centennial by listening, listening and listening some more. Kyle's style was pretty much intact from his earliest recordings onward. Just listen to the 22-year-old supporting Henry Red Allen on "Let's Put Our Heads Together" from December 29, 1936:

The following year, bassist John Kirby started a sextet full of top musicians: trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, saxophonist Russell Procope, drummer O'Neil Spencer and Kyle on piano. If it had just been a regular small-group-swing jam band, the results would have been memorable. Instead, Kirby strove for intricate arrangements, tightly played and "The Biggest Little Band in the Land" was born. I forgot who it was, but one jazz writer described the Kirby band as "tight-assed" and for a long time, I agreed, preferring my jazz a little more open and loose. But revisiting this material, I do marvel at the band's ability to nail the complex charts, while the solos are also always of a high caliber. The Kirby sextet was one of the most original sounding groups of the period and it's a shame they're so little known today.

Maxine Sullivan's vocals with the Kirby group landed them a few hits, most notably "Loch Lamond," allowing Kirby the chance to record many of the band's top arrangements. One of them, contributed by Kyle, definitely points the way forward: "From A Flat to C."

Some other Kirby favorites: "Rehearsing for a Nervous Breakdown."

"Blue Skies":

A burning "Royal Garden Blues":

And the band's big instrumental hit, composed by Charlie Shavers, "Undecided." Kyle's solo is one of his finest; he would retain parts of it in the 1950s when this became one of Trummy Young's big features with the All Stars, in addition to a dynamite Buck Clayton jam session version of it from 1954. Here's the original:

The exposure Kyle received with Kirby allowed him to make occasional records under his own name. Here's one from Billy Kyle and His Swing Club Band with Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Tab Smith on alto, Ronald Haynes on tenor and a rhythm section of Kyle, Danny Barker, John Williams and Fran Marx. This is one of Kyle's later All Stars features, "Girl of My Dreams," from July 23, 1937:

Alas, Kyle didn't get as many dates as a leader as he should have, but on May 23, 1939, Decca threw him a bone and allowed him to record two tracks backed only by Dave Barbour on guitar, Marty Kaplan on bass and O'Neil Spencer on drums. They're two of my favorites and a great place to start if you're looking to explore the Kyle style. Here's the swinging "Finishing Up a Date":

And I haven't mentioned it yet, but Kyle had an affinity for the blues, which comes out on the lovely "Between Sets" (based on the chord changes of "If I Had You"):

Other than that, Kyle was content to stay in the background, recording with Nat Gonella, the Ramblers, organist Milt Herth and Jack Sneed and His Sneezers, the latter group waxing a version of the African song, "Sly Mongoose," one Kyle would get to know again in 1956 when it was renamed "All for You, Louis" during Armstrong's first trip to the Gold Coast of Africa:

Kyle also got the call for some truly all star sessions. Here's Lionel Hampton's famous 1938 recording of Benny Carter's "I'm in the Mood for Swing," with Kyle taking a typically elegant bridge towards the end:

That same year, Kyle was featured on a Victor date by Timme Rosenkrantz and His Barrelhouse Barons. The great Danish jazz fan and supporter was in New York and though he didn't play an instruement, he was still able to organize this fine session. And dig the band: Rex Stewart on cornet, Billy Hicks on trumpet, Tyree Glenn on trombone and vibes, the wild Rudy Williams on alto, along with Kyle's Kirby-mate, Russell Procope, Don Byas on tenor saxophone (making his recording debut) and a rhythm section of Kyle, guitarist Brick Fleagle and from the Basie band, Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones on drums! Leo Mathiesen contributed the arrangements, including this too-short breeze through "The Song is Ended" featuring Kyle at his most Hines-inspired:
Kyle must have made an impression on Rex Stewart as he the pianist of choice on Stewart's 1940 recording of "Bugle Call Rag" featuring Ellingtonians Barney Bigard, Lawrence Brown and Wellman Braud, plus the great drummer Dave Tough and the omnipresent Fleagle on guitar. This 12-inch 78 stretches to over four minutes and segues into another song Kyle would become very familiar with in his Armstrong days, "Ole Miss":

Like so many of his generation, Kyle was drafted into the army during World War II. In fact, his induction made headlines in the December 8, 1942 edition of "The Afro American" (Kyle was replaced int he Kirby Sextet by another swing-to-bop transitional figure, Clyde Hart). Kyle joined the legendary 93rd Infantry Division of the army, but also got to keep his piano chops up, performing with the 368th Infantry Battalion Band. One Special Services newsletter, quoted in Maggi M. Morehouses's "Fighting in the Jim Crow Army," announced, "The whole Division has taken the 'Deep River Boys' to its heart. The 368th orchestra gives out with some 'pick up' acts. Pvt. Lawrence Neely emcees, and Billy Kyle at the piano steals the show for a thunderous moment of applause. They're warmed up now. The jam session is on. 1,200 hearty voices cheer as Billy Kyle's piano thunders the 'Bivouac Bounce.'"

Upon discharge, Kyle rejoined Kirby for a short bit but also started making records under his own name, including four for the Hot Record Society label with future All Stars Trummy Young and Buster Bailey. On April 11, 1946, Kyle, backed by Kirby and guitarist Jimmy Shirley, recorded a showpiece version of the then in-vogue "All the Things You Are," a favorite of the up and coming boppers. But instead of going the more modern route, Kyle instead finds some connections between Jerome Kern's tune and the classical music Kyle grew up playing in Philadelphia. Here is the result:

Kyle also left Kirby in 1946, joining Sy Oliver's Orchestra for a few years. Kyle never was at a loss for work but after that September 1946 H.R.S. date, he never led another session under his own name, a true shame. However, his name was still big enough to be featured on the labels of some records made by some of the best singers of the day. Here's Kyle's trio backing Ella Fitzgerald on "I'm Just a Lucky So and So":

And another Decca recording from the same period, Kyle's trio backing Billie Holiday on "Baby  I Don't Cry Over You":

Kyle obviously impressed both Milt Gabler at Decca and his then-boss, Sy Oliver, as he became a regular pianist on many Decca dates of the late 1940s and 1950s...including those featuring Louis Armstrong. Kyle's first meeting with Armstrong came on a September 30, 1949 date arranged by Sy Oliver and featuring the only recorded meeting between Armstrong and Billie Holiday on "You Can't Lose a Broken Heart" and "My Sweet Hunk O'Trash." Kyle was there again on August 31, 1950 for another Oliver-arranged Decca date, producing "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" and "That's What the Man Said."

On July 24, 1951, Kyle made his presence felt during another Armstrong Decca date that ended up with two sizeable hit records: "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and "I Get Ideas." Kyle was a master of introductions and his lead-in to "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" beautifully sets up what follows. And his dramatic, cocktail-esque interlude on "I Get Ideas" also fits the romantic pop nature of that recording. The following year, on August 25, 1952, Kyle again made a positive contribute to Armstrong's recording of "I Laughed at Love" and another hit, "Takes Two to Tango." Armstrong must have been impressed and kept Kyle in the back of his mind.

Kyle wasn't going anywhere, just yet. In 1950, the smash hit Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway with none other than Billy Kyle on piano. It was the very beginning of black musicians being allowed to play in Broadway pit bands, Kyle being joined for this show by trumpeter Joe Wilder and trombonist Benny Morton. Kyle was content, working six days a week in New York and picking up session work whenever available.

Playing for a Broadway show turned out to be great training for Kyle's eventual joining of the All Stars. I've discussed this a million times but it's worth bringing up again. To some, jazz is only associated with improvisation. Every night, different songs, different solos, always reaching, always trying to create something new, even if what you played the night before was spectacular. This kind of thinking has always been around, to an extent. But for many decades, the key ingredient to good jazz wasn't just improvising something new everything but providing the best possible show for your audience night in and night out. So if you stumbled across a solo that flowed beautifully and knocked the crowd out, that was it, that was your solo. This was Louis Armstrong's philosophy; he knew that you couldn't improve upon his "Indiana" solo or his "Sunny Side of the Street Solo" or his "Mahogany Hall Stomp" solo, etc. Sure, some nights he was an improvising mood so he'd change them up. But he knew how good those solos were and he knew that they were virtually impossible for others to play (and he also knew that he was in a different city every night and that the majority of concertgoers were always hearing him for the first time), so he kept them set. He took criticism for years for this (and still gets it; I recently had a conversation with someone who used the dreaded word "coasting," much to my chagrin) but he was far from alone.

In the All Stars's case, Louis's piano players had different philosophies when it came to this. Earl Hines bugged Louis because he refused to play his solo on "West End Blues" as he did on the 1928 recording; Louis said that whatever Hines improvised paled in comparison. But Hines also had his set pieces and rarely changed a note on his approaches to numbers like "Honeysuckle Rose," "Pale Moon" and "Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues." After a disastrous stint by Joe Sullivan, Marty Napoleon joined in 1952. He was thrilled to be part of the band, but told me that he was spooked one night at the Apollo Theater when he launched into his solo on "Muskrat Ramble" and could hear the other members of the band humming along. Was he going stagnant? He used to always play the same interlude in the middle of one of Louis and Velma Middleton's numbers, when Velma would turn it over to Louis. On this one particular night, he felt the need to change, so he just started playing whatever came to mind....but Louis didn't enter. Finally, Marty played his standard lick on the tune and Louis entered on cue. It was at that moment that Marty, a true improvising musician, needed to get out.

When Marty left in late 1953, that allowed Billy Kyle to make his entrance. Joe Glaser usually did the hiring and firing of Armstrong's musicians but one can imagine that Armstrong had a say in hiring Kyle.  With Kyle, Louis finally had the ideal pianist for the group. His features always impressed audiences (as we'll see), he was much more of a team player than Hines (whose askew fills sometimes threw the soloists off) and was a rock solid accompanist. And with three years playing the exact same things night after night on Broadway, eight shows a week, he had no troubles playing many of the same songs--and solos--night after night with the All Stars. In fact, once Kyle hit upon a set solo or introduction, he never wavered, remaining more tied to his "set" excursions than even Armstrong.

Kyle joined the band just in time for a December 1953 tour of Japan, from which a broadcast survives. He already sounds at home but as one could imagine, he didn't just arrive with a bag of set solos on Armstrong's regular repertoire like "Indiana," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Surviving broadcasts from late 1953 and early 1954 find Kyle improvising all the time. In fact, some discographies doubt Kyle is on a January 1954 broadcast from the Club Hangover in San Francisco, primarily because his solos don't sound like they would in just a few short months. There's enough mannerisms on these broadcasts to tell my ears that it's Kyle, but one can also hear him singing along with a lot of his solos, working hard to make them work. He can be heard doing it faintly on his first official recording session with the All Stars from March 16, 1954, a date that also found him doing some almost Erroll Garner-esque left handed "strumming" on "Basin Street Blues" and "Otchi-Tchnor-Ni-Ya." Sure enough, if I had all the time in the world, I could share a million great solos Kyle took with the band in his years.

But Kyle also had a million great features and that's really where I want to focus on today. On those aforementioned late-1953, early-1954 broadcasts, Kyle gets no features so we'll dive in with the first of features that survives, taken from a May 8, 1954 date at the University of North Carolina. It's a reworking of his 1946 recording of "All the Things  You Are," expanded and further tightened after eight years of playing it. This is a great concert, but Louis takes a rare break during the first set, sitting out for almost 15 minutes during some of the features (perhaps he took a little too much Swiss Kriss?). Kyle kept returning to this one for years, with no changes. Louis never played on it, either, which is a shame as he would have sounded incredible playing this melody. Anyway, here's Kyle's "All the Things You Are" backed by Arvell Shaw on bass and Kenny John on drums in 1954:

Of course, if you're an All Stars nut and you read just the title of this post, you might have immediately thought, "Perdido." The Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol jam session favorite was first performed by Kyle in front of a recording device during a WNEW broadcast from American Legion Park in Ephrata, Pennsylvania on August 19, 1954. It's no exaggeration to say that Kyle probably played this thousands of times in the next 12 years. Here's the first one we know of:

It's close but still a work in progress. Some of Kyle's lines aren't as clean as they'd be a short time later and around the 2:10 mark, he seems to anticipate the next chorus four bars early, repeating his riff longer than normal. But it wouldn't take Kyle long to work it all out. By January 1955, he was ready to record it live at the Crescendo Club while Decca recorded the results. Here it is, at an irresistible foot-pattin' tempo, backed by Shaw and Barrett Deems:

It's a classic but it wouldn't take too long before Kyle started slowly raising the tempo. We'll check in with a faster version in a little bit. But first, a quick visit to an offshoot of "Perdido," "Pretty Little Missy." Louis liked the riff-based chorus Kyle played before the horns entered and thought it had the makings of a song. Kyle and Armstrong threw together some lyrics and recorded the results for Decca in April 1955. It never became a hit but Louis never tired of playing it, even recording it again for Mercury in 1965 and United Artists in 1969 (it's also on Armstrong's Newport 1958 set on the new Mosaic box, though keep the kids away when Louis changes the line "Pucker up" to something a little more x-rated!). Also note that Armstrong keeps in Kyle's flatted fifths during the bridge; he gradually smoothed them out into something a little less boppish by the 1960s, but here, he plays and sings them on the (flatted) nose:

Back to the Crescendo Club for a minute, now. Decca recorded three full sets, allowing the All Stars to perform multiple features. Kyle's second feature that night was "St. Louis Blues." One must wonder how much of it was his choice or how much of it was Armstrong's, who liked to recycle features. Cozy Cole brought in "Stompin' at the Savoy," but it became the drum feature for Kenny John, Barrett Deems and Danny Barcelona. Arvell Shaw's most known for "How High the Moon," but when he left, Armstrong gave it to bassists Jack Lesberg and Squire Gersh. Earl Hines wrestled "St. Louis Blues" away from Armstrong with his "Boogie Woogie" treatment. When Marty Napoleon entered the band, Armstrong played Hines's version for him to learn from. Napoleon got the gist but shot the tempo through the roof for one of his most exciting features (and one he continued to play for decades). Thus, with Kyle barely in the band for a year, one can easily imagine Armstrong saying, "Hey, do you play 'St. Louis Blues'?" Kyle's version is completely his own, with none of Hines's boogie-woogie, nor Napoleon's fierce riffing. It still swings mightily, Kyle showing off his bluesy side, inspiring the other band members to shout encouragement in the background (that's Trummy Young yelling, "Let 'em roll!") and building to the climactic riff introduced in the 1940s by Lionel Hampton but at the time, about to blow up the charts on Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Here 'tis:

Louis doesn't play on "St. Louis Blues," but just a couple of months earlier, the album Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy was released with W. C. Handy's blues classic serving as the opening number. Once the overwhelmingly positives reviews trickled in, Armstrong regained control of "St. Louis Blues," performing it almost nightly with Velma Middleton by his side. This left Kyle down a feature, but not for long. "Blue Moon" was one of his go-to choices in the late 1950s, again at a strutting medium tempo and always featuring some scintillating horn from Pops:

That version was from a concert at Seattle's Orpheum Theater on September 7, 1957. That same night, Louis played his touched medley of "Tenderly" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." Though Armstrong's lead playing on the latter tune could give one the chills, "Tenderly" was often ceded to Kyle, who always turned it into something of a rhapsody. Some might complain that it's a little too "lacy," but as a pianist, I admire Kyle's touch tremendously. As Trummy can be heard yelling, "Oh, you play so sexy!"

Kyle came to the band with another stomping feature, "Pennies from Heaven," which he originally played at the aforementioned 1954 North Carolina concert. This one also stayed in the act until Kyle's death and was always a crowd-pleaser. My favorite version is this one from North Bay, Ontario in 1958. Mort Herbert on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums really kick this one along, Kyle turning some powerful two-handed work by the end. Exciting stuff!

When clarinetist Edmond Hall joined the band in 1955, "Sweet Georgia Brown" became one of his best-known features. After he left in 1958, it seems like the All Stars weren't ready to bid adieu to Miss Brown. During a 1959 tour of Europe, Kyle, perhaps looking for something other than "Perdido" to turn into a barn-burner, took over "Sweet Georgia Brown," replicating Hall's arrangement, right down to the breaks. It doesn't seem to have lasted past this performance, but Kyle convincingly makes it his own, with support by the Armstrong-Young-Peanuts Hucko front line:

Also at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Kyle dipped back into his bag and called a tune we originally heard him wax in 1937, "Girl of My Dreams." The Newport 1958 version (on the Mosaic box) is great, but I've always been partial to this later version from Newport in 1960, again with Mort and Danny:

"Blue Moon" seems to have been phased out by the early 1960s, with another good-old-good-one taking its place in the medium-tempo stomp category: "When I Grow Too Old to Dream." In fact, this might be Kyle's most oft-played feature of the 1960s (next to "Perdido," of course). The pattern is the same as some of the others we've heard, but it always gets me, especially when Barcelona switches from brushes to sticks and when Pops swoops in heroically towards the end. This version is from Chicago in 1962 with Billy Cronk on bass and Danny on drums.

By 1965, Kyle was mostly choosing between "Perdido," "Pennies from Heaven" and "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" as his features, but in June of that year, after six weeks off while Louis recovered from dental surgery, he emerged with a swinging take on "It's Easy to Remember," recorded in Paris with Buddy Catlett on bass and Danny again on drums.

I mentioned that by this point, "Perdido" was fast approaching warp speed. A fast version of Kyle's showcase was filmed in Australia during a 1963 tour, with Arvell Shaw on bass and Danny still on drums. I remember that when I first saw this, I was impressed with how hard Kyle was working. He hadn't changed a note in almost a decade, but like Armstrong's solos, pulling this thing off is HARD! Watching him tear it up only adds to my personal appreciation of his command of the instrument:

Kyle was truly the ideal pianist for the All Stars but his only problem was he was quite the drinker and loved to party (especially with women). It never seemingly affected his playing but it did affect his health. He broke down multiple times during his 13 years with the All Stars, his health problems always due to his drinking. Marty Napoleon had to spell him for a while in late 1959 and the little known Nick Rodriguez did the same in the spring of 1960. Kyle got the message and apparently cut his drinking way down (possibly entirely out) in the early 1960s. He supplanted the drinking with eating and gradually began to gain weight as the decade progressed. By the winter of early 1966, he was at his heaviest, with the band still grinding out one-nighters, often in a bus with heat that didn't often work.

As chronicled in my own book, Kyle was ailing by this point. At a performance in Ohio, Buddy Catlett told me, "Number one, they had to help him up the stairs--there were some stairs to get up to the stage. And he was out of breath and couldn't hardly make it. But he played everything he knew. It was just magnificent playing. That's the way I heard it." The band knew something was wrong when Kyle didn't come out of his room the following morning. Sure enough, his liver had erupted. He was kept alive for a week, but died on February 23, 1966. He was 52 years old.

It's still surprising to me that Kyle isn't as well known as he should be, seeing that he spent the majority of his career in two supremely popular organizations--John Kirby's and Louis Armstrong's. But Kyle was content with being a sideman and I suppose that's the sideman's curse. Without an album of his own music from 1946-1966, all we can point to are these features he took night in and night out with Louis Armstrong. As this post hopefully showed, Kyle was a fantastic musician, a classy presence on stage, a bluesy two-fisted swinger, a superb accompanist and a perfect fit with any band he played in. Don't forget about him.


Phil said…
Yeah, Billy Kyle was special.

Thanks for this, Ricky, a blog
produced through sheer admiration.

sunman said…
Too bad there aren't Billy Kyle Centennial Celebrations across the globe, but at least there's your great post. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.
Unknown said…
Always thought his playing was great. He was a superb accompaniest. I think he was the best Louis ever had...too bad he died so young.
Unknown said…
Pity, he was an excellent pianist. Wish he stay alive to hear his music. He knew to organize in jazz mode any tune: Improvisations, Riffs, anything. "St. Loui´sBlues" and "Girl of my dreams" are sensational.

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