Alex Kallao

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Categorizing can and will happen to musicians as they pursue their muse, and it may be simply business as usual when the categories themselves are what fascinate the researchers. "I like this blind pianist…
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Categorizing can and will happen to musicians as they pursue their muse, and it may be simply business as usual when the categories themselves are what fascinate the researchers. "I like this blind pianist thing!" explained our own Igor, waving a 1954 clipping introducing Alex Kallao in concert at a Manhattan night spot, the Embers. Igor was keenly interested, most likely because in his wilder days he enjoyed threatening to blind a lovable monster staying in the cellar, utilizing a poker that was coincidentally heated up in a pile of embers. Interestingly, this assistant's editors had already nixed the concept of blind pianists as a category, considering it in bad taste to lump performers together based on a physical disability. Yet there was Time magazine placing Kallao in a group of "popular blind pianists" with Alec Templeton, Art Tatum, George Shearing, and Lennie Tristano. The category is appealingly free of genre barriers once it is truly expanded to include any and all blind pianists, encompassing sappy country & western, geniuses of soul, Baroque virtuosos, a Frank Zappa fanatic, and a guy spying on nightclub customers in a film noir.

Of a much more precise nature in terms of musical information is the category Kallao would eventually find himself in as his career progressed. Two decades following his Embers debut, jazz critics were lumping him in with pianists -- most of them blessed with sight -- who were only associated with jazz from time to time. Some of them being technical virtuosos, they tended to come in for a jazz session as a hobby, spending most of their time doing something else, film scores in the case of Michel Legrand and André Previn. "Kallao is a superior technician," wrote Leonard Feather, "but not basically a jazz musician, although his appearance at such clubs as the Embers has erroneously given this impression." Kallao's father, a professional pianist, is given credit for teaching a technique so dazzling that the nightclub in question signed the pianist up to an exclusive arrangement regarding New York City gigs for three years. At that point, according to Time, he was 21 years old. Such data coincide with the 1932 birthday given for him in other references.

At least one fan of the pianist suggests he was already putting out records on RCA some five years before that; however, the date of his real recording debut is again 1954, when the label released Evening at the Embers. A live gig from Ottawa was released in 1956, and these two discs appear to represent the girth of Kallao's work as a jazz player. His background was, to introduce another exciting category, as a player who began performing in the adult setting of nightclubs while still a teenager, in Kallao's case Detroit gin mills when at a green 15. He never lost his love for classical music, performing and recording works by Bach and Chopin, among others. Despite the lack of recorded documentation, Kallao continues to perform live, presenting a George Gershwin and Cole Porter program almost nightly at a Sausalito restaurant venue in 2007.