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Legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner dies at 81

by Ben Ratliff The New York Times | March 7, 2020 at 4:09 a.m.
McCoy Tyner performs at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York in 2011. The pianist’s manner was modest, but his sound “gives me wings,” saxophonist John Coltrane said in 1961. (The New York Times)

McCoy Tyner, a cornerstone of John Coltrane's groundbreaking 1960s quartet and one of the most influential pianists in jazz history, died Friday at his home in northern New Jersey. He was 81.

His nephew Kolby Tyner confirmed the death. No other details were provided.

Along with Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and only a few others, Tyner was one of the main expressways of modern jazz piano. Nearly every jazz pianist since Tyner's years with Coltrane has had to learn his lessons, whether they ultimately discarded them or not.

Tyner's manner was modest, but his sound was rich, percussive and serious, his lyrical improvisations centered by powerful left-hand chords marking the first beat of the bar and the tonal center of the music.

That sound helped create the atmosphere of Coltrane's music and, to some extent, all jazz in the 1960s.

To a great extent he was a grounding force for Coltrane. In a 1961 interview, about a year and a half after hiring Tyner, Coltrane said: "My current pianist, McCoy Tyner, holds down the harmonies, and that allows me to forget them. He's sort of the one who gives me wings and lets me take off from the ground from time to time."

Tyner did not find immediate success after leaving Coltrane in 1965. But within a decade his fame had caught up with his influence, and he remained one of the leading bandleaders in jazz as well as one of the most revered pianists for the rest of his life.

Alfred McCoy Tyner was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 11, 1938, to Jarvis and Beatrice Stephenson Tyner, both natives of North Carolina. His father sang in a church quartet and worked for a company that made medicated cream; his mother was a beautician. Tyner started taking piano lessons at 13, and a year later his mother bought him his first piano, setting it up in her beauty shop.

Like Coltrane, Tyner was a religious seeker: Raised Christian, he became a Muslim at 18. "My faith," he said to journalist Nat Hentoff, "teaches peacefulness, love of God and the unity of mankind." He added, "This message of unity has been the most important thing in my life, and naturally, it's affected my music."

In 1958, Coltrane recorded one of Tyner's compositions, "The Believer." There was an understanding between them that when Coltrane was ready to lead his own group, he would hire Tyner as his pianist.

For a while Tyner worked with the Jazztet, a hard-bop sextet led by saxophonist Benny Golson and trumpeter Art Farmer. He made his recording debut with the group on the album Meet the Jazztet in 1960.

Coltrane did eventually form his own quartet, which opened a long engagement at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan in May 1960, but with Steve Kuhn as the pianist. A month later, halfway through the engagement, Coltrane made good on his promise, replacing Kuhn with Tyner.

That October, Tyner made his first recordings with Coltrane, participating in sessions for Atlantic Records that produced much of the material for the albums My Favorite Things, Coltrane Jazz, Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Plays the Blues.

Tyner was 21 when he joined the Coltrane quartet. He would remain -- along with drummer Elvin Jones and, beginning in 1962, bassist Jimmy Garrison -- for the next five years. Through his work with the group, which came to be known as the "classic" Coltrane quartet, he became one of the most widely imitated pianists in jazz.

The percussiveness of his playing may have had to do with the fact that Tyner took conga lessons as a teenager from percussionist Garvin Masseaux and learned informally from Ghanaian visual artist, singer and instrumentalist Saka Acquaye, who was studying at the time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Harmonically, his sound was strongly defined by his use of modes -- the old scales that governed a fair amount of the music Tyner played during his time with Coltrane -- and by his chord voicings. He often used intervals of fourths, creating open-sounding chords that created more space for improvisers.

"What you don't play is sometimes as important as what you do play," he told fellow pianist Marian McPartland in an NPR interview. "I would leave space, which wouldn't identify the chord so definitely to the point that it inhibited your other voicings."

When Coltrane began to expand his musical vision to include extra horns and percussionists, Tyner quit the group, at the end of 1965, complaining that the music had grown so loud and unwieldy that he could not hear the piano anymore. He was a member of drummer Art Blakey's touring band in 1966 and 1967; otherwise he was a freelancer, living with his wife and three children in Queens.

Tyner's survivors include his wife, Aisha Tyner; his son, Nurudeen, who is known as Deen; his brother, Jarvis; his sister, Gwendolyn-Yvette Tyner; and three grandchildren.

Just before Coltrane's death in 1967, Tyner signed to Blue Note. He quickly delivered The Real McCoy, one of his strongest albums, which included his compositions "Passion Dance," "Search for Peace" and "Blues on the Corner," all of which he later revisited on record and kept in his live repertoire.

He moved to the Milestone label in 1972, an association that continued until 1981 and that brought him a higher profile and much more success. In those years he worked steadily with his own band, including at various times saxophonists Azar Lawrence and Sonny Fortune and drummers Alphonse Mouzon and Eric Gravatt.

In 2002, Tyner was named an National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, one of the highest honors for a jazz musician in the United States.

A Section on 03/07/2020

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