Larry Willis 1942-2019

The former Blood, Sweat & Tears and Fort Apache Band keyboardist was a wide-ranging player and composer

Larry Willis (photo courtesy of Mapleshade Records)
Larry Willis (photo courtesy of Mapleshade Records)

Larry Willis, a Grammy-nominated jazz pianist and composer who also enjoyed popular success as a member of the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears, died September 29 at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. He was 76 years old.

Willis’ death was confirmed by Pierre Sprey, a longtime friend of Willis and the head of Mapleshade Records, where the pianist served as music director. Cause of death was a pulmonary hemorrhage due to complications from diabetes.

Initially an aspiring classical vocalist, Willis stumbled across a talent for the piano during his final year of high school, and less than two years later was on the road with Jackie McLean. Over the subsequent half-century, he crisscrossed the world several times over, performing as a leader and soloist as well as with BS&T and many other artists, including Hugh Masekela, Woody Shaw, Cannonball Adderley, and Stan Getz. He appeared on over 300 recordings, including 22 under his own name.

Willis was steeped in multiple styles of music. Outside of his fusion career, he was best known for straight-ahead, bebop-based work; however, he was also accomplished in Latin jazz and as an avant-garde player. One of the guiding words in his life, Willis said, was “‘Eclectic.’ Listen to everything and be exposed to everything, because you never know what you can learn.”

Lawrence Elliott Willis was born in Harlem, New York, on December 20, 1942. His was a music-loving family, which immersed Willis and his siblings in the classics from their childhood onward. Willis’ elder brother Victor was an accomplished young classical pianist, and young Larry was interested in singing opera. Although he said that theirs was a “sibling rivalry like you have never seen,” Larry refrained from attempting to play his brother’s chosen instrument, despite its constant presence in his home.

It was only in his final year at Music and Art High School in New York that Willis found himself interested in the piano. While he formally studied voice, he was entirely self-taught on the keys. Nevertheless, before graduation, he had attained enough proficiency to perform professionally in a trio with two of his schoolmates: bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Al Foster.

Willis was also an all-city basketball player and was offered athletic scholarships, but opted instead to accept a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music. He studied music theory; his interest in jazz was increasing, but at the time the school frowned upon it, and Willis recalled getting thrown out of practice rooms for trying to organize jam sessions.

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However, in 1962, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean heard the 19-year-old Willis perform and invited the pianist to join his band. They worked together for the next four years, with Willis making his first recording on McLean’s legendary 1965 album Right Now! Two of that album’s four tunes were also Willis compositions, quickly establishing his writing credentials as well as his studio ones.

From there, Willis never went back to classical performance. “One of the magical things about playing this music [is that] it’s the only music I can think of where one can participate in the creation of it beyond the composer and the conductor,” he later noted.

While still working with McLean, Willis also began performing and touring with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, one of his classmates at Manhattan School of Music, along with freelance gigs. He made his first recording as a leader in 1970 with the sextet date A New Kind of Soul.

He joined Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1972, replacing Dick Halligan and Willis’ fellow Music and Art alum Fred Lipsius in the keyboard chair. Although his tenure in the band coincided with a decline in its commercial fortunes, they nonetheless remained successful, touring and recording heavily during Willis’ five-year tenure. He left the band in 1977.

Shortly before his work in the rock world, Willis had been a member of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s quintet (“It changed my life,” he later said of the experience); following his departure from BS&T, he joined with Adderley’s cornetist brother Nat. He also began teaching, first at the New School in New York and then at Florida Southern College, where he succeeded Adderley.

Having followed up his first album only once, with 1973’s Inner Crisis, Willis returned to the recording studio in 1988 with bassist George Mraz, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and drummer Al Foster to record My Funny Valentine. The album kicked off a much more frequent run of recordings as a leader that would last the remainder of Willis’ life.

Along the way, Willis worked or recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Clifford Jordan, Art Taylor, Art Blakey, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn. A member of Jerry González’s groundbreaking Latin-jazz outfit the Fort Apache Band, he also became a regular collaborator with saxophonist Stan Getz, although they never recorded together.

In the 1990s Willis settled into the Washington, D.C. area, where he worked with local musicians and became music director of Mapleshade Records. He famously performed every New Year’s Eve at Twins Jazz Club in Washington. He barely survived a fire at his home in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in 2007, and relocated to Baltimore shortly thereafter.

From the ’90s onward, Willis’ most fruitful work was often with drummer Paul Murphy, with whom he performed a unique variety of avant-garde jazz that encompassed a full spectrum of styles from stride to bebop, but with free form and atonal harmony. “They developed this tremendous affinity,” said Sprey of Willis and Murphy, who ultimately recorded five albums on the Mapleshade label.

Willis performed what may have been his final live concert on August 1 at Baltimore’s Keystone Korner. In September, he made his final recording, a date for HighNote Records with saxophonist Joe Ford, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, bassist Blake Meister, and drummer Victor Lewis. The recording’s release is forthcoming.

Willis is survived by his nephew, Elliott Willis. A funeral is in the planning stages.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.