Here is an eclectic selection of jazz musicians, born in December.
Prepared by Louise Levy and Phillip Cant
1 December, 1951 – 21 September, 1987
“Music is the only thing keeping the planet together.”
Jaco Pastorius was an American jazz bassist who was a member of Weather Report from 1976 to 1981. He worked with Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell, and recorded albums as a solo artist and band leader. His bass playing employed funk, lyrical solos, bass chords, and innovative harmonics. As of 2017, he is the only electric bassist of seven bassists inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame, and has been lauded as one of the best electric bassists of all time.
2 December, 1931 – 12 April, 1971
“Music had to be accessible, entertaining and easy to dance to”
Wynton Kelly was an American jazz pianist and composer. He is known for his lively, blues-based playing and as one of the finest accompanists in jazz. He began playing professionally at the age of 12 and was pianist on a No. 1 R&B hit at the age of 16. His recording debut as a leader occurred three years later, around the time he started to become better known as an accompanist to singer Dinah Washington, and as a member of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Over the next few years, these included instrumentalists Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Wes Montgomery, and Sonny Rollins, and vocalists Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, and Abbey Lincoln. Kelly attracted the most attention as part of Miles Davis’ band from 1959, including an appearance on the trumpeter’s Kind of Blue, often mentioned as the best-selling jazz album ever.
3 December, 1988
Melissa Aldana was born in Santiago, Chile. Aldana began with alto, influenced by artists such as Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley and Michael Brecker. However, upon first hearing the music of Sonny Rollins, she switched to tenor. She started performing in Santiago jazz clubs in her early teens. Aldana graduated from Berklee in 2009, relocating to New York City to study under George Coleman. She recorded her first album, Free Fall. In 2012 Aldana had formed a group, Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio.
4 December, 1930 – 10 December, 2013
Jim Hall moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio during his childhood. He began playing the guitar at the age of 10 when his mother gave him an instrument as a Christmas present. At 13 he heard Charlie Christian play on a Benny Goodman record, which he calls his “spiritual awakening”. Jim Hall insisted a lot on the aural aspect of improvising music, stating that “Players should force themselves to hear something and then play it, rather than just do whatever comes under their fingers. I try to make my playing as fresh as possible by not relying on set patterns.”
5 December, 1949
Enrico Pieranunzi is an Italian jazz pianist. He combines classical technique with jazz. He studied classical music until 1973 when he became a Professor of Music and maintained that post for two years. In 1975 he left his teaching practice and played in trios and small ensembles. He has recorded over 60 albums. He has also been prolific as a session musician.
6 December, 1920 – 5 December, 2012
“There’s a way of playing safe, there’s a way of using tricks and there’s the way I like to play which is dangerously where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t created before.”
Dave Brubeck was an American jazz pianist and composer, considered one of the foremost exponents of cool jazz. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards including “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke”. Brubeck’s style ranged from refined to bombastic, reflecting both his mother’s classical training and his own improvisational skills. His music is known for employing unusual time signatures as well as superimposing contrasting rhythms, meters, and tonalities. Brubeck experimented with time signatures throughout his career, recording “Pick Up Sticks” and “Unsquare Dance”. He was also a composer of orchestral and sacred music and wrote soundtracks for television.
7 December, 1960
“What makes bebop legitimate is the fact that when it was done, it was illegitimate.”
Matthew Shipp is an American pianist, composer, and bandleader. Shipp was raised in Wilmington, Delaware, and began playing piano at six years old. His mother was a friend of trumpeter Clifford Brown. He was strongly attracted to jazz, but also played in rock groups while in high school. Shipp attended the University of Delaware for one year, then the New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied with saxophonist/composer Joe Maneri. He has cited private lessons with Dennis Sandole (who also taught saxophonist John Coltrane) as being crucial to his development. Shipp moved to New York in 1984 and has been very active since the early 1990s, appearing on dozens of albums as a leader, sideman, or producer.
8 December, 1925 – 8 February, 2005
Jimmy Smith was an American jazz musician whose albums often charted on Billboard magazine. He helped popularize the Hammond B-3 organ, creating a link between jazz and 1960s soul music. While the electric organ had been used in jazz by Fats Waller, Count Basie, Wild Bill Davis and others, Smith’s virtuoso improvisation technique on the Hammond helped to popularize the electric organ as a jazz and blues instrument. In 2005, Smith was awarded the NEA Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honour that America bestows upon jazz musicians.
9 December, 1932 – 4 February, 2013
“I skipped school one day to see Dizzy Gillespie, and that’s where I met Coltrane. Coltrane and Jimmy Heath just joined the band, and I brought my trumpet, and he was sitting at the piano downstairs waiting to join Dizzy’s band. He had his saxophone across his lap, and he looked at me and he said, ‘You want to play?“
Donald Byrd was an American jazz and rhythm & blues trumpeter and vocalist. A sideman for many other jazz musicians of his generation, Byrd was known as one of the rare bebop jazz musicians who successfully explored funk and soul while remaining a jazz artist. As a bandleader, Byrd was an influence on the early career of Herbie Hancock.
10 December, 1953
Nicknamed “Deedles“, Diane Schuur is an American jazz singer and pianist. As of 2015, Schuur had released 23 albums and had extended her jazz repertoire to include essences of Latin, gospel, pop and country music. Her most successful album is Diane Schuur & the Count Basie Orchestra, which remained number one on the Billboard Jazz Charts for 33 weeks. She won Grammy Awards for best female jazz vocal performance in both 1986 and 1987 and has had three other Grammy nominations. Schuur has performed in venues such as Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, and the White House, and has performed with many artists including Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones, and Stevie Wonder. Co-performers on Schuur’s albums have included Barry Manilow, José Feliciano, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Getz, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, and B.B. King. Her album with B.B. King was number one on the Billboard Jazz Charts.
11 December, 1938 – 6 March, 2020
McCoy Tyner was an American jazz pianist known for his work with the John Coltrane Quartet and a long solo career. He was an NEA Jazz Master and a five-time Grammy winner. Not a player of electric keyboards and synthesizers, he was committed to acoustic instrumentation. Tyner, who was widely imitated, was one of the most recognizable and most influential pianists in jazz history. Tyner was named a 2002 NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. He won five Grammy Awards, for The Turning Point and Journey and best instrumental jazz album for Illuminations, Infinity, and Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane.
12 December, 1945 – 23 February, 1997
“Drummers don’t write – or at least, that’s what everybody believes.”
Tony Williams was an American jazz drummer. Williams first gained fame in the band of trumpeter Miles Davis and pioneered jazz fusion. He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1986. Born in Chicago and growing up in Boston, Williams began studies with master drummer Alan Dawson at an early age and began playing professionally at the age of 13 with saxophonist Sam Rivers. Jackie McLean hired Williams at 16. At 17 Williams found considerable fame with Miles Davis, joining a group that was later dubbed Davis’s “Second Great Quintet.” His first album as a leader, 1964’s Life Time (not to be confused with the name of his band “Lifetime,” which he formed several years later) was recorded during his tenure with Davis.
13 December, 1949
An excellent bop-based guitarist, Mark Elf created a stir with his own small-group recordings. He attended Berklee (1969-1971), picked up experience playing with a who’s who of modern mainstream jazz (including Wynton Marsalis, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Benny Golson, Al Grey, Branford Marsalis, and Slide Hampton), and has recorded as a sideman with Lou Donaldson, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Hendricks, and others. Elf spent time with Jimmy Heath’s group, but has achieved his greatest recognition thus far with his recordings for the Jen Bay Jazz label and a set recorded in Chile (Alerce) made available in the U.S. His album roster supported by Jen Bay includes: Eternal Triangle (1988), Trickynometry (1997), and Over the Airwaves (2000). Swingin’ followed in early 2001.
Anna Maria Jopek
14 December, 1970
Anna Maria Jopek is a Polish vocalist, songwriter, and improviser. She represented her country in the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest, with the song “Ale jestem” and finished 11th out of 25 participating acts; and in 2002, she collaborated on an album with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. She has received numerous awards for her music, including Michel Legrand’s Personal Award in Vitebsk in 1994, as well as all of the awards for music in Poland, together with gold and platinum records.
15 December, 1936
Eddie Palmieri is a Grammy Award-winning pianist, bandleader, musician, and composer of Puerto Rican ancestry. He is the founder of the bands La Perfecta, La Perfecta II, and Harlem River Drive. Palmieri continued his education in the city’s public school system where he was constantly exposed to music, specifically jazz. He took piano lessons and performed at Carnegie Hall when he was 11 years old. His main influences were Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner.
16 December, 1944 – 22 August, 2017
John Abercrombie was an American jazz guitarist. His work explored jazz fusion, free jazz, and avant-garde jazz. Abercrombie studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He was known for his understated style and his work with organ trios. Growing up in the 1950s in Greenwich, Connecticut he was attracted to the rock and roll of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Bill Haley and the Comets. He also liked the sound of jazz guitarist Mickey Baker of the vocal duo Mickey and Silvia. He had two friends who were musicians with a large jazz collection. They played him albums by Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis.
17 December, 1939 – 8 November, 1983
“Human nature is the reason why I play the piano the way I do. But no just ordinary human nature — some people say I’m a freak of nature.”
James Booker was a New Orleans rhythm and blues keyboardist born in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. Booker’s unique style combined rhythm and blues with jazz standards. Musician Dr. John described Booker as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” Flamboyant in personality, he was known as “the Black Liberace”. A feature-length documentary about Booker titled Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, directed by Lily Keber, premiered at the SXSW festival on March 14, 2013.
Wadada Leo Smith
18 December, 1941
Wadada Leo Smith is an American trumpeter and composer, working primarily in the fields of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation. He was one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Ten Freedom Summers, released on May 22, 2012. Smith was born in Leland, Mississippi. He started out playing drums, mellophone, and French horn before he settled on the trumpet. He played in various R&B groups and by 1967 became a member of the AACM and co-founded the Creative Construction Company, a trio with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton. In 1971, Smith formed his own label, Kabell. He also formed another band, the New Dalta Ahkri, with members including Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis and Oliver Lake.