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Calvin Keys, Widely Loved Jazz Guitarist With Endless Soul, Dies at 82

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A smiling Black man in a ballcap and greying beard, wearing a grey sweatshirt.
Oakland jazz guitarist Calvin Keys rose to global acclaim, playing with dozens of jazz giants and releasing numerous classic recordings. (Jim Denis)

Calvin Keys, the Oakland-based jazz guitarist who worked with giants like Ray Charles and Ahmad Jamal, and who possessed a unique style both on stage and records, died Sunday afternoon. He was 82.

Keys was surrounded at Berkeley’s Alta Bates Medical Center on Sunday by family and loved ones from the Bay Area music scene, said his close friend and musical collaborator, Art Maxwell. The cause of death was complications due to a stroke.

“The world has just lost a wonderful person and musician,” said the bassist Henry Franklin, who played and recorded with Keys. “He was very prolific on his instrument, very inventive, and I’m sure he’s got one of the first seats in the big orchestra in the sky.”

Calvin Keys performing in San Francisco, circa 1977. (Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In addition to Ray Charles and Ahmad Jamal, Keys played with the likes of Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Bobby Hutcherson, Tony Bennett, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Joe Henderson, Carmen McRea, Pharoah Sanders, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Eddie Henderson, Stanley Turrentine and many, many others.

Maxwell remembered first seeing Keys at Laney College in Oakland in 1978, and later joining his band for shows at 57th Street Gallery and Geoffrey’s Inner Circle. Eventually he would become Keys’ musical director, and played with him for the past decade.

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“Calvin was the real deal,” Maxwell said. “He was a very handsome man, very warm, and extremely nice to almost everybody.”

Maxwell recalled when Keys, a few years ago, successfully petitioned Spotify to pay him for royalties due. “He took me out to a restaurant,” Maxwell said, “and said ‘Go ahead, get the best steak! Get everything, dessert, whatever you want!’ That was Calvin.”

Calvin Keys. (Artist photo)

Calvin Keys was born Feb. 6, 1942 in Omaha, Nebraska. As a young boy, his father, a drummer, used to sneak him into local ballrooms to hear performers like Little Richard and James Brown. He would soon learn guitar, and join jam sessions in town with touring artists like George Benson and Brother Jack McDuff. At the age of 15, Keys moved to Kansas City and soon began touring as a young teenager.

Keys played in top trios with popular organists like Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith, and worked with Ray Charles on and off for 15 years. A move to Los Angeles in the late 1960s connected him with the Black Jazz record label, for which he recorded two era-defining albums: 1971’s Shawn-Neeq and 1974’s Proceed With Caution. He moved to the Bay Area in 1975.

Watch: Calvin Keys on stage at KQED, interviewed by Bianca Taylor.

After joining pianist Ahmad Jamal’s group, Keys spent six years touring and recording with the jazz giant. He sometimes told the story of Miles Davis, an avowed Jamal fan, once asking Jamal after a show if he could audition Keys for his own group — an offer Keys declined.

Calvin Keys on stage with his hollow-body guitar on stage. Keys performed at small clubs and community events into his 80s. (Artist photo)

Gregory Howe, the Bay Area producer and musician who under his Wide Hive Records label released four albums by Keys starting in 2000, said that Keys “was just an authoritative voice on his instrument.” He recalled his first experience with Keys in the recording studio, when he nailed a guitar solo in one take.

“He arrived in this huge ’70s Cadillac,” Howe said. “We had this little recording studio in North Beach, and we couldn’t find anywhere to park the car!”

Howe also remembered Keys’ sharp personal style, and how he would show up to record in “really clean” outfits that matched his high-class talent.

“When he would play, you had to listen,” Howe said. “The way he could weave a solo, I don’t know any other guitarist that had that caliber of soulfulness and musical strength.”

Keys enjoyed a small renaissance in the 2010s as his early albums garnered more attention, including in places as distant as Europe and Japan. In 2012, the Bay Area label Tompkins Square reissued Shawn-Neeq; Proceed With Caution and 1985’s Full Court Press have also been reissued in recent years.

Calvin Keys’ first album as a leader, ‘Shawn-Neeq,’ has been reissued multiple times since its release in 1971. (Black Jazz)

Keys was a teacher at the Oakland Public Conservatory and frequently taught his skills to the younger generation at camps and in private lessons.

On stage, Keys continued to perform locally, including at clubs like Yoshi’s, up to the end. He refused suggestions to retire, even as he underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1997 and back surgery in recent years, Maxwell said.

Terrace Martin, the famed keyboardist and hip-hop producer, and Keys’ godson, said on Instagram: “A true master teacher has transitioned. Rest in power, love and peace to Calvin Keys. I love you.”

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