Richard Wyands, a highly respected jazz pianist who built his reputation primarily as a sideman with the likes of Charles Mingus, Gigi Gryce, Kenny Burrell, and Illinois Jacquet, died September 25 in New York City. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by the George H. Weldon Funeral Home in Manhattan, which has been engaged for Wyands’ final arrangements.
A onetime child prodigy, Wyands began playing professionally as a teenager and continued working nearly until his death. But although he performed sporadically as a leader, he didn’t record as such until he was 50 years old, and made only seven albums under his own name (each in a bop-based trio format). As a freelancer, he played in any number of styles, from stride and swing to vocal accompaniment, soul-jazz, and Third Stream.
Wyands’ bright, forthright touch on the piano and assured phrasing and harmonies stood in marked contrast to his soft-spoken, thoughtful personal demeanor. While he was quite aware of his musical prowess, he was not an assertive self-promoter; this, combined with a freelance calendar that restrained his recording activity, left him a perpetually underrecognized figure among audiences. Musicians, however, held him in great regard.
“He just knows instinctively what to do,” Kenny Washington, a drummer who worked frequently with Wyands, said in 2000. “He is somebody … who just, they come in, they take care of business — they don’t make a big hoopla about it either. And then after a while you start saying, ‘Man, this cat can really play.’ Any situation, man. That’s the kind of pianist that he’s always been, and a lot of times people don’t really notice him like they should.”
Richard Francis Wyands was born July 2, 1928 in Oakland, California, and grew up in San Francisco. He began to study piano at seven or eight years of age, when a neighbor who taught piano heard him playing on her instrument and suspected he had talent. She began teaching him in the classical idiom and holding recitals; as she thought, he showed remarkable proficiency very quickly.
“I was almost a prodigy,” he said later. “That’s how they were billing me, but I finally became disinterested in classical music. I didn’t put it down, but I wanted to play jazz.” He found a local jazz pianist who taught him harmony and recommended records for him to listen to, including discs by Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole, and Count Basie, all of whom became favorites.
After briefly flirting with drums in junior high school, Wyands began playing piano professionally in San Francisco at about 16. He worked frequently with the navy officers who were a heavy presence around San Francisco Bay during World War II, playing dances and nightclubs. He also worked with a small combo at his high school, performing at military hospitals. By the time he entered San Francisco State College, from which he received a music degree in 1950, Wyands was working his way through school by gigging continuously in the Bay Area’s nascent bebop scene. He recorded on an early Third Stream recording with Charles Mingus in 1949, his first studio date.
For four years after college, Wyands was the house pianist at San Francisco’s noted Black Hawk nightclub, where he met “virtually every musician coming through.” Sometimes he served as a pickup accompanist for headliners (usually singers), or as the intermission player. He also played intermission gigs at other clubs in the area for another two years—“these pianos were so bad,” he recalled with a grimace—before getting a break, becoming music director for Ella Fitzgerald during a tour of the West Coast in 1956.
Wyands moved to the Ottawa, Canada, area in 1957, where he worked accompanying singers for about a year before joining a tour with Carmen McRae, who took him to New York in 1958.
He struggled at first, owing to a union policy of granting full membership only after six months. However, he got some work with Mingus (including the Jazz Portraits album session in 1959) and fellow San Franciscan Jerome Richardson, then finally won a seat in alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce’s quintet in early 1960.
From that point, Wyands was increasingly busy. He began gigging with Oliver Nelson, Roy Haynes, Gene Ammons, Etta Jones, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk; in 1965 he joined guitarist Kenny Burrell’s band, beginning another long association.
Wyands finally made his own first recording in 1978 with Then, Here and Now, featuring bassist Lisle Atkinson and drummer David Lee. Almost immediately afterward, though, he began a long stint in tenor saxophonist George Kelly’s quintet, followed by another with Illinois Jacquet. He didn’t record again until 1992, then again in 1995—where he established a trio with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington (no relation), which became a go-to group for him.
In his final years, Wyands had a semi-regular gig at the 75 Club in the TriBeCa section of Manhattan. He also worked frequently with drummer Jimmy Cobb in Cobb’s Mob, along with guitarist Peter Bernstein and bassist John Webber.
Speaking with the New York City Jazz Record in 2018, Wyands seemed unconcerned about any lack of public recognition for his talents. “I got to meet and play with incredible musicians and people I never thought I’d even speak to,” he said, “and I got to travel to so many places I never dreamed I’d visit.”