Willie and Muhal
Beloved Chicago pianists Willie Pickens (d. December 12, 2017) and Muhal Richard Abrams (d. October 29, 2017) died during the last year, as did John “Poppy” Wright (d. December 15, 2017). Earlier today, a group of Chicago-based musicians paid tribute to Wright, who pianist Miguel de la Cerna said helped launch de la Cerna’s career. It was great to hear about the old, long-gone haunts, as well as how musicians got their start. de la Cerna was still a teenager when Redd Holt invited him to play with the Holt’s trio during a trip to Norway. It was supposed to be short tour, but it turned into a five-year association.
Tonight, it was Willie’s and Muhal’s turns to be honored at a solo jazz recital following Dee Alexander’s performance at the 12th annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Before the formal recital began, Willie’s daughter, Bethany, and Muhal’s daughter, Richarda Abrams, represented their respective families in offering remarks and remembrances. It quickly became apparent that the families and their late dads were intertwined and held each other in high esteem.
And then out walked Jason Moran, once a phenom and now an established statesman in the world of jazz. I’ve seen Moran several times over the years. When his name comes to mind, I think New Orleans, funny, flashy, and hip hop, although he has worked in a variety of styles over the last 20 or so years. Tonight, Moran, who is on the New England Conservatory of Music’s faculty and serves as the director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center (replacing the late Billy Taylor), came to Chicago to honor Muhal and Willie, both of whom Moran characterizes as mentors. The performance was Moran’s idea. He had asked whether he could pay tribute during the festival.
I don’t actually recall whether Moran used the word “mentor,” but his opening remarks certainly described two. I particularly liked Moran’s story about an early encounter with Muhal. After listening to Moran play, Muhal asked him why he never played the keys on the far right side of the piano’s keyboard. Moran didn’t have a good answer. Muhal responded, “Go for the top.” Moran followed that advice. As a result he now plays the far right-hand side keys, and has gone to the top of the jazz world.
As for Willie, Moran told of first meeting him in 2013 during the Chicago Jazz Festival. Willie, always a strong proponent of jazz in the schools, told Moran that he should hear the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band. Although Moran was not thrilled at the prospect of rising early, he took Willie’s suggestion seriously, hauling his butt out of bed in the morning to check out the work of the high school students. One thing led to another, with Moran eventually flying the entire band out to the East Coast for a recording session. Bethany Pickens had earlier recounted how Moran paid each student $250 for the session. His feeling was that they should experience the entire creative process from start to finish. Moran also apparently bought a lot of hamburgers for that session.
Of the two, Muhal is probably the better known, particularly because he was one of the founding members of the AACM, although his superior reputation is open to question because Willie was known in jazz circles throughout the world. Willie had the opportunity to go on the road, but chose to remain primarily in Chicago—he did travel to festivals and once toured with Elvin Jones. In fact, Willie died while walking to a soundcheck for an evening performance at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Club in New York City. He was working with trumpeter Marquis Hill.
Despite remaining in Chicago, Willie played with just about every giant in the jazz world. When headliners came to play at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase, Willie was behind the keyboards. According to Howard Reich, the Chicago Tribune’s music critic, Willie played with James Moody, Dexter Gordon, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Griffin, Art Pepper, and Max Roach, among many others. I saw him countless times in that role over the years.
There was much love in the house tonight, particularly after Moran finished his 75-minute solo piano set. His set included pieces by Muhal and Charlie Haden, and a fantastic version of Monk’s love song to his wife, Crepuscule to Nellie. On the latter, Moran went from ballad to blues to stride, and just about everywhere else. He finished the evening with Giant Steps, an obvious and fitting acknowledgment of the big shoes that Muhal and Willie left behind.
Until tonight, I had not thought of Moran as a solo pianist, having only seen him in ensembles. It is clear that his range is wide and his stylings unique. Over the course of the set, he used a karate chop move on the piano’s top keys, spun minimalistic, percussive spirals that would have done Philip Glass proud, and introduced some rags into his set.
Toward to the end of the set, he invited Bethany Pickens up on stage to perform a duet. The performed a lovely piece that Willie had written for his late wife, Irma. Quite amusingly, the two switched places at the keyboard several times during the piece.
If you missed this concert, you missed something very special. Surprisingly, the Logan Center’s main performance space did not sell out. I was told that there was some resistance to the $15 ticket price. I find that very disturbing. People had just sat through a weekend of top-notch jazz that is presented largely for free—there is a suggested $5 donation. Those who balk at a minimal fee do the artists and producers a real disservice and show a lack of respect for the music. Festivals are not cheap to stage. Musicians must be paid. Sound systems and stages must be rented. Brochures and flyers must be printed. Insurance must be procured. Staff and stagehands must be paid. And a variety of other expenses must be covered.
On a personal note, I had the opportunity to speak with Willie on several occasions. He was quiet, understated, and always a gentleman. I has happy to give him a photograph that I took of him several years back. I was truly sorry when I read about his passing.
[Click on an image to enlarge it]
The Karate Chop
Getting Down to Business
Moving Toward the Top
Remembering Two Mentors
Jason Moran and Bethany Pickens
From the Sound Board