McCoy Tyner, the pianist whose percussive chords and serene harmony served as the hedge-pin to John Coltrane’s landmark quartet and his own career that became an inspired vehicle for generations of jazz musicians, died on March 6, at his home in northern New Jersey. He was 81.
Tyner’s family released an official statement on Tyner’s passing via his Twitter account. A cause of death was not immediately given.
Tyner was the last surviving member of Coltrane’s classic 1960s quartet alongside drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. It was one of the most innovative groups in the annals of jazz. Tyner’s role in the group was most significant, he was the intuitive force whose percussive articulations and harmonic flow allowed Coltrane to freely soar beyond the definitive concept of jazz.
The pianist has released at least 80 albums during his prolific career; earned five Grammy awards; formed his own record label McCoy Tyner Music under the banner of Blue Notes Records; and was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in 2005.
“McCoy Tyner taught us about listening, about tension and release, about rhythm, about energy, about form, about feeling. He was noble, fierce, kind, and a vessel for deep truths,” said pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. “I can say that his playing remains one of my touchstones for living. When we opened for his band in the late 2000s, I was nervous as hell. But he just came over and shook my hand and said, “Just be sure to leave a few keys on the piano for me!”
Alfred McCoy Tyner was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 11, 1938, as the oldest of three children of Jarvis and Beatrice (Stephenson), both natives of North Carolina. He began studying piano at 13. At the age of 18 while still learning classical music and music theory at Philadelphia’s Granoff School of Music, he was studying conga with percussionist Garvin Masseaux and playing professionally with a rhythm and blues band. His deep-rooted blues and swinging rhythms were seeded in his parent’s southern upbringing in the Baptist church and inspired by his father singing in the church choir.
In 1957, Tyner was playing in a band led by trumpeter Cal Massey when he met Coltrane in the Red Rooster, a small jazz club in Philadelphia. At the time Coltrane was a member of Miles Davis’s quintet and came to Philly when not touring (where he grew up). The young local musicians, who would eventually rise to prominence included trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxophonist Sonny Fortune, organist Jimmy Smith, and pianists Kenny Barron, Ray Bryant, Red Garland, and Richie Powell (brother of Bud Powell), who lived around the corner from the Tyner family. The two musicians became friends. Tyner and Coltrane often visited each other’s house. Coltrane came to Tyner’s house to practice and compare notes, his mother had purchased a piano. During an interview he later referred to Coltrane as an older brother.
After playing briefly in Benny Golson and Art Farmer’s Jazztet, Tyner joined Coltrane’s band in 1961, replacing Steve Kuhn. It was the same year drummer Elvin Jones became a member. The following year bassist Jimmy Garrison joined. This was the group that became Coltrane’s classic quartet that redefined the sound of jazz ignited by a persistent energy with Tyner’s noted percussive chords and weaving rhythms.
During Tyner’s memorable time with Coltrane (1961-65) his percussive sound became a distinctive element on many of Coltrane’s most iconic works such as “A Love Supreme” (Impulse 1964), “Olé” (Atlantic Records 1961) and “Coltrane” (Impulse 1962) “Out of This World” was the most familiar tune on the album, which also contained Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes,” a most sublime ballad.
“It was McCoy who worked with me when on tour with the John Coltrane Quartet, to assure that I was aware of subtle intricacies of John’s musical expectations,” said bassist, composer and educator Reggie Workman. “It would take many pages to write about the love and appreciation I have always had for McCoy, one of the great masters of our times.”
Once Coltrane’s music moved to the outer limits of jazzdom, the pianist felt he had nothing to contribute to that music although he appeared on “Ascension” and “Meditations.”
After leaving Coltrane’s band in 1965, Tyner signed with Blue Note Records and released a number of albums from 1967-70 some of which included; “The Real McCoy” (featuring former bandmate drummer Elvin Jones), “Expansions” (1968) and “Extensions” (1970). He later signed with “Milestone” and recorded such albums as “Sahara” and “Echoes of a Friend” (1972), “Enlightenment” (1973), and “Fly with the Wind” (1976), which included flautist “Hubert Laws,” drummer “Billy Cobham,” and a string orchestra. Tyner incorporated African and East Asian elements in his music for both Blue Note and Milestone records.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Tyner led a trio featuring bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Louis Hayes. His solo albums with Blue Note Records from “Revelations” (1988) to “Soliloquy” (1991) further solidified his reputation as one of jazz’s most prolific pianists.
In 2006 Tyner joined forces with tap dancer, choreographer and actor Savion Glover to work on another project that stretched the music in another direction. “Savion is fantastic, you know? Jazz and tap go hand and hand,” said Tyner “And having him join me, was great.” Glover’s tapping improvisations have the same stature ascribed to great drumming. The experience may have been, for Tyner, a bit like working with Coltrane.
“I’ve always felt that I could never be anybody else, that I had to explore my own avenues and see what I could come up with. That’s the path I took, you know, and I think it was worth it,” said Tyner during an NPR interview with Ed Gordon.
Tyner is survived by his ex-wife, Aisha Tyner, their son Nurudeen, known as Deen, his brother and sister, Jarvis Tyner and Gwendolyn-Yvette Tyner, and three grandchildren.