Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: Music Composition
Competition: US & Canada
Kenny Werner is a gifted pianist, composer, and music producer. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1951, by age eleven he recorded a single with a fifteen-piece orchestra and appeared on television playing stride piano. His love of classical music was nurtured during his high school years at the Manhattan School of Music, and after high school graduation he continued his studies there as a concert piano major.
But as his emotional need to improvise began to take him out of the world of classical music and into jazz, he transferred to the Berklee School of Music. There he found his true creative direction. In Boston, he met his piano teacher and spiritual guide Madame Chaloff. “She was the first person I met who pulled together spiritual and musical aspects,” he recalled. She ignited in him a concept that was furthered by his next teacher, João Assis Brasil, a concert pianist who successfully demonstrated to Werner “effortless piano playing with a self-loving attitude,” as he has described it. Werner had met Mr. Brasil while touring South America with his twin brother, Victor Assis Brasil. This ideology blossomed in Werner and constitutes his approach to music and creativity today.
In 1977 he recorded his first LP, which featured the music of Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and George Gershwin; later that year he played with Charles Mingus on Something Like a Bird. His first solo album of his own compositions, Beyond the Forest of Mirkwood, was released four years later. He followed this with 298 Bridge Street, which captured many of the great late-night jam sessions he held at his Brooklyn studio at that address.
During the early 1980s he toured extensively and recorded with Archie Shepp, and in 1981 he formed a trio with bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Tom Rainey. Their first CD, Ken Werner—Introducing the Trio (Sunnyside Records), began a tremendously productive fourteen-year collaboration, resulting in three more albums—Press Enter (Sunnyside), Guru (TCB), and Live at Visiones (Concorde)—which together earned the trio its reputation as one of the most creative, intense, and innovative groups of its day. Peter Watrous of the New York Times marveled at their “near miraculous” rhythm, and Bob Blumenthal, a longtime supporter of theirs, effused in the Boston Globe that [the Kenny Werner Trio] has provided an ever-evolving definition of the spontaneity that remains at the heart of jazz. . . . [They are] unsurpassed as a working trio.” Kenny Werner believes that much of his musical development, conceptually and rhythmically, is directly due to the experience of playing with Harris and Rainey.
The following decade found Werner playing with and composing for the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra (now the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra), performing more often in New York City, and touring more and more in Europe. He was increasingly composing for jazz orchestrations for other groups as well, including for the Cologne Radio Jazz Orchestra (WDR), the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra in The Netherlands, and Finland’s Umo Jazz Orchestra.
In 2000, Werner formed a new trio with Ari Hoenig on drums and Johannes Weidenmueller on bass. During the ensuing decade, they produced three CDs: Form and Fantasy, Beat Degeneration, and Peace: Live at the Blue Note. The last of these began a flourishing relationship with Half Note Records producer Jeff Levenson, and Steven Bensusan, who owns the Blue Note Jazz Club, that continues to this day. Other CDs that have grown out of this relationship include Democracy: Live at the Blue Note (2006), The Delirium Blues Project: Serve or Suffer (2007), and No Beginning, No End (2010), which Werner considers the most important release of his professional life. No Beginning, No End includes a five-movement piece for a 35-piece wind ensemble, a choir composition (“Visitation”), and a string quartet piece (“Cry Out”), and features solos by Joe Lovano and Judi Silvano.
During his career, Werner has worked with many of the most highly respected jazz musicians, among them fellow Guggenheim Fellows Gunther Schuller, Marian McPartland, Dave Douglas, Charlie Haden, and Rufus Reid, and such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Nigel Kennedy, Lee Konitz, Joe Henderson, and Betty Buckley. His talents have earned him not only his Guggenheim Fellowship but three NEA grants and a Distinguished Artist Award for Composition from the New Jersey Council of the Arts.
Always eager to share what he has learned with others, Kenny Werner has written a number of books—Channeling Music (1988), Play for the Right Reasons (1990), Hostile Triads (1991), and Effortless Mastery (1996)—and is a columnist for Jazz Improv magazine. He has also spent a good deal of time as a teacher, both in clinics at universities in the U.S. and abroad, and as an instructor in intermediate and advanced theory at The New School (1987), artist-in-residence at the Berkeley School of Music, and director of the Banff Center Jazz Program. He is currently an artist-in-residence at New York University.