“Not Bill Evans, not Herbie Hancock, not Ahmad Jamal nor Cecil Taylor—with all due respect to each of those greats, no pianist since Bud Powell has had as widespread an influence as McCoy Tyner,” wrote Kevin Whitehead in Down Beat, summing up the legacy of the pianist who revolutionized jazz improvisation with African rhythms, modes and pentatonic scales, and quartal and quintal harmonies. McCoy Alfred Tyner, once a member of the legendary John Coltrane Quartet, learned his lessons well under the tutelage of Coltrane. “What made [Coltrane’s approach] such a vital force and also truly part of the lineage of the music … was this firm foundation … very simple, but yet complex at the same time,” Tyner, an acclaimed soloist and group leader for several decades, told David Wild in Down Beat. “Which kind of reminds me of life in itself. Being made up of simple elements but yet very complex in many ways.”
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 11, 1938, Tyner was raised in a jazz-oriented environment. Tyner’s mother as well as the neighbors around the corner—budding jazz stars Bud and Richie Powell—played piano. Tyner grew up interested in the sound produced by different pianists, and after beginning formal piano studies at age 13, he held jam sessions with his friends at his mother’s beauty salon. As an adolescent, Tyner received musical training and introductions to various jazzmen while playing in local blues bands and rhythm and blues groups. It was during the summer of 1955 that he met the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. “I used to go to John’s house and sit on the porch and talk about music—about a lot of things that he eventually began to get into,” Tyner related to Wild. “So I think theoretically I was sort of involved in his way of thinking quite early … we coincided.”
At the age of 18, Tyner had an opportunity to tour with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and Richie Powell, both well-known jazz performers, but he refused. Since he had just graduated from high school and met his future wife, he was not ready to leave Philadelphia.
A few years later, though, in 1959, Tyner joined Benny Golson on a tour of San Francisco and then moved to New York City to become part of the Benny Golson-Art Farmer Jazztet. Bebop was on the decline during Tyner’s six-month stint with the group, and he waited for a call from John Coltrane. (Coltrane and Tyner had made a verbal commitment to work with each other after Coltrane left the Miles Davis band.) Tyner was 21 years old in June of 1960, when Coltrane asked him to become part of the John Coltrane Quartet, which tabloids later dubbed the “Classic Quartet.” Composed of tenor and soprano saxophonist Coltrane, bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones, and pianist Tyner, the John Coltrane
Born McCoy Alfred Tyner, December 11, 1938, in Philadelphia, PA; Islamic name, Sulaimon Saud; married; children: a son. Education: Attended Granoff School of Music.
Jazz pianist and composer. Joined Benny Golson-Art Farmer Jazztet, 1959; member of the John Coltrane Quartet, 1960-65; solo recording artist, 1960—; performed at the White House, 1978; toured and recorded with Milestone Jazzstars, 1978; published Inception to Now, 1983; led quintet, including saxophonist Gary Bartz and violinist John Blake, mid-1980s; led the McCoy Tyner Trio, including bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Louis Hayes, beginning in the late 1980s.
Quartet stayed together until December of 1965. Tyner recounted to Wild, “It was a tremendous learning experience for me and it reached the point where it was actually a jubilant experience, being on stage with them.”
With the civil rights movement and the rise of black consciousness in the United States during the 1960s, African roots and culture became a source of creative inspiration for black writers, artists, and musicians, including Tyner. Experimenting with structural alternatives, Tyner won international acclaim for his adaptations of scales, tonalities, and African rhythms, which changed jazz piano improvisation. “The ‘classic’ Coltrane Quartet of Trane, Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones nearly exhausted the horizons of modal playing and exploded the jazz world into the avant garde,” noted John Diliberto in Down Beat. “Its instrumentation was the common saxophone-plus-rhythm, but the exceptional interplay of its members … created something special within the familiar framework,” observed Wild. “[The group’s] evolving stylistic approach exerted a dominant influence on the development of music. And Tyner’s experiments with modes and chord voicing taught a generation of pianists how to create in the increasingly free idiom of Coltrane.”
Tyner eventually found that the subtleties of piano could not compete in Coltrane’s experiments with volume—in which the sounds of horns and drums were intensified—and left the group in the mid- 1960s to begin his solo career. Although he had recorded on his own during his tenure with Coltrane, Tyner’s late sixties LPs were largely unsuccessful, until the release of the album Sahara on the Milestone label.
Tyner subsequently embarked on a productive recording career with Milestone that lasted throughout the late 1970s. Doug Clark remarked in Down Beat in 1978 that “McCoy Tyner no longer stands in the shadow of John Coltrane. On the edge of 40, McCoy has come into his own as a jazz giant.” Tyner was even invited by former President Jimmy Carter to join saxophonist Sonny Rollins and bassist Ron Carter for a performance at the White House in June of 1978. That same year, Milestone Records launched Tyner, Rollins, Carter, and drummer Al Foster on an American tour.
Billed as the Milestone Jazzstars, the group performed in symphony concert halls and civic auditoriums to standing ovations. “In short,” maintained Clark, “McCoy is free to do nearly anything he wants to, and he does. He plays with virtuosity: his hands are equal partners, and he utilizes the entire keyboard with stunning effectiveness. In terms of 20th century piano music, McCoy has taken up where [Hungarian composer Bela] Bartok left off.” At the close of the 1970s, a Down Beat critic named Tyner “one of the most brilliant pianists and commanding leaders in modern music” for his “extraordinary forcefulness and prowess” demonstrated on the album The Greeting.
By the mid- 1980s Tyner had published a volume of transcriptions, Inception to Now, and recorded more than two dozen Milestone albums. Jazz was at a low ebb when the pianist, hoping to reach a wider audience, released the recording Looking Out, featuring guitarist Carlos Santana. Diliberto dubbed the blend of pop, rock and roll, and jazz on the album “uncomfortable,” but acknowledged Tyner as “more than just a pianist or composer. He is an entire concept of music whose force remains undiminished.”
Forming a quintet with saxophonist Gary Bartz and violinist John Blake, Tyner bounded back, and at the close of the eighties, he put together another successful collaboration called the McCoy Tyner Trio, which included bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Louis Hayes. In 1989, the pianist recorded Revelations, his second solo album since the 1972 Coltrane tribute Echoes of a Friend. A compilation of standards, the album also demonstrated that Tyner had entered his “classic phase,” noted Whitehead. “He’s turning more and more to the standard repertory … letting more vintage mannerisms into his playing.”
In 1990, Stereo Review proclaimed Tyner’s LP Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, featuring tenor saxophonist George Adams and guitarist John Scofield, his “finest album in years, perhaps his best ever.… Indeed, things ain’t what they used to be—they’re better.” Finding the pianist “a more peaceable player the last decade or so,” Frank-John Hadley wrote in Down Beat that the “interpretations of several more jazz warhorses and the occasional original” in the album “loom collectively as testimony of [Tyner’s] great facility and emotional largess. Tyner and Steinway go it alone … within a personalized language informed by the blues, gospel, and Harlem stride.”
A prolific recording artist and coveted performer, Tyner has earned his place at the pinnacle of jazz. According to Hadley, the pianist once made the statement, “After awhile [the acoustic piano] becomes an extension of yourself, and you and your instrument become one.” Tyner continues to play and compose in the tradition of John Coltrane, who felt jazz was one means of coming closer to God. People contributor David Grogan numbered McCoy Tyner among the jazz musicians “brave enough to continue [Coltrane’s] quest.”
Inception, Impulse, 1962, reissue, Fantasy, 1988.
The Real McCoy, Blue Note, 1967.
Sahara, Milestone, 1972.
Song for My Lady, Milestone, 1972, reissue, Fantasy, 1988.
Echoes of a Friend, Milestone, 1972, reissue, Fantasy, 1991.
Song of the New World, Milestone, 1973, reissue, Fantasy, 1991.
Supertrio, Milestone, 1977, reissue, 1989.
Four Times Four, Milestone, 1980.
Reunited, Blackhawk, 1982.
Tender Moments (recorded 1968), Blue Note, 1985.
Just Feelin’, Palo Alto, 1985.
Time for Tyner: McCoy Tyner Trio (recorded 1968), Blue Note, 1987.
Double Trios, Denon, 1987.
Nights of Ballads and Blues, MCA/Impulse, 1988.
Revelations, Blue Note, 1989.
McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington (recorded 1964), MCA, 1990.
Bon Voyage (recorded 1987), Timeless, 1990.
Enlightenment (recorded 1973), Milestone, 1990.
Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, Blue Note, 1990.
Remembering John, Enja, 1991.
Today and Tomorrow, GRP/lmpulse, 1991.
44th Street Suite, Red Baron, 1991.
New York Reunion, Chesky, 1991.
Soliloquy, Blue Note, 1992.
Fly With the Wind (recorded 1976), Milestone.
The Greeting, Milestone.
Expansions, Blue Note.
Looking Out, Columbia.
Blues for Coltrane, Impulse.
With John Coltrane
A Love Supreme (recorded 1964), MCA/Impulse, reissue, 1986.
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman (recorded 1963), MCA/Impulse, reissue, 1986.
Impressions (recorded 1961-63), MCA/Impulse, reissue, 1987.
Crescent (recorded 1964), MCA/Impulse, reissue, 1987.
Live at the Village Vanguard (recorded 1961), MCA/Impulse, reissue, 1990.
Meditations (recorded 1965), MCA, 1990.
The Gentle Side of John Coltrane (recorded 1961-65), GRP/Impulse, reissue, 1991.
Coltrane Live at Birdland (recorded 1963), MCA/Impulse.
Selflessness (recorded 1963-65), MCA/Impulse.
Coltrane’s Sound (recorded 1960), Atlantic.
John Coltrane Quartet Plays (recorded 1965), MCA/Impulse.
New York Reunion, Chesky, 1991.
Blue Bossa, LRC, 1991.
In Concert, Milestone.
Audio, February 1989.
Billboard, April 7, 1990.
Down Beat, November 16, 1978; July 12, 1979; February 1984; March 1988; April 1989; July 1989; November 1989; August 1991; November 1991.
Guitar Player, August 1990.
High Fidelity, August 1988; April 1989.
People, January 9, 1989; December 23, 1991.
Stereo Review, November 1990.
Variety, July 4, 1990.
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