It has been a bad couple of weeks for Jazz pianists.
McCoy and John Coltrane
Tyner first attracted wide notice as a member of John Coltrane’s famed quartet of Coltrane, Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones. This was my favorite quartet ever.
He influenced virtually every pianist in Jazz in one way or another. Along with Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, 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 stayed with them or not.
Tyner’s style was modest, even reserved, but his sound was so rich, so percussive and so serious. His emotional improvisations were anchored by powerful left-hand chords marking the first beat of the bar and the tonal center of the music. That sound helped create the foundation of Coltrane’s music and, to some extent, all Jazz in the 1960s.
He served as a grounding force for Coltrane. In a 1961 interview in Downbeat, 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.”
When he left Coltrane in 1965, Tyner did not find immediate success. 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 its most honored pianists for the rest of his life.
Alfred McCoy Tyner was born in Philadelphia on December 11, 1938, to Jarvis and Beatrice 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 the age of 13 and, a year later, his mother bought him his first piano and set it up in her beauty shop.
While still in high school, Tyner began taking music theory lessons and, by 16, he was playing professionally with a rhythm-and-blues band at house parties around Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Tyner was in a band led by the trumpeter Cal Massey in 1957 when he met Coltrane at a Philadelphia club called the Red Rooster. At the time, Coltrane, who grew up in Philadelphia but had left in 1955 to join Miles Davis’s quintet, was back in town, between tenures with Miles’ band. The two musicians struck up an immediate friendship. Coltrane was living at his mother’s house, and Tyner would visit him there where they would sit on the porch and talk. Tyner would later say that Coltrane was something of an older brother to him.
Joining the Trane
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. 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. It was the best decision Coltrane could have made.
That October, Tyner made its first recordings with Coltrane 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.
He was 21 when he joined the Coltrane quartet. He would remain — along with the drummer Elvin Jones and 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. Coltrane is my all-time favorite Jazz artist and Elvin Jones remains my favorite drummer. Tyner was blessed indeed to be in the midst of those two along with Jimmy Garrison.
He knew when to hammer on and when to lay off. “What you don’t play is sometimes as important as what you do play,” he told his fellow pianist Marian McPartland on her wonderful NPR show called Piano Jazz. “I would leave space, which wouldn’t identify the chord so definitely to the point that it inhibited your other voicings.”
The Coltrane quartet worked constantly through 1965, reaching one high-water mark for Jazz after another on albums like A Love Supreme, Crescent, Coltrane Live at Birdland, Ballads, and Impressions, all recorded for the Impulse label.
Leaving the Trane
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. For the next two years he hooked up with Art Blakey’s band.
Just before Coltrane’s death in 1967, Tyner signed to the Blue Note label. He stayed with Blue Note for five years, starting with a fairly familiar quartet sound and progressing to larger ensembles, but these were temporary bands assembled for recording sessions, not working groups. It was a lean time for Jazz and for Tyner. It was a big deal to have quit Coltrane’s band. He was not performing much and, he later said, had considered applying for a license to drive a cab. By 1972, however, he had gained a higher profile and much more success. In those years he worked steadily with his own band, including at various times with other notable musicians.
McCoy's Own Path
Tyner did not use electric piano or synthesizers, or play with rock and disco backbeats, as many of the best Jazz musicians did at the time, including guys like Chick and Herbie. He maintained one of the strongest and most recognizable keyboard sounds in Jazz. He was committed to acoustic instrumentation. His experiments outside the piano ran toward the koto, as heard on the 1972 album “Sahara,” and harpsichord and celeste, on “Trident” (1975).
He formed several more bands, including big bands, and continued reaching and teaching Jazz musicians, especially pianists, everywhere.
In 2002, Tyner was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, one of the highest honors for a Jazz musician in the United States. He resisted analyzing or theorizing about his own work. He tended to talk more in terms of learning and life experience.
The Impact of McCoy Tyner
“To me,” he told Nat Hentoff in a remarkable interview, “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.”
The resounding echoes of grief were heard all over Twitter, Facebook, websites, and more over the weekend as the Jazz world tried to come to grips with the death of the teacher.
The great bassist Stanley Clark Tweeted: “A truly great one has passed. I cannot begin to tell you the depth of this great ones influence in music. Every jazz pianist has a bit of McCoy within their heart. He was the last member of the transformational, supernatural group The John Coltrane Quartet of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones. Every time I’ve ever played or recorded with McCoy it was like receiving the greatest healing medicine you could ever want.”
Clark Gayton posted on Facebook: “One of the highlights of my life was going on the road with the McCoy Tyner Big Band in 1990. The lineup was ridiculous. I learned so much about music and the generations before me. Too much to get into on a post. But there was this time I lost my bags in Italy. Everything. We had a show that night, and I didn't have anything to wear. I got a call from John Stubblefield right after sound check... "You can wear a pair of my shoes tonight, man". 10 minutes later, McCoy calls my room." I heard about your situation. Come by my room. I may have something for you." I stopped by his room, and he presented me with one of his very expensive suits. "You can use this until you locate your bags, don't worry about it." I ended up wearing his suit for a week, until my bags were found somewhere. Two things, neither the shoes nor the suit fit me at all. I looked ridiculous, to put it simply. But I couldn't have been prouder! I really felt like I was one of the cats wearing that outfit. Somehow, I can't imagine that happening today. They literally gave me the clothes off their back to help me. The stories were hilarious and plenty for those 8 weeks in Europe. The band became a living being on the road. A beast. We plowed through Europe like a wild bull, and it changed my life. Thank you, McCoy. Love you much, and safe passage.”
I got to see McCoy Tyner with saxman Joe Lovano in Portland in February of 2009. I had came down with a 101º temperature but I went to the show anyway. I had gotten my tickets long before and was not going to miss seeing him—my first and only time. For the 2-hour show, I forgot about what ailed me. I still have the concert poster in the office upstairs.