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Lyle Mays 1953 – 2020

The keyboardist, composer, and close collaborator with Pat Metheny has passed away at 66

Lyle Mays
Lyle Mays

Lyle Mays, an acclaimed pianist, keyboardist, and composer who was best known for his long and close association with guitarist Pat Metheny, died on the morning of February 10 in Los Angeles. He was 66.

His death was announced by his niece, vocalist Aubrey Johnson, who posted the news to social media late on the evening of the 10th. Johnson said that Mays had died “after a long battle with a recurring illness.”

He passed away surrounded by family and friends, including Steve Rodby, who worked with Mays in Metheny’s group.

Mays was a cofounder of the Pat Metheny Group in 1977, and remained a member for 33 years. He worked closely with Metheny, serving as co-composer and primary arranger for the band; they enjoyed considerable crossover success and won 11 Grammy awards.

“Lyle was one of the greatest musicians I have ever known,” Metheny wrote on his website. “Across more than 30 years, every moment we shared in music was special. … I will miss him with all my heart.”

However, the pianist was not solely a sideman for Metheny. He had his own solo career, thereby earning another four Grammy nominations. He also worked with a host of other noted musicians, including Pat Coil, Bobby McFerrin, Rickie Lee Jones, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Joni Mitchell.

Lyle David Mays was born on November 27, 1953 in Wausaukee, Wisconsin, to a guitarist father and pianist mother. He grew up listening to classical music and, at the age of nine, began teaching himself (with his parents’ encouragement) to play piano and organ. At 14, he found himself playing organ in church; however, he discovered jazz shortly thereafter, altering his musical trajectory.

First attending the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Mays transferred after two years to the University of North Texas (then still known as North Texas State University), where he studied in the famous One O’Clock Lab Band with fellow keyboardist Coil. He was the composer of all but one tune, and the sole arranger, for the band’s 1975 recording Lab ’75—which netted Mays his first Grammy nomination.

Upon graduation from UNT, Mays promptly won an audition for the piano chair in Woody Herman’s orchestra, with whom he toured for eight months. When that gig ended in mid-1976, Mays began playing with guitarist Metheny, whom he had met the previous year and with whom he formed an instant rapport. The pianist played on Metheny’s second album, 1977’s Watercolors, before the two co-founded the band that became the Pat Metheny Group.

While the band bore the guitarist’s name, Mays was a crucial factor in their success. He and Metheny cowrote most of the music, including the 1985 score for the film The Falcon and the Snowman. Mays was the primary arranger for the Group and was responsible for the synthesizer sound that gave their music its distinctive contemporary fusion aesthetic. He and Metheny also worked with Joni Mitchell on her 1979 Shadows and Light tour; the following year they composed and recorded a duo album, As Falls Wichita, So Wichita Falls.

In the meantime, Mays continued freelancing, including work with bassist Steve Swallow, drummer Bob Moses, and Rickie Lee Jones. He recorded his first (self-titled) album under his own name in 1985, one of only five he ever made. In the 1990s, he offset his work in the Metheny Group (which kept him touring through most of the year) with projects by McFerrin, Coil, Paul McCandless, and Earth, Wind & Fire. He also recorded a series of children’s albums that found him working with actors Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.

Mays remained with the Pat Metheny Group until 2010—when he not only left the group, but also began paying increasingly less attention to the music business in general. “It’s not that I have a real desire to leave the music industry—I kind of feel like the music industry has left me. Or left all of us,” he said in a 2016 interview. “People don’t want to pay for music anymore.”

Fortunately for Mays, he had cultivated other interests throughout his life. “I got interested in architecture early on, to the extent that I designed my sister’s house,” he said in 2016. “I remember practically teaching my high-school geometry class.” His last years were primarily spent designing and managing software.

“I got into computers just after the Radio Shack, solder-it-together-yourself stage,” he explained. “I had a natural affinity to it. The first program I ever wrote ran, and I was hooked.”

His final release, 2015’s The Ludwigsburg Concert, was an archive recording from a 1993 performance in Germany.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Caltech Fund.

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.