You never quite knew what Chicago bassist Kelly Sill was going to play (or what he was going to say). But you always knew that whatever you heard on or off the bandstand would contain wisdom and wit, likely surprise you, and startle those unprepared for the intensity of his bass playing and conversation.
Once we were listening to a star soloist at a club backed by seasoned pros. The time was steady, and everyone sounded fine individually, yet the music wasn’t happening. I couldn’t figure out why until Kelly leaned over and whispered into my ear: “Just because everyone is playing through the changes in the same time doesn’t mean they’re actually playing together.”
Sill, who died in September at age 70, was a master bassist, a sage philosopher of music and life, and a beloved mentor to multiple generations of musicians and friends. As a first-call bassist in Chicago for 40-plus years, he compiled an eyepopping resume. An abbreviated list of credits includes Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Billy Eckstine, Jackie McLean, Cedar Walton, Red Rodney, Eddie Harris, Woody Shaw, and Dave Liebman. Though not widely known to jazz fans outside the Windy City, musicians everywhere knew he was a selfless virtuoso who played for the glory of the ensemble. He could groove a pick-up group into a working band in the blink of an eye.
“He gave bottom to the music,” said drummer Adam Nussbaum. “He played with grace, honor, and commitment to the function of the bass, which makes life for the drummer a pleasure. Then we can all play together and not have to work.”
(Full disclosure: My friendship with Sill dates to the early ‘80s, and he played my wedding in 1991.)
Sill was among the deepest listeners, on and off the bandstand, that I have known. He had the fastest mind and lightning reflexes. He got around the bass as swiftly as anyone, and his sound was focused and firm. His solos dazzled, but what stood out more was the melodic and harmonic clarity of his walking lines, his passionate commitment to every note, and the cozy way his quarter note nestled within the blanket of a drummer’s ride cymbal beat. The holistic quality of his responsiveness reflected Ron Carter, and there was something of Sam Jones’ jaunty strut in his pulse, but Sill sounded only like himself.
“This was someone doing it his own way,” said saxophonist Chris Potter, who worked with Sill in the early ‘90s as part of trumpeter Red Rodney’s group. When Rodney traveled to the Midwest, he’d bring Potter and pianist Garry Dial but hire Sill and fellow Chicagoan Joel Spencer on drums.
“Go for quality as a goal. You will end up with originality whether you want it or not.”
“Kelly was a remarkable person, and that’s what you heard. At his level, the highest level, it’s about how he listened and interacted with the world. He used the familiar language of jazz bass playing but did it in a way that you never felt like he was on automatic pilot. He responded in real time. He was always listening and reacting, always engaged, and invested in every note.”
Sill didn’t record as often as he deserved, but The Brighter Side (The Jazz Alliance), which he co-led with Spencer in 1993, documents his gifts. It features an exciting and empathetic post-bop quartet with Potter and Dial. The saxophonist’s “Fear of Flying,” a fast waltz with wafting melody and harmony, escalates into a burner. Especially during Dial’s solo, you can hear, and feel, how Sill’s savvy and spontaneous rhythms and notes mediate between the piano and drums. He anchors the band, giving free reign to Spencer’s explosive power.
Sill’s medium swinger, “Ironic Line,” captures the impish side of his personality. The 20-bar tune has a droll bass line sneaking up and down by half-steps. Two 10-bar sections boast an identical melody but different harmonic progressions. Sill and Spencer, who forged a unique bond over thousands of gigs dating back to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early ‘70s, sound like two sides of the same heartbeat.
Born in Fargo, N.D. in 1952, Sill grew up near Chicago and played violin as a kid. He took up electric bass in high school but didn’t switch to upright until college, where his notable contemporary, Jon Burr, gave him his first bass lessons. Sill immersed himself in the fertile local scene, eventually hooking up with Spencer and a hotshot pianist with a bright future, John Campbell.
By the late ‘70s, the John Campbell Trio was the most imposing and versatile straight-ahead rhythm section in Chicago. It accompanied numerous visiting stars until Campbell split for New York in 1984; Sill and Spencer stayed the course in Chicago. Alas, the trio never formally recorded, but an animated gig with idiosyncratic singer Eddie Jefferson at the Jazz Showcase in 1979 was released on video—taped two nights before Jefferson was murdered after a gig in Detroit.
Beyond the music, Sill left enough aphorisms that there should be a book. Some favorites:
“The best players don’t always get the best gigs.”
“It’s no coincidence that the word feel in feeling comfortable and time feel is the same word.”
“Go for quality as a goal. You will end up with originality whether you want it or not. The other way around may leave you with really shitty originality.”
Musicians like Sill, journeymen of exceptional distinction and individuality based outside New York, rarely get eulogies in a national jazz magazine. But he lived an extraordinarily meaningful life within the marrow of this music. He played with the greatest musicians on the planet as their equal, and he made an incalculable contribution to his community. If we don’t celebrate that, then what are we even doing here?