CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

McCoy Tyner 1938 – 2020

The piano giant, NEA Jazz Master, and last surviving member of John Coltrane’s classic quartet passes away at 81

McCoy Tyner 1987
McCoy Tyner at the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay, CA, 1987 (photo: © Brian McMillen – www.brianmcmillenphotography.com)

McCoy Tyner, a jazz pianist who was one of the most innovative and influential in the music’s history, died March 6 at his home in New Jersey. He was 81.

His death was announced by his family, who posted a statement to Tyner’s Twitter account on the afternoon of March 6. Separately, his nephew, former Philadelphia disc jockey Colby Tyner, posted announcements to his own social media networks. “The world lost a musical treasure today,” he wrote.

Cause of death was not given; however, Tyner was long known to be in ill health.

Tyner was best known for his years as a member of the John Coltrane Quartet, one of jazz’s most iconic and revolutionary small bands. It was while working with Coltrane from 1960-65 that Tyner rewrote the rules for jazz piano with his percussive modal vamps and his thick, plangent chords. He tended to voice chords in perfect fourths rather than the more conventional thirds, a maneuver that required considerable dexterity but also gave greater harmonic freedom to improvisers—and revolutionized jazz harmony itself.

“The piano is like an orchestra,” he said. “I’m very fortunate that I chose it as my instrument.”

Alfred McCoy Tyner was born on December 11, 1938 in Philadelphia to Jarvis Tyner and Beatrice Stephenson Tyner. He was the oldest of three children. Music was important to the family, and when Tyner turned 13 his mother asked him to choose lessons in either voice or piano. He chose the latter and began taking lessons with a neighbor. Soon after, his mother bought him a piano that she kept at her beauty shop.

Once Tyner began meeting and playing with the scores of local bebop musicians in what was one of the most fecund musical scenes of the era, he became thoroughly dedicated to the piano. Among the Philadelphia musicians he befriended was John Coltrane, at the time living in his mother’s house after his dismissal from the Miles Davis Quintet (he would soon rejoin). They formed a brotherly bond; Coltrane, 12 years older, was the role model in the relationship, but his respect for Tyner was such that he recorded one of the young pianist’s compositions, “The Believer,” in January 1958. (The tune was an expression of Tyner’s conversion to Islam the previous year.)

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Tyner began playing professionally at 16, but his career in the jazz major leagues started at 20 with the Jazztet, co-led by his fellow Philadelphian, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, and trumpeter Art Farmer. He also worked with trombonist Curtis Fuller, in whose sextet he joined yet another Philadelphian, bassist Jimmy Garrison. In mid-1960, however, Coltrane came calling. He hired Tyner for an extended engagement at New York’s Jazz Gallery with bassist Steve Davis and drummer Pete La Roca. The latter was eventually replaced by Billy Higgins, then Elvin Jones.

In October, Coltrane took the new quartet into the studio, where they recorded two albums’ worth of material for Atlantic Records. The first of these, My Favorite Things, was released in 1961 and was Tyner’s breakthrough. (The second, Coltrane’s Sound, was released in 1964 without the saxophonist’s consent.) The pianist attacked the Rodgers & Hammerstein song with hammering waves of repetitive but alluring modal piano figures that were as prominent as Coltrane’s soprano saxophone. The tune became Coltrane’s calling card, played nightly—but was equally, if not more, important for Tyner.

In November 1961, Jimmy Garrison became the bassist for Coltrane’s quartet; this was the band that became a radical force in 1960s jazz. Now signed to Impulse! Records, they issued recording after transformative recording, stretching modalism to its breaking point and beyond with their ever-loosening sense of harmony and rhythm, their acute interplay, and their astonishing, sustained intensity. Tyner was a crucial element in that chemistry as the band went further and further out with A Love Supreme, Ascension, and Sun Ship. He also began a recording career of his own, recording six trio albums for Impulse! between 1962-64, and freelancing frequently—especially at Blue Note Records, where he worked with Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, and Freddie Hubbard.

Tyner left the Coltrane band at the end of 1965; the music had gone too far into atonality for his liking, and the addition of a second drummer, Rashied Ali, both drowned out the pianist and kept him from hearing the music. Instead, Tyner spent a season in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and made more freelance recordings while beginning to build a solo career. It arrived in earnest when, in 1967, Blue Note released his The Real McCoy, a classic that contained two future standards, “Passion Dance” and “Blues on the Corner,” the latter becoming his theme song.

Although he recorded half a dozen more acclaimed and highly advanced albums for Blue Note, they did not result in regular work for Tyner. Jazz was in a fallow period, and the pianist contemplated leaving the business. Instead, he left Blue Note in 1972 for Milestone Records, releasing an album that extended the Afrocentric creative period he had begun at his previous label. Sahara became the disc that established Tyner as a viable leader. He led his own band fruitfully throughout the ’70s, helping to establish players such as saxophonists Gary Bartz and Azar Lawrence and drummer Alphonse Mouzon. He also refused to make the switch to electric piano, as many of his colleagues had done in the fusion era (though he did record on koto, harpsichord, and celeste); still he persevered, enough so for critic Gary Giddins in 1979 to call him “the most influential pianist of the decade.”

Hailed as an elder statesman by the 1980s—when he was merely in his forties—Tyner recorded frequently, often with a trio featuring bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Louis Hayes but also as an unaccompanied soloist. He started a big band as well, which, though it only recorded infrequently, performed fairly regularly in the ’80s and early ’90s. This was Tyner’s most prolific period. In the final 25 years of his life, the pianist recorded only 11 albums; the last, a solo concert recording in San Francisco, was released in 2009. Nonetheless, he continued performing and touring, including a quartet with his erstwhile colleague Gary Bartz. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2002.

Tyner kept working well into his final years, though at diminished strength; his quartet with saxophonist Sherman Irby, bassist Gerald Cannon, and drummer Francisco Mela would often play the first half of its set without Tyner—who required help getting on and off the bandstand. Seated at the piano, however, he was as blazingly energetic and creative as ever.

Tyner is survived by his wife, Aisha; his son, Nurudeen; a brother, Jarvis Jr.; a sister, Gwendolyn-Yvette; and three grandchildren.

McCoy Tyner discusses 10 of his greatest recorded moments with JazzTimes.

Colin Fleming looks back at Tyner’s first album as a leader after leaving the Coltrane quartet.

Bill Milkowski interviews Tyner for JazzTimes in 2000.

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.