Contemporary Jazz Pianists:

Henry Butler, Chick Corea, Geri Allen,
Cyrus Chestnut, Benny Green, Marcus Roberts,
Diana Krall, Bill Charlap, Harry Connick Jr, and Brad Mehldau

Contemporary jazz pianists use the whole history of jazz piano as the basis of their style. The can play stride, swing, bop and hard bop, and many also add Latin flavors to their mix. These jazz pianists continue to push jazz piano in new directions.

Here are some of the best contemporary jazz pianists.

Henry Butler, 1940-

Henry Butler
Henry Butler, from New Orleans, L.A., has been blind since birth. He started music lessons at age 6, learning piano, sax, drums and singing. He later got his masters at Michigan State in vocal performance. Henry sings opera and gospel in a deep baritone voice.

He also studied jazz piano with Geoge Duke and Harold Mabern, plus New Orleans R&B piano with the master Professor Longahair (Roy Bird).

He made his debut onto the national stage in the early '80's playing with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. In 1986, Henry made his first album as a leader with the help of bassist Charlie Haden.

Henry Butler is unusual in today's jazz scene as someone who plays multiple styles. He plays jazz and straight blues in the New Orleans tradition, and sings gospel and opera. Henry Butler now resides on Colorado, as a Katrina refugee.

Chick Corea, 1941-

Chick Corea
Armando Anthony "Chick" Corea was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His father was a musician and started Chick in piano lessons at age 4. Like many others, his lessons were steeped in the classical tradition. Chick discovered jazz as a teenager, and became especially intrigued with Bud Powell. He was also influenced by the Latin music he heard all around him.

Corea began gigging around Boston as a teen, and would go to Julliard Conservatory in New York after high school.

After Julliard, Chick was hired by trumpeter Blue Mitchell for a tour, then worked with Herbie Mann, and Mongo Santamaria.

In the late '60's, Chick started the avante-garde group Circle, and also worked with Miles Davis. In 1971 he started Return to Forever, one of the first "fusion" bands, mixing elements of jazz, Latin, and rock. RTF would later head into a decidedly rock direction, and Chick experimented with many electronic keyboards.

Chick Corea is one of the most influential of the contemporary jazz pianists. He is one of the originators of "jazz-fusion," he introduced Latin jazz to a new audience, and has a huge body of work including electric jazz, acoustic jazz, solo piano works, duets, and classical recordings.

Geri Allen, 1957-

Geri Allen
Geri Allen, from Pontiac M.I., started taking piano lessons at age 7. She has studied at Cass Tech, Howard University, and has a masters degree in musicology from the University of Pittsburg.

She studied jazz piano with Kenny Barron in New York, and in the '90's had gig with vocalist Betty Carter and "outside" jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman.

Geri's approach to contemporary jazz piano is to experiment with harmony and melody, playing "out of rhythm," with a "liquid" linear feel. Her experimentation can happen while playing her own compositions or on standards.

Cyrus Chestnut, 1963-

Cyrus Chestnut was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a gospel pianist, and Cyrus began piano instruction at age 5. He played his first public performance at age 7, and discovered jazz at age 9.

Cyrus went to Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1981. After finishing his schooling, he got a gig with vocalist John Hendicks, which led to gigs with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and then Betty Carter.

Of the contemporary jazz pianists, Cyrus Chestnut draws the most from the gospel tradition. Many of his recordings have a spiritual feel, though he is equally versed in stride, bop and blues.

Benny Green, 1963-

Benny Green was born in New York, NY. His father was a jazz tenor saxophone player, and got Benny into piano lessons at age 7. He first performed in public at age 12, and by his teens was playing with jazz heavy weights around New York.

When in his late teens, his family moved to Berkely, CA, and Benny quickly landed a gig at Yoshi's, a jazz night club. Benny returned to New York in 1982, and got a gig with Betty Carter, then later with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. He also worked with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and bassist Ray Brown; and took lessons from his idol, Oscar Peterson. In 1990 he started his solo recording career on the Blue Note label.

Marcus Roberts 1963-

Marcus Roberts, from Jacksoville Florida, became blind at age 5. He started to play piano on his own at age 8, then began lessons at age 12. He later studied the classical repertoire at the Univeristy of Tallahassee. In 1982, he began playing in Wynton Marsalis's group. In the '90's he began recording as a leader and as a solo pianist.

Marcus Roberts is a contemporary jazz pianist who likes to bend tradition. His style adds modern polyrhythmic elements to the blues, stride and ragtime.

Diana Krall, 1964-

Diana Krall
Diana Krall grew up in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. She started piano lessons at four, and was playing locally with a small jazz group by the time she was in high school. She went to Berklee College of Music in Boston on a scholarship, and gigged around Boston while going to school.

She caught the attention of bassist Ray Brown, who took her to Los Angeles. In 1990, she made the move to New York, and released her first CD, Steppin' Out in 1993.

She now has many CDs and live DVDs and has won two Grammies. She is married to English rocker/songwriter Elvis Costello.

Diana Krall is known more for her singing than her piano playing, but she is a contemporary jazz pianist that has great technical facility on the keys. She can swing and bop hard, or lay back on a quiet bossa solo. She has an easy-going unhurried and melodic feel.

Bill Charlap, 1966-

Bill Charlap, from New York, NY, grew up in the theater district. His father is Moose Charlap, a Broadway composer best known for his work on Peter Pan. Always around music, Bill started lessons at an early age, learning the classics. He studied music at SUNY-Purchase, but quit to tour with Baritone saxist Gerry Mulligan. He later worked with Sheila Jordan and then Phil Woods.

Maybe because of his Broadway upbringing, Bill's passion has always been for the standards. This contemporary jazz pianist has the utmost respect for the songwriters and composers, though he has cool command of his technical facility, and can burn with effortless speed.

Harry Connick, Jr., 1969-

Harry Connick Jr
Like Henry Butler, Harry Connick, Jr. hails from New Orleans, Louisiana. Harry's father was the Distrct Attorney, and his mother was a judge. At age 5 Harry played the "Star Spangled Banner" at his father's swearing in ceremony. He took lessons from the Crescent City's best, including Ellis Marsalis and James Booker. He once shared the stage with ragtime great Eubie Blake.

Harry made his first record at age 9, moved to New York at 18 and was signed to Columbia Records. He started singing on his album 20, his age at the time. He got a gig at the world-famous Oak Room, and things took off. He sang in the movie sountrack to When Harry Met Sally, and his career expolded. He has since released many albums of standards and original songs, acted in movies and on T.V., and performed tours with his big band.

Harry Connick, Jr. has a style steeped in tradition, but backed up with plenty of technique. One can hear the influence of the New Orleans greats, Monk's quirkiness, and the stride of Fats Waller, plus the relaxed singing reminiscent of Frank Sinatra.

Brad Mehldau, 1970-

Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and was raised in West Hartford, CT. He studied the classical repertoire, and especially enjoyed the German composers. He was inspired to play jazz after hearing Keith Jarrett's album The Koln Concert. While in junior high school Brad won Berklee College of Music's award for best all-around musician, the youngest recipient of that award.

At age 18 Brad went to New York to study at The New School, under the tutelage of contemporary jazz pianists Fred Hersch, Junior Mance and Kenny Werner.

Brad has performed as a sideman with John Scofield, Wayne Shorter, Mike Brecker and Pat Metheny, amongst others. He has also led his own trio since 1995 with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums. He records for Nonesuch Records, and his releases are known for his contemporary jazz piano treatments of pop and rock tunes. His music was featured in Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut.

Henry Butler: Bull Rider - Creative Commons Lic.
Geri Allen: Pablo Secca - Creative Commons Lic.
Diana Krall: Jose Goulao - Creative Commons Lic.
Harry Connick, Jr.: Stephanie Schoyer - Creative Commons Lic.
Brad Mehldau: Public Domain
Creative Commons

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