McCoy Tyner - Biography

McCoy Tyner, one of the major jazz pianists of the late twentieth century, first established his reputation with the famous John Coltrane quartet. In his book 88: The Giants Of Jazz Piano, Robert Doerschuk writes that “very few pianists have contributed as much to the language of modern jazz, and none has developed a style so distinctive...” 

Alfred McCoy Tyner was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 11, 1938, the first of three children. His mother recognized his talent and encouraged him to study music. At the age of thirteen Tyner began piano lessons. Without an instrument at home, he went to the homes of three different neighbors to practice. Soon his mother managed to save enough money from her work as a beautician to buy a spinet. But wary of her husband’s doubts about music as a career, she initially installed the new instrument at the beauty shop where she worked.

As if preordained, the neighborhood teemed with nascent talent. Soon friends like trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons and saxophonist Archie Shepp were coming around to the beauty parlor to jam and talk about music. Bop piano master Bud Powell moved to the area, and the young Tyner befriended him. In fact, as he told Ben Sidran on Talking Jazz in 1985, he invited Powell to his parents’ house to play his piano since Bud didn’t have an instrument yet in his new place. “I’m really thrilled to have been in his presence,” Tyner said. “And he really helped me a lot, just the way he approached the instrument.” 

Tyner worked his first professional gigs during summer vacations in nearby Atlantic City with Morgan and saxophonist Paul Jeffries. He first crossed paths with saxophonist John Coltrane in 1955 through a mutual acquaintance, trumpeter and composer Cal Massey. Tyner later told David Wild in Down Beat, "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." But Tyner was still in high school and Coltrane was in no position to be starting a band at that stage of his career, so the time was not yet right for their collaboration.

By 1959, Tyner was ready to commit fully to a career in music. He traveled to San Francisco for his first out-of-town job, a club date with saxophonist Benny Golson. The gig went well, and Golson invited Tyner to become a charter member of the new band that the saxophonist was forming back in New York with trumpeter Art Farmer. The Jazztet’s first album, Meet the Jazztet (1960 Argo), featured that rare item: a genuine jazz hit single in “Killer Joe.” That spring, he also recorded as a sideman with trombonists Curtis Fuller and Julian Priester, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Tyner stayed with the Jazztet just six months before getting the call from Coltrane that he’d been wanting. 

Coltrane had left the Miles Davis group and was in the process of forming his own quartet. The group was rounded out by drummer Elvin Jones and on bass, Steve Davis, who was eventually replaced by Jimmy Garrison in what became known to many as the “classic quartet.” Recording at first for Atlantic on a series of important albums like My Favorite Things, Coltrane’s Sound, and Coltrane Plays the Blues (all 1960), and then for the Impulse label,beginning with the orchestral Africa Brass (1961) album, the Coltrane quartet was one of the most important and influential jazz combos of the era. 

For those attuned to the new wave in jazz in the Sixties, each new Coltrane release was a revelation, and Impulse albums like Coltrane (1962), Crescent (1964) and A Love Supreme (1965), were eagerly awaited by fans. Tyner recalled the period to Wild, saying "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." Elaborating to Sidran, the pianist said that Coltrane “allowed you to develop your own inner feelings...allowed you the freedom to do what you wanted to do.” 

Tyner stayed with Coltrane until late 1965. As the saxophonist’s music grew more turbulent and free, the pianist reached a point of not having “any feeling for the music,” and he ceded the piano bench to Alice Coltrane. Tyner had begun to record as a leader with a trio date in 1962, Inception (Impulse). He made several other albums for Impulse, then moved to Blue Note for The Real McCoy in1967 with Elvin Jones and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. The Blue Note association lasted until 1970, yielding such well-regarded albums as Time For Tyner (1968) and Expansions (1968). 

Tyner really hit his stride as a band leader with a series of albums for the Milestone label, beginning with 1972's Grammy-nominated Sahara featuring a quartet with saxman Sonny Fortune, bassist Calvin Hill, and drummer Alphonse Mouzon. The pianist stayed with the label for nearly a decade, recording seventeen albums during that span in a wide variety of formats and situations. There were studio dates and live performances in San Francisco and Montreux by his working groups, big bands, all star trios, and sessions with string sections or voices. Tyner toured in 1978 with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster as the Milestone Jazz Stars.

During the Eighties, Tyner freelanced for a variety of labels, including Columbia (Looking Out, 1982, with Carlos Santana), Elektra (Dimensions, 1983, with a band featuring violinist John Blake and saxman Gary Bartz), Contemporary (Major Changes, 1987, co-led with alto saxist Frank Morgan), and Blue Note, where he recorded a number of acclaimed solo albums. Towards the end of the decade, Tyner’s main focus was a trio with Avery Sharpe on bass and Aaron Scott on drums. The trio also formed the core for big bands on 1991's The Turning Point and 1993's Journey (both Verve) and welcomed tenor saxist Michael Brecker on board for Infinity (1995  Impulse). Tyner began recording for Telarc Jazz in 1998, beginning with McCoy Tyner and the Latin All Stars. The five albums that appeared on the label included McCoy Tyner With Stanley Clarke and Al Foster (1999), the solo piano album Jazz Roots (2000), and Land Of Giants (2002) with Bobby Hutcherson, a frequent collaborator since the Sixties, on vibes. 

Tyner’s most recent releases have been on his own label, McCoy Tyner Music in affiliation with Half Note Records. A live album recorded in California with saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts came out in 2007, followed by Guitars (2008), a CD and DVD package featuring string benders John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Derek Trucks, Marc Ribot, and Bela Fleck each playing with Tyner, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Solo: Live From San Francisco was issued in 2009. 

Tyner's sophisticated piano style, heavily percussive and based in the blues, has become one of the most immediately identifiable sounds in jazz, earning him four Grammy Awards and recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts as a Jazz Master in 2002. Perhaps nobody ever said it better than Nat Hentoff, who wrote back in 1967 that the “key words” about McCoy Tyner’s music are “beauty and clarity and strength of individuality.”



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