McCoy Tyner died at his home in New Jersey back in March of this year. If 2020 was the year of his passing, we’ve decided to use his birthday (11 Dec) in order to celebrate his life.
Only players with the reverence attained by Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and a rare few can attest to match McCoy’s influence on modern jazz piano. Reportedly a modest and mind-mannered man, his sound was rich and percussive and his improvisations deeply lyrical.
It is thought that his percussiveness may have come from his experience taking conga lessons from the percussionist Garvin Masseaux as a teenager, combined with the learnings taken from the Ghanaian visual artist, singer and instrumentalist Saka Acquaye, who was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts alongside Tyner.
It is irrefutable that it was McCoy’s sound that helped create the unique atmosphere found in those classic Coltrane’s recordings and, to some extent, the whole of jazz throughout the 1960s. Next time you listen to “Love Supreme” for example, ask yourself if you’re affected by Tyner’s playing as much as Coltrane’s, and if there has ever been a sonic marriage quite like it.
“My current pianist, McCoy Tyner, holds down the harmonies, and that allows me to forget them. He’s sort of the one who gives me wings and lets me take off from the ground from time to time.”John Coltrane, 1961
Alfred McCoy Tyner was born in Philadelphia. The oldest of three children, he was encouraged to study piano by his mother, Beatrice. He began studying the piano at age 13 (which was set up in his mother’s beauty shop) and soon music became the focal point in his whole life. He studied at West Philadelphia Music School and the Granoff School of Music. During the time he also led his own group, ‘The Houserockers’.
He grew up during a spectacular period for jazz in Philadelphia. Other local musicians who would go on to prominence included organist Jimmy Smith, the trumpeter Lee Morgan and pianists Red Garland, Kenny Barron, Ray Bryant and Richie Powell – the brother of the legendary Bud Powell – Tyner’s idol. McCoy once recalled that while practicing in the beauty shop as a teen, he looked out the window and saw Powell listening. He eventually invited the master inside to play, which he did.
In 1957, Tyner was in a band led by the trumpeter Cal Massey. It was with this band that he met John Coltrane at local club, the Red Rooster. Coltrane, a fellow native of the City of Brotherly Love, grew up in Philadelphia before leaving to join the Miles Davis’s quintet in 1955. The two musicians struck up a friendship. Coltrane was back living at his mother’s house for a spell, and Tyner would visit him often and looked up to him like an older brother.
“My faith teaches peacefulness, love of God and the unity of mankind… This message of unity has been the most important thing in my life, and naturally, it’s affected my music.”Toyner On converting to Islam at 18
In 1958, Coltrane recorded “The Believer”, which was composed by Tyner. An understanding was then agreed between them that when Coltrane was ready to lead his own group, he would hire McCoy as his pianist.
At 21, McCoy eventually joined up with Coltrane’s band in 1961 and they toured and recorded almost non-stop through to 1965. Beginning with My Favorite Things (1961) for Atlantic, other recordings also included “Live” at the Village Vanguard (1962), Ballads (1963), John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963), Live at Birdland (1964), Crescent (1964), A Love Supreme (1964), and The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (1965), all for Impulse! Records.
Between tours, he stayed busy in the recording studio and made his own records for Impulse, including the well received “Reaching Fourth.” He also recorded as a sideman, working on some wonderful records including Joe Henderson’s “Page One,” Wayne Shorter’s “Juju,” Grant Green’s “Matador” and Bobby Hutcherson’s “Stick-Up!” – all for Blue Note.
When Coltrane began to expand his musical vision to include additional horns and percussion, he decided to quit the group feeling that the music being produced was too loud and cumbersome for his piano parts. Just before Coltrane’s death in 1967, Mr. Tyner signed to Blue Note and quickly delivered “The Real McCoy,” which would become one of his strongest albums.
After five years, the popularity of jazz began to subside and he moved to the Milestone label in 1972 (an association that continued until 1981), that brought him a higher profile and much more success. In those years he worked steadily with his own band, including at various times the saxophonists Azar Lawrence and Sonny Fortune and the drummers Alphonse Mouzon and Eric Gravatt.
His Milestone albums with his working group included “Enlightenment” (1973), recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which introduced one of his signature compositions, the majestic “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” He also recorded for the label with strings, voices, and a big band.
McCoy continued to play and record up until his final years. In 2002, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, one of the highest honours for a jazz musician in the United States. He resisted analysing or theorising about his own work and tended to talk more in terms of learning and life experience:
“To me, living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life.”McCoy Toyner
Despite the popularity of the electric piano and the synthesizer, as well as the impulse many of his contemporaries had to find new ways to augment jazz’s delivery, he remained committed to acoustic instrumentation in all his playing from the start right up until the end.
Rest in Peace McCoy Tyner.