Jazz pianist, educator and sometime classical composer Jack Reilly, who died this past Friday at the age of 86, was one of my oldest friends who I never met in person. Back in 1989, I started my own homemade music ‘zine devoted strictly to classical music and jazz, a forerunner of this blog. These were the early days of desktop publishing; I used a program called “Publish It!” which set up a three-column-per-page layout, used a hand-held scanner for pictures that converted good-looking photos into poor, grainy images to insert (in some instances I just did a cut-and-paste from the Schwann Catalog because it looked better), had copies made at the local Kinko’s, staple-bound each issue by hand and then sealed the binding with some sort of liquid elastic. It looked homemade and I never had more than 40 subscribers, but I kept it going for three years before I called it quits.
Jack sent me a copy of his early, home-bound copies of his “Species Blues” books (later professionally published by Hal Leonard) to review, but because I was so busy with the current issue I explained to him that I wanted to hold off on reviewing it until I had a chance to properly digest it. For some reason, he assumed I didn’t understand what he was talking about and so told me NOT to review it because I was too stupid. Well, that just ticked me off. I don’t claim to be competent at bookkeeping or building a ham radio, but if there’s one thing I do know, it’s music, so I delved into the three-book series and wrote a very positive and detailed review and sent it to him. He was awed by my analysis of his work, and from that moment on, we became friends.
But for whatever reason, Jack still decided to play me for a fool. He called me on the phone but said his name was Sean Petrahn, an Italian-Jewish jazz critic, and wanted to write reviews for my magazine. I was delighted to have him, even though I already had Ralph Berton and jazz trumpeter Jack Walrath as reviewers in the jazz field (I never was able to get any known names for classical reviews except for Terry Teachout, who I had met a decade earlier at the Aspen Music Festival). Jack/Sean wrote some very fine reviews for my ‘zine, but he kept playing me. He had his wife, Carol Lian, call me on the phone pretending to be Steve Allen’s secretary and asking me how she could get in touch with Sean because Steve wanted him on his TV show. Once I stopped publishing, he admitted the charade and we became real friends.
He was always supportive of me and I of him. I wrote good reviews of his CDs, which were not plentiful, and just couldn’t understand why this superb jazz musician wasn’t as well known as his early friend and colleague, Bill Evans, whose work his resembled in many ways. When he decided to release his series of spontaneous improvisations on the Aleister Crowley deck of tarot cards, “Tzu-Jan: The Sound of the Tarot,” he asked me to write the liner notes, for which he paid me. It was very welcome money, though not a large stipend. The funny thing was, once past his Sean Petrahn phase, we rarely talked on the phone in the intervening years, but we kept in touch via email almost up to the end.
Reilly’s work was consistently interesting. He didn’t lay into technique nearly as much as other jazz pianists, and perhaps this is what held back his popularity. People love flash in jazz pianists, and this Reilly would not do. His music was meaty and well-developed, one of his best works being the “La-No-Tib Suite,” which is Bitonal spelled backwards. He recorded a jazz version of the suite while his wife Carol, a fine classical pianist who also invented her own improvisations, recorded a classical version of it. He continued to send me his CDs to review, some of which appeared in Fanfare, as well as his Hal Leonard copies of Species Blues, The Harmony of Bill Evans and his last book, The Harmony of Dave Brubeck. Reilly’s musical analyses were detailed to a T and always extremely interesting. The Hal Leonard books also included CDs of him playing examples of various chord positions so that musicians could hear what he was writing about. In both books, while respecting the original works, Reilly included reharmonizations of their music in his own style.
When reviewing The Harmony of Dave Brubeck, I mentioned that during Brubeck’s active career many jazz critics lambasted him for his “pretentious” and “heavy-handed” playing style, which I never agreed with (I was a Brubeck fan from the moment Time Out first appeared in the early 1960s). Indeed, some critics even went so far as to approach alto saxist Paul Desmond and ask him why he didn’t just leave the quartet and go out on his own. Reilly was gracious enough to pass my comments on to Iola Brubeck, who wrote me back and commented that it was just the mindset of the time. I still have her email saved in my archive. He was also responsible for giving me Sheila Jordan’s email address, which led to my published interview of her.
Jack’s wacky sense of humor continued to the very end as well. I still have the hysterically funny meme he sent me of President Donald Trump, showing one of his signed executive orders. Over the real executive order, Jack had photoshopped an image directing all jazz musicians to learn to play bebop heads in all 12 keys…beginning with Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee. I knew he had been a cancer survivor, back in the early 2000s, but seemed to be in fairly good health until his final days.
In short, Jack Reilly was a wonderful musician and a loyal if somewhat quirky friend. He continued to send me links to jazz videos and great audio clips he had found online, and I did the same, once locating a late-1950s TV clip of the late George Russell leading a band which included Tony Scott on clarinet and Bill Evans on piano playing some of his pieces. Jack couldn’t thank me enough for that one. We also agreed that the late Clare Fischer, though recognized for his composing skills, was one of the most underrated jazz pianists of his time, and he gushed about the brilliance of the late Hall Overton as well. Reilly also sent me recordings of some of his classical compositions, which although they were well written I found a bit thick in texture and not altogether appealing, but by that time he had come to respect my musical judgment and so wasn’t really offended. I praised his jazz to the very end.
If you haven’t discovered Jack Reilly, and are a jazz fan, you need to search him out on YouTube and also collect some of his records. He was a superb artist whose work, like Mark Murphy’s, flew under the radar.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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