When I was still in high school and searching through my father’s record collection, I ran across a number of AACM records. There was a solo-piano record by Muhal Richard Abrams called Afrisong, with a red, black and green cover—the Black Liberation colors. It spoke to me. This was a time when I was learning a lot about what liberation is.
As a student in New York, I would always go to the AACM concerts, and one friend, Aaron Stewart, a tenor player, was playing with Muhal at the time. So I was able to get to Muhal and start having lessons with him. This was in the late ’90s, after I’d graduated from Manhattan School of Music and at the same time I was taking lessons with Andrew Hill. I would have these composition classes and lessons with Muhal, and he would start opening my mind about how to put a piece of music together and what kind of phrases it could have—and piano technique as well. When I started taking lessons from Muhal, I did not have a piano in my apartment. He was the one who said, “Well, Jason, if you’re going to be serious about the piano, you need to write to your parents and have them send you that upright piano. You need to have that! Every day!”
The next lesson was “No one can ever come into your house and take your hands off your piano.” In that sentence he was telling me, “That’s the world. You own that relationship with the piano. No record executive, no promoter, no other musician will own that relationship. You will have your own personal and private relationship with that instrument, and make sure that is first and foremost. That will open whatever door you’re trying to get to.” He was always the one to see that I had more in me to do, and he wanted to see how it was going to go. To give me that nudge in the back. Muhal was like the wind in the sail.
People who have worked so many decades, and inspired so many musicians, my peers and I depend on their input. If we were playing somewhere and Muhal showed up, you knew you were doing something right, because he decided to come listen to you play. It was affirming. I know that with other musicians—David Virelles, or Vijay Iyer, or Craig Taborn—he would come hear them play and then offer support after they played. It meant the world to us.
There’s another important piece of the puzzle with Muhal: his relationship with his wife, Peggy, and his daughter, Richarda, which he kept as a very firm part of his practice. There’s a record with them on the cover [1-OQA+19, from 1977].
His relationship with his nuclear family, the one that he made—not all artists showcase that, but he put it up front for you to understand that that’s a part of who he is. That bears great weight on how he works: Those two women are so much a part of his power, and they deserve to be recognized too.
I heard last summer that he was sick, though I didn’t know how serious the illness was. I was in Bulgaria when I heard he had passed; I didn’t get that final moment. But I know that for a lot of us who hadn’t seen him recently, all the interactions and conversations we’d had with him seemed like yesterday. That’s how good and potent it was to be around him.