10:52 AM CST, December 23, 2012
Pianist Ken Chaney wasn't as famous as many of his Chicago colleagues, but the high caliber of his playing, the originality of his composing-arranging and the extent of his advocacy efforts for jazz made him an important figure in Chicago music.
As bandleader, Chaney built a loyal following for his ensembles, such as the Awakening and the Ken Chaney Xperience. As pianist, he won the admiration of listeners for the versatility of his work. And as jazz crusader, he encouraged generations of young musicians to pursue the art form to which he devoted his life.
Chaney died Wednesday at his South Side home at age 73 of natural causes, said his son Kenin Chaney.
"He was a very sensitive human being, a very humble human being, and highly creative," pianist Ramsey Lewis said. "Although he never became a national treasure, all the musicians who live in Chicago held him in high esteem. … He was one of the top names from our city."
Indeed, a performance by Chaney usually meant that listeners would encounter sounds they hadn't heard before, though presented in a thoroughly accessible manner.
"First of all, he was an original," said Chicago pianist Willie Pickens. "He had an individual sound."
That sound could be delicate or tempestuous, funky or swing-based, avant-garde or mainstream, depending on the setting. Yet the meticulousness of Chaney's keyboard voicings, the ingenuity of his chord structures and the copiousness of his melodic ideas were apparent in these far-flung musical contexts.
"He had enough bebop and bluesy feeling to keep anyone interested," said drummer Redd Holt, who worked with Chaney and bassist Eldee Young in Young-Holt Unlimited in the late 1960s, the group scoring a pop hit with "Soulful Strut." "When he wanted to throw a pop song in there, he could feel that, too."
"He wrote a song called 'The Creeper,' and Eldee sometimes called him the Creeper, because he was such a quiet little cat."
Chaney's unpretentious manner and tendency to spotlight his colleagues on the bandstand, rather than himself, may have helped explain why he didn't attain greater fame. But that didn't seem to matter to a musician who chose to spend a large portion of his career outside the spotlight, developing young talent.
"He was such an under-recognized musician," said Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, a non-profit organization that long tapped Chaney's skills in training and inspiring young musicians. "The stuff he did outside the radar of the general public is, I think, one of the most important contributions he made in his life.
"For the Jazz Institute, he was co-artistic director of the JazzCity program for the last 15 years," added Deutsch, referring to a series that to this day brings music to the parks for free. "He was the key person in helping us develop our education program. The Jazz Links program (for young musicians) is really grounded on us having built one-on-one relationships with jazz band teachers (in the schools). … Ken was the linchpin. He introduced us personally to each of those jazz band teachers.
"The jam sessions at the (Chicago) Cultural Center that he presided over introduced him to hundreds of young folks."
Born in Edmonton, Canada, Chaney played piano and saxophone in high school, later moving briefly to Detroit before settling in Chicago in the mid-1950s, his son said. Chaney studied music theory and composition at Roosevelt University, according to his web site. He was an original member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago collective established in 1965, its experimental fervors expressed in his most enduring ensemble, the Awakening.
"We tried to be a really creative group," said saxophonist Ari Brown, who performed with Chaney and the band last month in Poznan, Poland, during a "Made in Chicago" jazz festival. "We tried to do things differently than other groups."
After leaving Young-Holt Unlimited in the early 1970s, Chaney created the Ken Chaney Xperience, an unconventional band that combined instrumentalists and vocalists.
But Chaney articulated his most urgent ideas in jazz in the Awakening, which he recorded on the albums "Hear, Sense and Feel" and "Mirage." He also recorded albums under his own name, including "Spring Thing" and "Paradise."
Said Deutsch, "He was a very quiet, self-effacing man who had enormous power."
Chaney is survived by three sons; three sisters and a brother; two granddaughters and a grandson. A memorial service will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave.
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