Six years ago, jazz pianist Mike Jellick was in a rut — musically and professionally. As jazz vocalist Jesse Palter's pianist and musical director, he'd helped create her well-received debut disc Beginning to See the Light, a collection of Jellick's arrangements of standards. He also stood out on bassist Brain Enderle's debut Triosphere. But Jellick wanted for more.
"I felt stagnant. It was the same thing over and over again. I needed a change. Most of the gigs I had were with Jesse, so other musicians and bandleaders wouldn't call me because they assumed I was glued to her financially and musically. Her band was great, and it still is," says Jellick, 31, one Thursday evening in the musicians' lounge at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, where he's wrapped up the first of a four-night engagement.
Jellick sits at an oblong table with his trio mates, bassist Miles Brown and drummer Jesse Kramer, talking at length about his decision to move to Chicago for two years to get his act together. It was that retreat to the Windy City that put him in a position now to do his own thing, notably composing music and landing gigs for his trio.
Jellick is a slender guy who uses perfect diction and has the voice of a news broadcaster. Surrounded by his friends and bandmates offstage, he can be rather humorous, making light of being a child musical prodigy, and making wisecracks about finding his footing as a jazz pianist, arranger and composer.
On the bandstand, however, Jellick is a strictly business bandleader, but also a generous cat who loves sharing the spotlight. When the spotlight comes to Jellick himself, you never know what'll jump out of his imagination. He's apt to attach a colorful prelude to a familiar jazz standard or kick the tempo in the ass on a moment's notice. Presently, his trio plays standards that Jellick has stripped down to the surface and added a fresh coat of paint. He has written a bunch of originals that he's saving for his debut recording due out the end of the year. At his live show it is not uncommon to overhear people comparing him to pianist Ahmad Jamal. Jamal happens to be one of Jellick's principal influences. There are stylistic similarities. Jellick gives every note that he plays breathing room, and his left hand is prone to colorful mood swings.
Jellick wasn't always such a solid jazz pianist. During his rut period, he'd get lost midway through solos as if his imagination were 10 paces ahead of his technical abilities. The fix for his glaring shortcomings was playing with more experienced musicians — and good old-fashioned woodshedding, which he did plenty of the two years he was in Chicago.
Jellick was a child prodigy born with perfect pitch. At age 2, he could play the "Star Spangled Banner" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the family piano. His parents signed him up for classical music lessons. His mom studied piano but never played professionally. His dad had a polka band.
Jellick attended Stevenson High School in Livonia and played trumpet in the school's jazz band. At Eastern Michigan University, he studied classical piano, but paid his rent playing with a jazz trio at bars near campus.
After college, he bounced between the jazz scenes in Detroit and Ann Arbor, sitting in at such clubs as Bomac's, Baker's Keyboard Lounge, the Bird of Paradise and the Firefly Club (all of them gone now, save Baker's).
From 2005 to 2007, Jellick played with Palter nonstop, and though he loved it, he wanted to be more than a musical sidekick:
"At some point and time when you are playing as a sideman you realize you can do other things. I write music. I arrange. I'm not just a sideman. I just felt like I was in a rut. It was me as well as being in Detroit, so I decided to go to Chicago."
Jellick isn't the only jazz pianist to face this particular rut. The late Detroit jazz pianist Kenn Cox, who went on to lead two well-received albums for Blue Note among numerous other accomplishments, spent five years as vocalist Etta Jones' pianist and musical director in the '60s. In a 2007 profile in Metro Times, Cox said after leaving Jones' band, he couldn't find work because he couldn't swing. It took a few years of woodshedding to rebuild his chops.
In 2008, Jellick moved to Chicago. Asked why Chicago, he says the Windy City's diverse jazz scene was the most appealing.
"There're so many cats in Chicago. There're so many neighborhoods for different types of jazz. In one neighborhood all they do is free jazz, and you bet they play their asses off. Then you'll find a whole horde of piano players just playing Duke Ellington's music," he says.
It took four months for Jellick to find work. He taught private piano lessons here and there, transcribed music for college students and some professional musicians, but he didn't play a lot.
"I did more recording of me practicing and listening to myself. I had more patience with the mistakes I was making and I was figuring out how I could build on them, and not bore myself. I told myself I was going to get a gig if I had to walk into a club and hold the owner at gunpoint."
It never came to that. He finally found a steady gig at Randy's Jazz Club, and, as he prepared to return to Detroit, offers surfaced. In 2010, he returned to Detroit a stronger and more confident musician.
"It was never my plan to come back to Detroit with a big announcement, or like some prodigal son bullshit. I wanted to come back quietly."
His first gig back home was with drummer Thaddeus Dixon, who'd been touring with R&B and neo-soul acts. Dixon had a monthly spot at Cliff Bell's, and he hired Jellick.
Word spread: Jellick was new and improved, and he was playing his butt off. Established bandleaders such as Rodney Whitaker, Dwight Adams, Vincent Chandler, Karriem Riggins (on trips back to Detroit) and Marion Hayden hired him.
"I wanted to see how many people would walk up to me after hearing the revamped me, and would say, 'I have a gig for you. I really want you to be the piano chair in my band. I want us to work together and really mean it.'"
Since Jellick returned to Detroit, he's played one choice gig after another. When Riggins needed a piano player for his highly anticipated set with Common at the 2011 Detroit Jazz Festival, and Hayden needed a pianist for her Detroit Jazz Legacy Ensemble, they hired Jellick. And he's been getting lots of work as bandleader.
Earlier this year, his trio played a two-week run at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe. On Wednesdays, he runs the jam session at the Northern Lights, which he has lofty aspirations for. He wants the session to be about jazz musicians of all levels, from students to pros networking. And that's the range that he seems to drawing.
This summer Jellick will reunite with Palter for her long-overdue second album. Later this year, he plans to release two related albums, a trio date of standards and originals, and a second solo album revisiting the same compositions as solo piano vehicles.
"I'm finally getting to a point where I can reach people — that feels good. I'm not trying to put myself up on a pedestal, but it's important that I take that confidence and run with it."
The Mike Jellick Trio performs Wednesday nights at Northern Lights Lounge, 660 W. Baltimore Ave., Detroit; 313-873-1739.
Charles L. Latimer writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]