Yes, there’s something to celebrate in 2021: this year’s jazz centennials.
Several jazz luminaries were born 100 years ago, when the art form was still in its youth. They’re all gone now, but their influence lives on. Let’s raise a glass to these giants:
• Astor Piazzolla, March 11. Listeners can debate where (or if) Piazzolla fits in the jazz pantheon, in that he’s universally revered for his explorations and innovations in tango. But as far as I’m concerned, his genius in developing a profoundly folkloric music in the most complex, sophisticated ways places him in a league with jazz visionaries Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, among others. That the Argentinian tango transformed the way the world heard rhythm — just as swing did in the United States — underscores the point. (Died July 4, 1992, age 71.)
• Erroll Garner, June 15. Above all, I hear joy whenever Garner is at the piano. Not just in terms of his rhythmic exuberance but the sheer breadth of pianistic languages he commands. From Harlem stride to fast-flying bebop, from uptempo swing to lush balladry, Garner summoned them all with seeming effortlessness. Then, too, where would we be without “Misty,” Garner’s most famous composition and the touchstone of a somewhat creepy Clint Eastwood film, “Play Misty for Me.” (Died Jan. 2, 1977, age 53.)
• Candido Camero, April 22. Was there a jazz legend that Cuban conguero Camero didn’t play with? In the 1940s, he recorded with revered Cuban bandleader Machito and played Havana’s pivotal Tropicana nightclub. By the 1950s he was in the United States and collaborating with one of the primary architects of Afro-Cuban jazz, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Camero also ignited rhythms for Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dinah Washington, Stan Kenton, Lena Horne, Coleman Hawkins, Tony Bennett and more. (Died Nov. 7, 2020, age 99.)
• Jon Hendricks, Sept. 16. Thanks to his vocal acuity and remarkable longevity, Hendricks ranks as one of the most influential vocalists in jazz history. He proved that the male voice could articulate lines as fast and fleet as those of any horn, Hendricks’ ability to deliver rapid-fire lyrics a wonder unto itself. Hendricks also reigned as a lyricist, his ability to pair words to the notes of instrumental solos ennobling the art of vocalese. Without Hendricks, there would be no Mark Murphy or Bobby McFerrin or Kurt Elling. (Died Nov. 22, 2017, age 96).
• Billy Taylor, July 24. A versatile pianist, Taylor may have made his biggest contribution as a jazz advocate. Millions watched his jazz vignettes on CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” which brought the music to audiences that otherwise might never have encountered it. He also shattered a racial barrier on TV by serving as musical director for “The David Frost Show,” starting in 1969. We shouldn’t forget, though, that Taylor also happened to be an elegant pianist. (Died Dec. 28, 2010, age 89.)
• Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill, Oct. 28. Today, we take for granted that Latin jazz idioms can power epic, symphonic-scale compositions. But O’Farrill — who was born in Cuba to a family with Irish lineage (hence the unexpected surname) — was the first to prove it could be done. Vast works such as his “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite” and “Manteca Suite” (1954) and “Aztec Suite” (1959) built upon Duke Ellington’s similarly sprawling orchestral compositions and have influenced everyone from Paquito D’Rivera to Wynton Marsalis. (Died June 27, 2001, age 79.)
• Herb Ellis, Aug. 4. Jazz piano giant Oscar Peterson made it a mission in life to outswing all comers. He was able to do so not only because of his signature hypervirtuosity but also because of the hard-driving musicians he gathered around him, most specifically guitarist Ellis and bassist Ray Brown. The Peterson trio of the 1950s was a high-octane swing machine, the pianist’s propulsive approach to rhythm buoyed by Ellis and Brown. How important was Ellis to keeping time for the trio? When he left the group in 1958, Peterson replaced him with a drummer. “It wasn’t the easiest job,” Ellis once told journalist Steve Voce. “In fact, it was the hardest job I ever had. We had a lot of complex arrangements, and Oscar insisted that you had them at your fingertips.” (Died March 28, 2010, age 88.)