Listening to the History of Jazz: Unsung Pianists

By KMHD Radio’s Mark Montesano

There are so many underrated piano players in jazz history that one could spend a lifetime listening to them all. As a continuation of last month’s blog on underrated tenor sax players I want to give some recognition to four of my favorite hard bop jazz pianists. Give a listen!


Elmo Hope (1923-1967)Born in New York City to parents who emigrated from the Caribbean. One of his childhood friends was Bud Powell. Both met Thelonious Monk in 1942 and they  began exchanging ideas and experimenting with new kinds of harmonies and melodies. His style was blues- based, with jagged lines and unexpected twists. He avoided virtuosity and speed in favor of subtle and complex choice of notes. Hope left for California where he lived from 1957-1961. Dissatisfied with the scene there, he moved back to New York where troubles with health and drugs hampered his career and led to an early death at 43. Here are some of his finest recordings and compositions:

“De-Dah”: composition and piano solo Clifford Brown’s “Memorial” album:

“Sims-a-plenty”: composition and piano solo on Harold Land’s “The Fox”:

“Carvin’ the Rock” played with a trio:


Wynton Kelly (1931-1971): One of the great accompanists in jazz. Born of Jamaican immigrant parents, he started playing in R&B bands when he was 15. Throughout his career he played with some of the greats Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, and John Coltrane among many others. After leaving Miles’ group he had trouble finding work and died broke from an epileptic fit in Canada. He had a tremendous sense of swing. Using complex harmonies with bluesy feel. Wynton Marsalis was named after him. Some examples of his accompanying and solo prowess:

“Get Out of Town” with Rahsaan Roland Kirk “:

“Freddy the Freeloader” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (Kelly’s only appearance on this album):

“Blue and Boogie” with Wes Montgomery plus tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin:


Phineas Newborn, Jr. (1931-1989): Played with his family’s rhythm and blues band in Tennessee and was on B.B King’s first recordings. Criticized for having ‘too much technique’. This criticism helped trigger his mental illness and for the rest of his life he was in and out of mental hospitals. By the mid-60’s-mid-70’s his career faded. At his peak, he played with great sensitivity and swing along with impeccable technique.

“Lush Life” solo piano:

“Daahoud” – blazing speed; unexpected, lyrical phrasing; driving swing; two-handed runs:


Sonny Clark (1931 – 1963):  Born in Pennsylvania. Moved to California at 20. He spent time developing his career there. Eventually he moved to NYC in 1957 as Dinah Washington’s pianist. Clark played on many classic hard bop albums too numerous to mention. He had a lyrical solo style with clean touch and unfailing swing. Clark is also recognized as an outstanding composer. He became heroin addict and died of an overdose at 31.

Title cut from his Cool Struttin’ album. Great example of his precise, lyrical and fluent style:

An example of his trio style on the jazz standard “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise”:

One of his finest albums Leapin’ and Lopin’ in its entirety:


Mark Montesano is a retired professor at Arizona State University. While at ASU, he developed a one-credit honors course called “Listening to the History of Jazz: The First 50 Years of Recorded Jazz (1917-1967)”. Montesano plays amateur woodwinds and percussion, and is currently the host of KMHD’s hard bop show “Hard Choices” on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm where he has fun sharing his favorite jazz from the 50’s and 60’s.