Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Jodie Christian, Chicago Pianist, Dies at 80

AACM co-founder was always in demand in his hometown

Jodie Christian, the Chicago-based pianist who was a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), died of natural causes in that city on Feb. 13. He was 80.

Born in Chicago Feb. 2, 1932, Christian started in music as a singer and street dancer. He attended the Chicago School of Music as a teenager but later stated that most of his musical education came from singing in choirs. He took up piano while at high school, and by 1948, at age 16, he was already playing professionally. Christian performed regularly with saxophonist Ron Hall, then honed his craft as a member of the U.S. Air Force Band in the early 1950s. He made his first recordings in 1958.

In 1965, after touring with Coleman Hawkins and a membership in multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan’s Chicago Jazz Quintet, Christian, along with pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, trumpeter/composer Phil Cohran and drummer Steve McCall, formed the AACM with the intent of “nurturing, performing and recording serious, original music.” Althugh he considered himself first and foremost a bebop player, Christian veered toward experimental, free music. In a 1997 JazzTimes review, Owen Cordle wrote, “The underrated and versatile Christian shows all the traits that make Chicago pianists so likable: the clean attack, the ensemble-like block chords, a basic warmth, the feeling of the church and the blues, and an infectious sense of rhythm.”

Throughout his career, Christian found ample work as a sideman, playing with Eddie Harris, Ira Sullivan, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Yusef Lateef, James Moody, Sonny Stitt, Don Byas, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Dewey Redman, Von Freeman, Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins, among others. He was one of the most in-demand pianists in Chicago.

In the 1970s Christian moved into the area of education, began teaching piano at the Lyon & Healy music store’s school. He also put together jazz programs in Chicago’s public schools. During that decade and the ’80s, he kept up a busy schedule as a go-to pianist for many Chicago jazz combos booked into local clubs. He collaborated often with saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, an early AACM member.

Christian did not record as a leader until 1992, when he released the album Experience on Delmark Records. His output under his own name was minimal, with only a handful of further albums following that part-solo, part-trio debut.

Originally Published