It was in Calvin's birth city of Omaha that he secretly starting to teach himself to play on his uncle's Gibson after being warned away from the instrument. It was on one such occasion that his uncle caught him and he was so impressed that he gave him the guitar. Thank goodness for that uncle!! At age 16 he first played guitar professionally mostly on popular music and blues gigs. Soon after a friend turned him on to Miles Davis and that's when he shifted his direction towards jazz!
As Calvin says it was “something new to explore”. Around this time Calvin was also introduced to the father of electric guitar, Charlie Christian whom Calvin has referred to as “the master be booper”, Keys continues “before Charlie Christian the guitar was a chordal instrument, he started using it as a solo instrument”.
Not long after his first professional relationship with the organ took place with Frank Edwards. From there that special kinship that the organ and guitar seem to enjoy blossomed and as Calvin says of that relationship “the guitar blends very well with the organ” and gigs or recordings with the giants of the organ like Jimmy Smith, Jimmy MC Griff, Jack McDuff, Trudy Pitts, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Papa De Francesco followed.
After hearing him with Ahmad Jamal, organist Charles Earland was so thrilled that he asked Calvin to join his band for a special New York City performance! A move to Los Angeles in 1969 launched another wave of growth as Keys became the guitarist in the house band at the Persian Room with Red Holloway.During this same period Calvin co-led a band with Blue Mitchell, and connected with with yet another master organist Doug Carn whom he later recorded with on Doug's Adams Apple release that featured the now great Jean Carn on the famed Black Jazz label. Other highlights of Calvin's Los Angels period is his work with the great Oscar Brown Jr. at the legendary club Memory Lane and this was the period he met Ray Charles whom he'd work with off and on until 1995.
It was after a 1974 moved to Oakland Ca. that Calvin's nearly 20 years with Ahmad Jamal begin. As Calvin says of his hearing Ahmad “Ahmad is a master of time, I felt it deep inside my bones the first time I heard him” This relationship included touring extensively with Ahmad through out Europe with a live recording, Live In Paris recorded at the famed Salle Pleyel which has finally made its way to the US!! That tour also included stops state side at Carnegie Hall and the JVC Jazz Festival!! It was during this same period that Calvin begin his work as music director with yet another giant, Earl “Fatha” Hines.
Through the years Calvin Keys has graced the stage with Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, Carmen McCrea, Gloria Lynn, Jackie Ivory, Jackie Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Eddie Henderson, Stanley Turrentine, George Coleman, Jimmy Witherspoon, Hadley Caliman to name a few.
As a further display of Calvin Keys virtuosity he has shared the stage with Motown legend Martha Reeves at San Francisco's famed Razz Room as well the Blues Cruise with Taj Mahal. Not limited to his beloved jazz roots Calvin has also worked in video's with MC Hammer and Luther Vandross. Guitar visionary Pat Metheny who has been a fan of Calvin Keys' since the start of his own career has called Calvin “the real deal” and has been so moved that he wrote the tune Calvin's Keys which is on his Day Trip CD!!
While performing is always a priority for Calvin Keys, including a 2010 2 month tour of Uruguay he has found time to record 14 Cd's as a leader. The highlights being Proceed With Caution and Shawn Neeq both on the aforementioned Black Jazz label Standard Keys and An Evening With Calvin Keys of which a reviewer for Euroclubdejazz.com Brian Harvey says “his work brings to mind other giants with similarity endless flows of delightful original ideas like Paul Gonzalez, Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhardt and Sonny Rollins” both on Life Force Jazz Records.
Other recordings are Maria's First and Full Court Press on Olive Branch Records up to the more recent Calvinesque and Hand Made Portrait on the Silverado label are all exceptional recording featuring Calvin's “single note style”. While Calvin's Wide Hive Records recordings Detours: Into Unconscious Rhythms, Vertical Clearance and Electric Keys are less straight ahead they still find him at the very top of the guitar ladder!
His latest CD is entitled An Evening With Calvin Keys.