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Pianist Chris Anderson Dies at 81

Pianist Chris Anderson, who played with Dinah Washington, Charlie Parker, Roland Kirk, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and others, died on Feb. 4th from the effects of a stroke. He was 81.

Anderson was born in Chicago on February 26, 1926. His lifelong fascination with harmony, sparked by movie scores, began well before the age of 10. He was already teaching himself to play on the family piano, so well indeed that he never took lessons, a clue to the startling originality of his harmonic ideas. Before Anderson finished high school, he was playing blues gigs in Southside bars. An after-high school job in a record store exposed him to Nat “King” Cole, Art Tatum and Duke Ellington; from then on, jazz was his music.

After those first three great mentors, Anderson rarely listened to pianists. As he put it, “I’d be more interested in listening to an arranger than to a pianist. Gil Evans for example, or Nelson Riddle-they fascinated me. The things Riddle did for Sinatra knocked me out.” Consistent with his interest for harmony and arrangement, his classical listening favored the great impressionist orchestrators, Debussy and Ravel.

By the time he was 18, he was playing piano for Leo Blevins, an influential Chicago guitarist who knew almost all the jazz stars. That year, due to Blevins, Anderson started playing with Sonny Stitt. Within two years, he was playing the famous Pershing Ballroom concerts with Charlie Parker and Howard McGhee; two of these have been preserved on record. He was 20, and due to steadily worsening cataracts, became completely blind.

For the next 15 years as house pianist for several of Chicago’s best jazz clubs, Anderson played with a steady stream of the greats: Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Gene Ammons, Max Roach, Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin, Roland Kirk.

At the same time he was playing with and influencing a whole generation of young Chicago musicians, many of them destined for greatness. Among them were Wilbur Ware, Clifford Jordan, Von Freeman, Billy Wallace, George Coleman, Wilbur Campbell and Harold Maburn. Anderson said, “Heck, they influenced me as much as I influenced them.”

In 1960, Herbie Hancock heard Chris Anderson play. He said, “Chris’ music has affected the core of my music very deeply. After hearing him play just once, I begged him to let me study with him. Chris Anderson is a master of harmony and sensitivity. I shall be forever indebted to him and his very special gift.”

In 1961, Dinah Washington, having run through several piano players in the previous year, asked Anderson to tour with her. Despite Anderson’s brilliance as a singer’s accompanist, the musicians in Chicago were betting that he wouldn’t last two months with the evil-tempered Washington. Sure enough, in New York six weeks later, she fired him. Anderson decided to stay on and play in New York. His crippling bone condition limited his ability to work, though he appeared regularly as a soloist in Barry Harris’ annual concerts and made the most of the gigs he had at Bradley’s, the Village Vanguard, the Jazz Gallery and Smalls. Through these infrequent appearances his playing was able to influence a handful of younger musicians who were lucky enough to have seen or played with the master, including Ronnie Ben-Hur, Ari Roland and Jason Lindner.

Anderson left a small but significant number of recordings. Plans are in the works to make an extensive collection of his music available for posterity.

JazzTimes thanks Al Sutton for supplying all of the above information.

Originally Published