Pianist Larry Willis’ early life in Harlem, with its frequent sightings of American legends, from Duke Ellington to Willie Mays to Leonard Bernstein, sounds like something novelist E.L. Doctorow might have cooked up.
Yet even that story is no match for Willis’ remarkable if largely unheralded career: Four decades distinguished by an unusually colorful range of recordings, more than 300 in all, and an extraordinary array of collaborations with the likes of Jackie McLean, Cannonball Adderley, Hugh Masekela, Stan Getz, Woody Shaw, Herb Alpert, Blood Sweat and Tears, Carmen McRae and the Fort Apache Band.
Both Ellington and Joe Louis lived up the block from the Willis home in the early ’50s, so each plays a role in the pianist-composer’s earliest recollections, along with Sugar Ray Robinson, often spotted cruising down the 155th Street viaduct. The youngest of three gifted boys, Willis remembers standing on the corner, watching wide-eyed as the champ drove by.
“My father used to park cars for two New York Giants,” says Willis, picking up the narrative thread over lunch on a recent afternoon in suburban Maryland. “One was a guy named Hank Thompson, the other guy was named Willie Mays.” (To this day one of Willis’ most prized possessions, given to him by the Hall of Famer, is a baseball signed by the ’54 Giants.)
A devoted Brooklyn Dodgers fan who followed the team even after it abandoned Ebbets Field for warmer climes and bigger financial returns, Willis puts down his sandwich and cracks a big grin before volunteering another baseball anecdote. “There was a guy who married a lady who lived on my block and we would see him whenever the Dodgers played the Giants at the Polo Grounds,” he says with a laugh. “He would always come into the block to see his in-laws. We’d see his white Eldorado fishtail Cadillac parked up the street—the license plate was ‘ROY-39.'”
Tales of encounters with Roy Campanella soon give way to another concerning Leonard Bernstein. Turns out, the renowned composer and conductor introduced Willis, then a voice major participating in Bernstein’s Young People Concerts, to both Carnegie Hall and the storied CBS 30th Street recording studio. No, it’s not a much of a surprise to discover that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of Willis’ neighborhood pals and dearest friends, is encouraging the pianist to write his memoirs—or, for that matter, to find that Willis has already chosen a title: Beyond My Wildest Dreams.
If you can develop a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Willis had mastered it by the time he began to think seriously about pursuing music as a profession: first, at the High School of Music and Art, where Jimmy Owens, Billy Cobham and Richard Tee were among his classmates; later, at the Manhattan School of Music, where Willis befriended Masekela, Eddie Gomez, Ron Carter, Richard Davis and Donald Byrd.
“Oddly enough, the school was very anti-jazz,” Willis recalls. “We used to get kicked out of the practice room for jamming. And now, of course, they have a big jazz program.”
Masekela suggested that Willis take piano lessons from John Mehegan, who always warned students of the challenges they faced. “He said the piano is the most complicated piece of machinery man ever invented. Just look at it: Every time you sit down, the odds against you are 88 to 10—and they don’t get any better.”
Encouraged by his brother Victor, an accomplished classical pianist, Willis quickly developed his piano technique, though he spent a lot of time shooting hoops with a few future NBA players: Abdul-Jabbar (known as Lew Alcindor at the time), Freddie Crawford and Tom Stith. With the help of Mehegan and some Harlem buddies, most notably Herbie Hancock, Willis also developed an interest in melody, harmony and structure that continues to inform his approach to composition.
“My brother exposed me to the classical literature, particularly the impressionistic period, which became a strong influence,” says Willis. “I’ve always liked pretty chords and sounds. Then I heard Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans and, needless to say, Wynton Kelly, who influenced the way I voice chords. At the same time, I was studying the music of Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc and Messiaen, great composers of that nature.”
Even now, Willis says, nothing is more artistically rewarding than writing for a large ensemble. He has had considerable success in the field-a suite for piano and strings, commissioned for the Florida Southern College Symphony Orchestra, has taken on a life of its own. But Willis is always looking for more opportunities to express the full range of his interests and talents: “To have that kind of command, the command of a Ravel or a Brahms, to take that immense palette and bring it into focus, that’s where the challenge is.”
A genial spirit with a contagious laugh, Willis often counts his blessings when reflecting on the past. He entered the big leagues when he was just 19, recruited by Jackie McLean, one of his boyhood heroes. The saxophonist was looking not only for a pianist but a composer, and Willis delivered on both counts. Indeed, he contributed two tunes to his first recording with the McLean group, the 1965 Blue Note session Right Now. (In 2007, the pianist acknowledged the debt by dedicating “Blue Fable,” a trio session on the HighNote label, to the late alto giant.)
Eventually Willis’ career led to myriad collaborations and friendships that still trigger vivid memories: Stan Getz (“a nice bunch of guys; a great musician and a complicated man”), Dizzy Gillespie (“my second father, and the world’s greatest comedian”), Blood Sweat and Tears (“I cherish those years. We played in places where jazz bands didn’t go back then; it gave me a chance to see the world from a different perspective”), Art Blakey (“When I joined Blood Sweat and Tears, he told me that I’d better enjoy myself while it lasted, because ‘you’ll never find a Brinks truck following a hearse'”).
In recent years, Willis has been busier than ever, both here and abroad. As musical director at Mapleshade Records, he contributed to several widely acclaimed CDs for the label, in addition to recording his own albums, including the stirring Solo Spirit, a series of interpretations of traditional spirituals.
The morning of Jan. 7, 2007, however, abruptly changed his life. Willis lost many of his possessions when a fire broke out at a manse in Upper Marlboro, Md., home of the Mapleshade Studio. He recalls standing out on the lawn, “wrapped in nothing but a towel, watching all my personal effects go up in smoke. It was an old house and it was like someone put a torch to a dry Christmas tree. I had to pick up the pieces and move on with my life.”
He did just that, with help from Catholic Charities and the Jazz Foundation of America, relocating to Baltimore six months later. As for his years at Mapleshade, Willis has mixed feelings. Though he takes pride in his collaborations with John Hicks, Tony Pancella and other artists, he often found himself at odds with the label’s meticulous audiophile approach to recording.
“I make music for the two-inch speakers you have in your car, and if it sounds good there, it’ll sound great anywhere else,” he says. Looking back on his work for the label now, nothing pleases him more than the mostly improvised music he created with drummer Paul Murphy on the duo’s The Powers of Two recordings. “When we get together, it reminds me of something Cannonball Adderley used to call ‘spontaneous composition.’ Paul has the experience and chops to sit down and pursue something like that, which is very rare,” says Willis. Last summer, the pair released Exposé, another daring yet accessible session, on Murphy Records.
As a solo recording artist, Willis now calls HighNote home. The Manhattan-based label has released his last three albums, including The Offering, his latest session, featuring bassist Eddie Gomez, drummer Billy Drummond and saxophonist Eric Alexander. (Perhaps not surprisingly, former New York Met and Baltimore native Ron Swoboda wrote the album’s affectionate liner notes.) “I don’t expect to get rich,” Willis says of his “ideal” relationship with HighNote. “I just want the music inside of me to be documented and marketed the right way, and they do that.”
Polishing off his lunch, Willis says he’s eager to record an upcoming HighNote session with bassist Buster Williams, drummer Billy Hart and a special guest, perhaps reedman Alexander or trumpeter Wallace Roney.
“I’m going to take an entire month off to prepare for this record. I’m a firm believer that the lack of preparation is preparation for failure.”
Solo Spirit (Mapleshade, 1992)
The Offering (HighNote, 2008)
Exposé with Paul Murphy (Murphy, 2008)