Saturday, February 28, 2009


McCoy Tyner: The Pianist

"To me living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life. I play what I live. Therefore, just as I can't predict what kinds of experiences I'm going to have, I can't predict the directions in which my music will go. I just want to write and play my instrument as I feel." -- McCoy Tyner


Pianist McCoy Tyner’s artistry and innovation embrace a multitude of styles, from African and Latin rhythms to the modal harmonies of the post-bebop era. His amazing versatility has enabled him to excel in a wide variety of settings.

Born Alfred McCoy Tyner on Dec. 11, 1938, Tyner grew up in the fertile musical hotbed of Philadelphia. His parents imbued him with a love for music from an early age. His mother encouraged him to explore his musical interests through formal training.

I love to play ballads. I think it's because it shows that you have some passion in your life. --McCoy Tyner  

McCoy’s decision to study piano was reinforced when he encountered the legendary bebop pianist Bud Powell, who was a neighbor of the family's. Another major influence on Tyner's playing was Thelonious Monk, whose percusive attacks would inform Tyner's signature style.

As a teenager in the 50s, Tyner often found opportunities to learn directly from other notable Philly-based musicians. He played with numerous natives of the thriving hometown jazz scene, including trumpeter Lee Morgan and the Heath Brothers, and even led his own septet for a while. 

When Tyner and Philadelphian saxophonist John Coltrane first played together, Tyner was just 17 and Coltrane was still busy making history with Miles Davis’ band. But John often confided his interest in leading his own band with Tyner.

While Tyner patiently waited for Coltrane to leave Miles' group and start his own band, another saxophonist, Benny Golson invited Tyner to join him and trumpeter Art Farmer in forming a New York-based ensemble, Jazztet.

Tyner finally joined Coltrane in 1965 for the classic album My Favorite Things, and remained at the core of what became one of the most seminal groups in jazz history, The John Coltrane Quartet. The band, which also included drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison, had an extraordinary chemistry, fostered in part by Tyner’s almost familial relationship with Coltrane.

Tyner’s inventive block chords distinguished him from other pianists, and became essential to the group's sound. Both Tyner and Coltrane left embraced Eastern musical ideas, such as pentatonic scales and modal structures, which elevated the group's performances to a spiritual levels.

In 1965, after over five years with Coltrane's quartet, Tyner left the group to explore his destiny as a composer and bandleader. But when Tyner broke out as a leader, he found that the American musicallandscape was changing, with rock-n-roll replacing jazz as the darlings of music consumers.

I never felt intimidated by John Coltrane, because I knew his mother, his cousin Mary, and his family. He used to pat me on the back,"This is my little brother, here." --McCoy Tyner

Through faith and determination, Tyner prevailed as a soloist and sideman. Among his major projects is a 1967 album entitled The Real McCoy, on which he was joined by saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Ron Carter and fellow Coltrane alumnus Elvin Jones. His 1972 Grammy-award nomination album Sahara, broke new ground by the sounds and rhythms of Africa.

Tyner has always expanded his vision of the musical landscape and incorporated new elements, whether from distant continents or diverse musical influences. More recently he has arranged for big bands, employed string arrangements, and even reinterpreted popular music. 

Now, in his mid-60s, Tyner is still expanding his musical world and leading diverse ensembles, from his big band to trios. His vibrant playing with John Coltrane sounds as fresh and hard-hitting as it did 40 years ago, and it continues to influence legions of pianists.


Born in Philadelphia on December 11, 1938, McCoy Tyner started playing piano at age 13 with Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk as his primary influences. He began working locally with Calvin Massey and also landed a gig as house pianist at a Philly jazz club where he played behind visiting jazz artists. During his developing years he also gigged with trumpter Lee Morgan and with saxophonist Benny Golson before becoming a member of the Jazztet, an important group co-led by Golson and trumpeter Art Farmer. He appears on quintessential recordings of Golson’s "I Remember Clifford," "Blues March" and "Killer Joe" from their 1959 recording for Chess Records, Meet The Jazztet. 

Tyner remained with the Jazztet until John Coltrane was ready to leave Miles Davis’ group and launch his solo career. From 1960 to late 1965, he played a key role alongside drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison in the Coltrane Quartet, arguably one of the most influential groups in modern jazz. They released a series of important recordings on the Impulse label, securing for McCoy a place in jazz history. Tyner made his own debut as a leader on Impulse with 1963’s Inception, a trio offering with bassist Art Davis and drummer Elvin Jones. For the liner notes of that maiden voyage, Coltrane offered these words about the pianist:

"First there is his melodic inventiveness and along with that the clarity of his ideas. He also gets a very personal sound from his instrument. In addition, McCoy has an exceptionally well developed sense of form, both as a soloist and accompanist. Invariably, in our group, he will take a tune and build his own structure for it. He is always looking for the most personal way of expressing himself. And finally, McCoy has taste. He can take anything, no matter how weird, and make it sound beautiful."

Subsequent releases on the Impulse label included Nights of Ballads & Blues, Plays Duke Ellington, Reaching Fourths, Today And Tomorrow. His 1967 recording for Blue Note, The Real McCoy, with Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones, stands as one of the great jazz recordings of its time. In 1978, Tyner toured with Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter and Al Foster as the Milestone Jazz Stars and when Blue Note was relaunched in 1985 he found himself back on the label. He was reunited with Impulse in 1995 and released the excellent Infinity, featuring guest soloist (and fellow Philly native) Michael Brecker.

Tyner continues to perform with his longstanding trio of drummer Aaron Scott and bassist Avery Sharpe (who both appeared on Infinity). He also makes appearances at festivals and the rare nightclub gig with his 14-piece big band.

This new release was recorded live on what would have been John Coltrane's 71st birthday, this live McCoy set at the Vanguard was the first night of an Impulse! Records celebration of Coltrane's legacy. 2 sets were played and this recording represents the best from the available recorded tracks.

As one of the most important pianists of the last thirty years, McCoy Tyner’s richly harmonic and percussive style of playing has influenced countless musicians and contributed to many of jazz’s greatest moments. A pioneering member of John Coltrane’s legendary quartet, McCoy Tyner evokes the spirit of Trane on this new release, a live 1997 recording, with a program dedicated to Coltrane's compositions and signature songs.


Alfred McCoy Tyner (born 11 December 1938) is a jazz pianist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, known for his work with the John Coltrane Quartet and a long solo career.

Tyner was born in Philadelphia as the oldest of three children. He was encouraged to study piano by his mother. He finally began studying the piano at age 13 and within two years, music had become the focal point in his life. His early influences included Bud Powell, a Philadelphia neighbor. Among many other things, Tyner’s playing can be distinguished by a low bass left hand, in which he tends to raise his arm relatively high above the keyboard for an emphatic attack, creating at times a veritable tsunami of sound. Tyner’s unique right hand soloing is recognizable for a detached, or staccato quality, and descending arpeggios, both of a triadic shape and in other patterns. His unique approach to chord voicing has influenced a wide array of contemporary jazz pianists.

Tyner’s first main exposure came with Benny Golson being the first pianist in Golson’s and Art Farmer’s legendary Jazztet (1960). After departing the Jazztet, Tyner joined Coltrane’s group in 1960. (Coltrane had known Tyner for a while, and featured one of the pianist’s compositions, “The Believer”, as early as 1958.) He appeared on the saxophonist’s popular recording of “My Favorite Things” for Atlantic Records. The Coltrane Quartet, which consisted of Coltrane on tenor sax, Tyner, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums, toured almost non-stop between 1961 and 1965 and recorded a number of classic albums, including Live at the Village Vanguard, Ballads, Live at Birdland, Crescent, A Love Supreme, and The John Coltrane Quartet Plays …, on the Impulse! label.

Tyner has recorded a number of highly influential albums in his own right. While in Coltrane’s group, he recorded a series of relatively conservative albums (primarily in the piano trio format) for Impulse, starting with the fleet-fingered Inception (1962), which showcases Tyner’s work as a composer. After leaving Coltrane’s group, Tyner began a series of post-bop albums released on the Blue Note label, in the 1967–1970 time frame (The Real McCoy, 1967; Tender Moments, 1967; Expansions, 1968; Extensions, 1970). Soon thereafter he moved to the Milestone label and recorded many influential albums, including Sahara (1972), Enlightenment (1973), and Fly With The Wind (1976), which featured flautist Hubert Laws, drummer Billy Cobham, and a string orchestra. His music for Blue Note and Milestone often took the Coltrane quartet’s music as a point of departure and also incorporated African and East Asian musical elements. On Sahara, for instance, Tyner plays koto, in addition to piano, flute, and percussion. These albums are often cited as examples of vital, innovative jazz from the 1970s that was neither fusion nor free jazz. Trident (1975) is notable for featuring Tyner on harpsichord (rarely heard in jazz) and celeste, in addition to his primary instrument, piano. Often cited as a major influence on younger jazz musicians, Tyner still records and tours regularly and played from the 1980s through ’90s with a trio that included Avery Sharpe on bass and Aaron Scott on drums. He made a trio of mature yet vibrant solo recordings for Blue Note, starting with Revelations (1988) and culminating with Soliloquy (1991). Today Tyner records for the Telarc label and has been playing with different trios, the most recent of which includes Charnett Moffett on bass and Eric Harland on drums.

Tyner was a Sunni Muslim for a period of time beginning at the age of eighteen. His Muslim name was Sulaimon Saud. Today Tyner does not practice a specific religion.

McCoy Tyner was also married at one time and has three sons. His brother, Jarvis Tyner, is a high official in the leadership of the American Communist Party. McCoy, however, is not a pronounced advocate of any political ideology.



Biography courtesy of Saudades Tourneen

McCoy Tyner, renowned contemporary acoustic pianist and composer in the jazz tradition began studying the instrument at thirteen, and has been performing professionally since he was 15.

Beatrice Tyner, spotting early her eldest, son's musical inclinations, offered him a choice between piano or voice lessons. During that time McCoy was singing in the choir at Sulzberger Junior High in West Philadelphia. Once the 13-year-old McCoy decided on piano, his mother arranged for him to take lessons at the Philadelphia Music Center. Altogether, McCoy's formal music training lasted about three years.

By high school, McCoy began to pursue his own course in the field of jazz as his life's work, developing a highly percussive, model approach to the piano as a result of years of constant practice, as well as performances with many well known and local musicians leading up to and including the great John Coltrane Quartet.

McCoy's diligence in his piano studies surfaced early, though met with some restistance because his father was unable to see any value in it. For a whole year before getting his own piano, McCoy would practice everyday after school at one of three neighbors' homes. On the other hand, he received complete support from his mother. By the time McCoy was 14, his mother, who has a beautician and entrepreneur, used her earnings from her business to buy McCoy his first instrument, a Spinet. She had been saving for it for a year. They set it up in her beauty shop, where McCoiy could rehearse while his mother fixed her customers' hair.

By age 15 McCoy began to display leadership qualities. He organized a seven-piece rhythm and blues group made up of neighborhood chums, and schoolmates, often times holding their rehearsals and sessions right in his mother's beauty shop.

McCoy claims pianists Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Art Titum as his early musical influences. McCoy met Bud Powell when he was 16 years old. The high point of that meeting was when Bud Powell came to his house one afternoon and actually played with McCoy's piano.

During his high school summer breaks, McCoy blossomed tremendously as a result of living like a musician would on tour, except he was only sixty miles from home. He would commute to Atlantic City to perform in clubs with people like saxophonist Paul Jeffries and trumpeter Lee Morgan.

Shortly after McCoy graduated form high schoolin 1959, saxophonist Benny Golson approached him, offering him a gig in San Francisco at the Jazz Workshop. Golson along with trumpeter Art Farmer, was instrumental in getting McCoy situated in New York before forming the Jazztet. Golson also helped McCoy break into the recording business. Meet the Jazztet was the debut album for the group even though it was actually McCoy's second professional recording date.

By the end of 1970, McCoy began to surge forward. Later he signed a contract with Milestone Records, and he gained a reputation as a leader and a devot acoustic pianist, distinguishing him from many of his renowned peers. During this period, he received his first two Grammy nominations, and was roundly hailed as a leader in the field of acoustic piano by many leading music critics.

McCoy Tyner Trio performs, records and tours worldwide. In addition, McCoy composes and arranges music for a 14-piece big band which toured Europe in the fall of 1990. The McCoy Tyner Big Band was established in 1984. McCoy Tyner travels throughout the United States, Europe and Japan and is currently co-authoring a biography on his life and musical career. McCoy Tyner currently lives in New York. 


McCoy Tyner 
Communicating sensitivity 
by Anil Prasad

Age truly is a state of mind. One need look no further than legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner for definitive proof. At 62, Tyner possesses a drive to explore and innovate within his art form that few even a third his age embrace. He’s released dozens of expansive albums that stretch the boundaries of his instrument without bowing to the fickle winds of fad and fashion. His new disc McCoy Tyner with Stanley Clarke and Al Foster offers further recorded evidence of his resolve.

The straightforward title relates to Tyner’s mindset about his craft. It highlights the fact that the disc is simply about creating and collaborating in the moment—and in this case, with a spectacularly accomplished rhythm section. Clarke is best known for his pioneering work in redefining the electric bass as an instrument equally at home in the fore as it is in the background. But he’s a world-class upright player too—something showcased all over Tyner’s new CD. And Foster is a renowned veteran drummer that’s performed with everyone from Miles Davis to Sonny Rollins to Horace Silver.

Comprised largely of Tyner’s own compositions, the new record offers a kinetic take on the jazz lexicon infused with blues, funk and Latin influences. There’s no shortage of fiery moments and impressive interplay here. It’s inspirational stuff that’s well-tempered by Tyner’s proclivity for the elegant and tasteful. It’s not unlike a conversation with the man himself.

On this overcast San Francisco winter’s day, Tyner chats with Innerviews in the atrium lounge of the Park Hyatt. He’s nattily-attired in a brown suit and black shirt as he sits sipping coffee between his very thoughtful responses. Tyner often pauses to reflect on his words before offering them for consumption with his signature low rumble. And his eyes and gentle hand gestures move in concert to emphasize the most salient points.

Using a philosophical springboard for discussion, Tyner spoke to Innerviews about his new record, as well as the process of navigating the intersections between life and music. He was also kind enough to relay some thoughts about his tenure in the John Coltrane Quartet from 1960-1965, one of the single most influential groups in the history of 20th century music.

What made you want to work with Clarke and Foster on the new record?

Stanley’s from Philadelphia. I’m like Bill Cosby about Philadelphia sometimes. [laughs] But we have a very close-knit kind of thing. Most musicians from the city have that. It’s not that alone though. If someone is musically compatible with you, it doesn’t matter if they’re from Chicago or a different country. Stanley worked on another project called Looking Out that I did when I was with Columbia for a very short time. I did two records for them. The other was called Legend of the Hour. Looking Out also had Phyllis Hyman and Carlos Santana on it. It was really different. And I’ve known Al for years—since when I was signed to Milestone records with Sonny Rollins. I knew him even going back beyond that. Occasionally, he’s played with me as part of my trio when Aaron [Scott] wasn’t available. And when he does, it’s like we’ve played together on a regular basis because he’s so compatible with me. The dynamic level is amazing. 

Describe the approach you took on the record from a conceptual perspective.

I like to go on an adventure when I play. I like to have the freedom to do that not just for the sake of doing something out there or different. I like to experiment and take people along the way and bring them back. It’s like a voyage. I want them to understand what I’m doing as opposed to trying to baffle them. I want them to see that’s what music is about. It’s about enjoyment and going on a trip. I think the combination of people on this record was perfect at this time. We gave it some thought. We didn’t randomly throw people together. We first wanted to see if it would work and if we have a connection. That’s why the decision was made. And it proved to be a great one. 

Clarke told Innerviews that he doesn’t feel people have a good understanding of what he’s capable of on acoustic bass. I imagine he looked at this record as a unique opportunity to showcase those skills.

Yeah. I knew he could do it because we also did a thing about eight years ago for some TV production. It was a program with Roger Kellaway and had Stanley playing bass, Peter Erskine on drums and Randy Brecker—there were a lot of people. That was nice. It wasn’t that long ago. Stanley’s acoustic playing is very good. He’s a virtuoso on the acoustic bass.

What are the key philosophies you adhere to as a bandleader?

I like people to be comfortable. That’s the first thing I think about. Will people playing with me be comfortable and compatible? That’s very important. It’s a good place to start. I also like to provide enough room so the person is comfortable to do what they do. I don’t like to handcuff people. But at the same time, he’s got to understand that when he’s playing with me that he has to listen. Listening and responding are very important.

From a larger perspective, what are the qualities of a good bandleader?

It’s about the respect you command without being demanding. There has to be something in the person that commands respect. He has to understand you enough that you feel comfortable in his presence, but at the same time gives you the props you deserve—if you justly deserve them. I haven’t had much problem with my big band that has 14 guys onstage. If they don’t want to be there, it’s difficult to get music out of them. [laughs] That’s why these ghost bands are very difficult to maintain. When Duke Ellington died and Mercer took over his band, he tried to do what the leader did and it’s very difficult. Duke had a lot to do with bringing the music out of people in that respect. I've been very, very fortunate in that way. Giving musicians what they need to be comfortable brings out their best.

You’re known as a soft-spoken, good-natured individual—a perfect gentleman in fact. However, I imagine there’s a more fiery side of your personality that emerges when dealing with a musician that’s not up to par.

[laughs] Oh yeah! If necessary, yeah. Fortunately, I haven’t been challenged that way too many times, but occasionally I have. [laughs] The human element is ever-present when dealing with people. But I’ve had lots of people work for me and they never say "Wow, that was an experience I won’t repeat." I have the opposite response. It’s all about listening for me. I once watched a video on Duke Ellington about dealing with a big band. And I’ve talked to Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson and others. I’ve learned so much about the big band situation and the same things apply in general to small groups too. You learn not only to give respect but how to have that respect come back to you. It’s a reciprocal thing. It’s mutual. And I think that’s a very important lesson for a guy who gets up on stage. If it’s all about him, that’s not playing music. If he’s not listening and responding and having respect for the other people on that stage, how can you make music? Just by thinking about yourself? It doesn’t go that way. And if you have your own band, you’ve got to be able to communicate with people on a human level. That enhances the musical side.

You once said music can enhance a listener’s life because it serves to educate. How does it do that?

It’s sort of an automatic thing. See, I think some people forget that there’s a public out there that needs to be exposed to this music that may not be familiar with it. And even if they are, the whole idea is there because they’re there. Even if you are very into what you want to do, why not carry them along with you? They paid their money to come hear you play. You don’t have to diminish the quality of what you do, but it’s good to be aware that the public is there to receive your gift. The person doesn’t have to be a musician to appreciate music. I think just exposing the person to the music is very important. Children that are really exposed to this music at a young age and really hear it can love jazz. It makes a difference. Child or adult, they will not only be educated, but it will stimulate their intellect. It’s very beneficial.

How firmly is jazz being instilled in the American public’s collective mindset as a classical art form these days?

It’s not like it was in the past because of the fact that radio and various other media seem to focus on the very mediocre. It’s not that we don’t have the music or that it isn’t being played on our level. But what’s being played on the radio represents choices that are very, very limited. You have choices, but there is so much going on. It’s an onslaught of stuff and sometimes someone might not know what jazz is. Some people will say it’s this or that. Jazz is a very deep-rooted music. You can’t fluff it off like it just happened yesterday.

Joe Zawinul offered some very harsh words on this topic when speaking to Innerviews. 

[laughs] Joe’s very opinionated and I like him for that. He’s a very strong person. He knows what he wants to do. Of course, in Europe, they consider jazz an art form. A lot of people do here too, but in Europe they go out to concerts a lot. They’re more TV-oriented than they used to be, but their form of entertainment is listening to live music. 

Zawinul believes America is in a state of cultural decline because it no longer gives its artists the freedom required to create music free of business intervention. What’s your take?

The bottom line is sales. And you’re competing with pop artists or you’re not being marketed. Jazz has never been properly marketed because it’s a classical form of music—it really is. So, that limits it to a category and they don’t want to pay attention. When I first started recording, you worked with ex-musicians or people that worked in show business. At Impulse, I met the head of the company and he was very involved in jazz prior to accepting that position. He said "We’re very proud to have you on the label." It was about having something unique on the label compared to an Elvis or someone in the pop world. How can you compare sales for an art form like jazz to something like that? But I do think that jazz could be marketed to be bigger. It’s kind of neglected in that way. And I think that affects the consciousness of people. So, Joe’s right. Things are a little culturally decadent in some ways. But there are people who appreciate this music. But I’d like to see more of the general public—the people who don’t get the opportunity—to hear this music. 

What are some possible solutions?

[pauses and laughs] Well, I’m just a musician. I’m not into marketing, but I know the music needs to be accessible. I’ll give you an example. My mother knew who Billy Holiday, Count Basie and Duke Ellington were. They knew who they were because they were part of the community and we were proud of these people. That kind of accessibility doesn’t seem to exist at that level anymore—the level where the average housewife or plumber or carpenter is aware of this music. I remember getting on a bus in Chicago one time and the bus driver said "Oh, you’re with Coltrane! You’re in town? I’m coming to see you!" That was the bus driver! The music was so accessible. It was on the air. We had our fair share of airtime. But now it’s so flooded with stuff that’s not on the same quality level, but it sells. So, that gives you a general idea of the state of mind of the public. I’m not putting it down. Commercial music had its place. It was gospel, jazz, blues, rock and pop. Jazz wasn’t promoted like the big pop people now, but there was more accessibility to the public and that has a lot to do with a lot of things.

I find it quite disturbing that many musicians of your caliber and stature are still at the mercy of A&R people. 

Not me. [laughs] I know what you mean though. I think if you step in the door and do it based on what the label likes and only what they like, it can be a mess. Maybe they make wild promises—record companies do that sometimes. Then they don’t always comply with what they say. When I go in, I know what I want to do. I like artistic freedom. I don’t mind taking suggestions—I’m amicable to that. It’s not that it has to be my way only, but I think you can lose yourself in the situation if you’re not really careful. It’s not only about money. It’s about the conditions of the contract you need to allow you to do what you want to do—it’s what determines how much freedom you have to create. Otherwise, you can get yourself in a mess and be unhappy. That’s not the goal. The goal is to be happy and play music. When I first started playing music, I just did that—enjoyed it and wanted to keep creating. Sometimes it’s not a matter of sacrifice. You can sacrifice more trying to attain more material gain and it can be a mess. 

Your output is spread across several labels these days. I imagine that’s a deliberate choice.

I’ve been playing the label game. I do things with this label and that label. I’m a little apprehensive about signing long-term contracts. I used to do that years ago and sign for three years with graduation clauses that make things better the next year than the year before. But I would step in there with an attorney. I had legal advice. [laughs] I was advised to do that and unlike some older musicians, I was very lucky. It’s a gradual learning process that happens over the years. You can also start anticipating what will happen judging from what’s happened to a lot of other people.

Going back to the idea of music and education, my assumption is that you are continually learning and evolving yourself.

That’s because I’m not a fatalist. I haven’t given up on what good music can do for people. That’s why I come here—to offer what I have to the general public and to people that love music. But I can’t control what’s outside of my realm. All I can do is keep evolving as an artist. That’s what I want to do. That’s what gives me the most joy and to share that experience is great.

What about as a pianist? Do those skills continue to evolve as well? 

Yeah. I think being inspired by the right people makes a big difference. It’s a reciprocal thing. And being with the right people on stage who are compatible can let you go to unlimited heights and that’s evolving. Technically, I think I have what I need to do that. But I need to go on these journeys and I need someone to go with me. That enhances the whole thing and carries you to a different place. It’s lovely.

A word you often use to describe your approach is "sensitivity." What does the word mean to you?

Sensitivity is being in touch with yourself and being able to internalize and go deep within to hopefully come up with something of value. It’s hard to play music if you’re not sensitive. It’s self-defeating. If you’re not sensitive, well play by yourself! [laughs]

How important is the generational element when choosing players in order to evolve both as an individual and together?

I think it’s important in terms of reference and maturity. But then again, Brian Blade and Joshua Redman played with me and these guys were listening and sensitive. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with coming up with the same generation. But if they do, it’s nice to have the same references. That’s a good thing about it. With Al, we both have references we grew up with, but at the same time, he’s not afraid to expand and try different things and keep it fresh. I like Brian for that too. He’s very fiery like Al. There are some similarities. They’re very open to listening to others and aren’t wrapped up in their own expression. They see it as a total experience as opposed to my experience—it’s our experience. But we need leadership too. That’s very important. With Coltrane, it was the same thing. We looked to him for leadership, but at the same time we were given all of this freedom to do what we want to do. We were very fortunate that we had the right people in the band. It all came together and worked like clockwork. 

Let’s look at the generational idea from another angle. As a jazz icon, do you feel obligated to fulfil a specific role for people?

The only thing I’m concerned with is the preservation of our music at the quality level. That’s my responsibility. So much has happened to qualify what we’re doing—the historical references and the people that have passed on who made the sacrifices to dedicate their lives to this art form. So, I do feel a responsibility. When I formed my big band, many members were in Thad Jones’, Mel Lewis’ and Gil Evans’ bands. When those friends passed on, I felt the responsibility of putting a band together. The jazz legacy is so rich, so I owe it to myself. I’ve spent a lot of my life playing this music. It’s something I love to do. It’s a wonderful art form embraced all over the world. It’s very important—very important.

Do you ever reflect on your own mortality?

I think we all do to an extent. I think we would all like to be immortal and be around as long as we can. But as Martin Luther King Junior said, "It’s not about how long you’re here, but the quality of what you do while you’re here that’s important." And that’s what I try to do. I have a lot of work to do, a lot of writing to do. There’s just so much to do.

Is there a spiritual basis that guides what you do?

I hope so. I think music should have some spiritual elements because it’s not material. It’s another kind of dimension and it should be there in order for you to touch people’s spirits and lives. You need to give them a unique experience and if you don’t, something’s lacking. It’s not about wanting to hoist yourself up on some sort of pedestal. I have no way to define it to tell you the truth. 

You once faced a very low ebb in your career after you left the Coltrane Quartet in the late ‘60s. Describe the situation you encountered.

It was a very trying period. I was considering driving a cab, but I didn’t actually do it. At that time, the jazz that we played was being challenged by fusion and electronics. It was the invasion of the electronics. A lot of jazz radio stations changed their format to accommodate that sort of thing. But there are some people like Joe [Zawinul] and Herbie [Hancock] who are really able to create on synthesizers, so I don’t put it down. Jazz has a broad definition and people have the right to do what they want, but when you move something aside and say that’s not important and substitute it for something else and say "Well, okay, this is jazz," that’s very dangerous.

You completely avoided the fusion movement. Was there any temptation to explore it?

I’m in love with my instrument. I basically stayed away from it. I wasn’t drawn to it at all. My sound and self is definitely embodied in the acoustic piano.

How did you cope during that dark period?

It was difficult. I was raising my family and I went through about four years where I had to really tighten the belt. I wasn’t the only one. Dustin Hoffman was a waiter down in the Village Gate in New York. I think a lot of people in show business and music have to do some other things in order to sustain themselves through a certain period. I learned a lot from that experience.

What are were some of the lessons learned?

I learned we’re not here alone. There is a support system, but you have to be aware and conscious of it. We do have help even when we’re deprived of a lot of things that we need. And sometimes we realize we don’t need all those things. There are things we can focus on that can help us through the trials and tribulations. It’s a good lesson to learn.

You’re planning on putting together a blues project in the near future. Describe your passion for that form.

I grew up playing the blues. I had an R&B band in junior high school. I played the blues first and graduated into the modern concepts. I sure want to do it. Robert Cray agreed to take part. I’ve been on shows with B.B. King. We did one outside of Chicago where we played together. In Europe, I was on a show with Muddy Waters. It was an honor to be on a show with him. 

Have you visited the John Coltrane African Orthodox Church here in San Francisco?

I haven’t, but I know what you’re talking about. The thing is, if people want to do that, it’s fine. Knowing John, I don’t know if he would want to be in that kind of position. If you look at his music, quite naturally there were religious elements. He was definitely a very spiritual person. His grandfather was a minister, so he grew up a part of the church. But I think John would be kind of uncomfortable. I don’t think he’d want to be a deity in that respect—even if he is in our eyesight. He was a very, very subtle, quiet and regal person. He was very nice—a very good man to work for. He was like a big brother. I was a kid when I first met and played for him. I was 17 years old. We were like family and that’s how I looked at it. I didn’t look at it as "I’m just working for him." I loved working with John. I loved him as a person. He’ll always have an influence on me. That was my university. He was very, very generous in terms of allowing us to have an opportunity to develop. That was very important. So, that influence is there. And I love the music we created a lot. But if people feel as if they want to deify him and make a saint of him or whatever, that’s up to them. I don’t necessarily want to be part of that because I knew him differently. 

Is it a particularly American tendency to elevate artists beyond the realm of humanity?

And athletes. Yeah, we have a tendency to do that. Sometimes we’re very destructive too. We take a person and build them up and then we sometimes bring them down. To say "Well, okay, yeah. If you want me to be a God, fine. I accept that" can be a little risky.

Have you ever felt the burden of that proclivity?

People have said things to me about this and that. I take them for what they are. If they think that, that’s fine—as long as they appreciate what I’m doing. But I’m not looking for them to do that to me. I leave that up to the public. I’m just here to do what I’m meant to do.


Biography by Scott Yanow

It is to McCoy Tyner's great credit that his career after John Coltrane has been far from anti-climatic. Along with Bill Evans, Tyner has been the most influential pianist in jazz of the past 50 years, with his chord voicings being adopted and utilized by virtually every younger pianist. A powerful virtuoso and a true original (compare his playing in the early '60s with anyone else from the time), Tyner (like Thelonious Monk) has not altered his style all that much from his early days but he has continued to grow and become even stronger.

Tyner grew up in Philadelphia, where Bud Powell and Richie Powell were neighbors. As a teenager he gigged locally and met John Coltrane. He made his recording debut with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet, but after six months left the group to join Coltrane in what (with bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones) would become the classic quartet. Few other pianists of the period had both the power and the complementary open-minded style to inspire Coltrane, but Tyner was never overshadowed by the innovative saxophonist. During the Coltrane years (1960-1965), the pianist also led his own record dates for Impulse.

After leaving Coltrane, Tyner struggled for a period, working as a sideman (with Ike and Tina Turner, amazingly) and leading his own small groups; his recordings were consistently stimulating even during the lean years. After he signed with Milestone in 1972, Tyner began to finally be recognized as one of the greats, and he has never been short of work since. Although there have been occasional departures (such as a 1978 all-star quartet tour with Sonny Rollins and duo recordings with Stephane Grappelli), Tyner has mostly played with his own groups since the '70s, which have ranged from a quartet with Azar Lawrence and a big band to his trio. In the '80s and '90s, Tyner did the rounds of labels (his old homes Blue Note and Impulse! as well as Verve, Enja, and Milestone) before settling in with Telarc in the late '90s and releasing a fine series of albums including 2000's Jazz Roots: McCoy Tyner Honors Jazz Piano Legends of the 20th Century and 2004's Illuminations. In 2007, Tyner returned with the studio album McCoy Tyner Quartet featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts.


A National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, pianist McCoy Tyner has helped to shape modern jazz with his blues-based style. Tyner, whose sophisticated chords and explosively percussive left hand have created one of the most identifiable sounds in improvised music, was part of the seminal 1960s quartet fronted by saxophonist John Coltrane and backed by drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. Tyner’s first recording with Coltrane, with whom he shared an unusually close friendship, was the classic album My Favorite Things. He also performed on the acclaimed Coltrane albums Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions, plus the signature suite A Love Supreme. Tyner, who has performed variously as a bandleader, soloist, and sideman, has released almost eighty albums and won four Grammy Awards. The Philadelphia native continues to leave his mark on generations of improvisers, and yet he remains a modest and spiritual man. “Whether he’s performing solo or leading a big band or small group,” notes jazz writer Bob Young, “the orchestral atmosphere produced by his improvising is rich in warmth, intensity, and meditative, tender beauty.”



Shaping Modern Jazz...

Tyner's blues-based piano style, replete with sophisticated chords and an explosively percussive left hand has transcended conventional styles to become one of the most identifiable sounds in improvised music. His harmonic contributions and dramatic rhythmic devices form the vocabulary of a majority of jazz pianists. 
Born in 1938 in Philadelphia, he became a part of the fertile jazz and R&B scene of the early ‘50s. His parents imbued him with a love for music from an early age. His mother encouraged him to explore his musical interests through formal training. 
At 17 he began a career-changing relationship with Miles Davis’ sideman saxophonist John Coltrane. Tyner joined Coltrane for the classic album My Favorite Things (1960), and remained at the core of what became one of the most seminal groups in jazz history, The John Coltrane Quartet. The band, which also included drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison, had an extraordinary chemistry, fostered in part by Tyner’s almost familial relationship with Coltrane. 
From 1960 through 1965, Tyner’s name was propelled to international renown, as he developed a new vocabulary that transcended the piano styles of the time, providing a unique harmonic underpinning and rhythmic charge essential to the group's sound. He performed on Coltrane’s classic recordings such as Live at the Village Vanguard, Impressions and Coltrane’s signature suite, A Love Supreme. 
In 1965, after over five years with Coltrane's quartet, Tyner left the group to explore his destiny as a composer and bandleader. Among his major projects is a 1967 album entitled The Real McCoy, on which he was joined by saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Ron Carter and fellow Coltrane alumnus Elvin Jones. His 1972 Grammy-award nomination album Sahara, broke new ground by the sounds and rhythms of Africa. Since 1980, he has also arranged his lavishly textured harmonies for a big band that performs and records when possible. In the late 1980s, he mainly focused on his piano trio featuring Avery Sharpe on bass and Aarron Scott on drums. Today, this trio is still in great demand. He returned to Impulse in 1995, with a superb album featuring Michael Brecker. In 1996 he recorded a special album with the music of Burt Bacharach. In 1998 he changed labels again and recorded an interesting latin album and an album featuring Stanley Clarke for TelArc. 
In the summer of 2005, Tyner joined forces with the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York and became the first client of Blue Note Management. That summer, Tyner began work on some unique projects, including performances with tap-dancer Savion Glover and the development of the Impulse! Septet, featuring his trio with some of today’s top hornmen. 
Tyner’s partnership with the Blue Note has led to the formation of his own record label, aptly titled McCoy Tyner Music. The label is a subsidiary of the Blue Note’s In-House record label, Half Note Records. The label launched on September 11, 2007, upon the release of Tyner’s latest CD, “Quartet” featuring Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, and Jeff “Tain” Watts. Recorded live on New Year’s Eve 2006, the album features a working band at its finest with some of today’s “legends in training”. Additionally, the record shows that Tyner, who now carries the torch as the only surviving member of the John Coltrane Quartet, is still at the top of his game as a composer, performer, and bandleader. 
In review of Tyner’s latest album “Quartet,” Thomas Conrad of JazzTimes wrote “‘Quartet’ succeeds not only because everyone plays so well, but also because they play so well together. The pairing of Tyner and Lovano is synergistic. The McBride/Watts rhythm section, for intelligent propulsion, is state-of-the-art. ‘Quartet’ succeeds once more because of its excellent sonic quality. It was recorded by engineer Phil Edwards at Yoshi’s in Oakland, Calif., over New Year’s Eve weekend 2006. Almost always, even the best-sounding jazz albums require you to make a choice. You can have the visceral in-the-moment reality of a live recording, or the full bandwidth resolution of a studio session. This one has both.” 
McCoy Tyner’s second release for the McCoy Tyner Music label is scheduled for a summer 2008 release. The recording features the stellar rhythm section of Tyner, Ron Carter, and Jack DeJohnette with four modern guitarists (and one banjo) of our time: Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, and Bela Fleck. The package will be a CD/DVD featuring state-of-the-art technology that allows the viewer to manually choose which musician(s) they would like to view in the studio at any time during each track. In 2009, Tyner will release his third recording for McCoy Tyner Music, a solo piano performance recorded live in San Francisco during the summer of 2007. 
Tyner has always expanded his vision of the musical landscape and incorporated new elements, whether from distant continents or diverse musical influences. More recently he has arranged for big bands, employed string arrangements, and even reinterpreted popular music. Today, Tyner has released nearly 80 albums under his name, earned four Grammys and was awarded Jazz Master from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002. He continues to leave his mark on generations of improvisers, and yet remains a disarmingly modest and spiritually directed man.



Awards & Honors

2008 Presidential Merit Award from the Grammy Foundation 
2005 Berklee College of Music President Roger Brown conferred honorary doctor of music degrees upon pianists McCoy Tyner and Hank Jones. 
2004 Steinway and Sons conferred a special gold medallion to McCoy Tyner honoring his fiftieth year as a professional musician and his long association with Steinway as a Steinway Artist since 1977. 
2004 McCoy Tyner's album "Illuminations" receives a GRAMMY award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group. 
2003 The Philadelphia Chapter of the BMI Recording Academy awarded McCoy Tyner with a "2003 Hero Award". The Chapter presents its Heroes Awards annually to honor outstanding individuals and institutions in the Philadelphia region who have improved the environment for the creative community. 
2002 McCoy Tyner receives a Jazz Master award from the National Endowment for the Arts. (2002 NEA Jazz Masters recipient) 
1995 McCoy Tyner's album "Infinity" receives a GRAMMY award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Individual Or Group. 
1994 McCoy Tyner's album "Journey" receives a GRAMMY award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance. 
1992 McCoy Tyner's album "The Turning Point" receives a GRAMMY award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance. 
1988 The album "Blues for Coltrane - A Tribute to John Coltrane" receives a GRAMMY award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group. (The album features David Murray, McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil McBee & Roy Haynes) 
1977 McCoy Tyner was named "Pianist of the Year" in the Down Beat Critics Poll for the fourth year in row. (1974 - 1977) 
1977 McCoy Tyner's band was selected "Acoustic Jazz Group" of the year in the Down Beat Critics Poll for the fourth year in row. (1974 - 1977) 
1973 McCoy Tyner's album "Sahara" receives two GRAMMY award nominations and was named 'Record of the year' in the Down Beat Critics Poll.

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