Groundbreaking pianist McCoy Tyner dies at 81
New York – Philadelphia and the world have lost a titan of modern jazz.
McCoy Tyner, 81, the profoundly influential pianist who gained renown as a key member of saxophonist John Coltrane’s trailblazing early 1960s quartet and went on to an adventurous and successful solo career, has died.
His nephew Colby Tyner, a radio executive and former Philadelphia DJ, said Friday afternoon that his uncle had died at his home in North Jersey. No cause of death was announced.
On Friday, the Philadelphia bassist and bandleader Christian McBride called Tyner “a giant among giants” and wrote on Facebook: “May the pride of West Philadelphia rest easy.”
Tyner was one of jazz piano’s great stylistic innovators, a mild-mannered man known not only for the rumbling physicality of his sound – and the bass notes that emanated from his powerful left hand – but also for the stylistic grace and harmonic invention in his playing.
Raised in West Philadelphia, Tyner starting playing at age 13 in mother Beatrice’s beauty parlor, in the front room of the family home. The spinet fit nowhere else in the house, so the young musician – heavily influenced by Bud Powell, who lived in Willow Grove – gathered his friends to practice even during her business hours. “She’d be in there doing hair, and she’d tell us, ‘Y’all go in there and jam. Go on ahead and play,’” Tyner recalled in a 2010 interview.
“My mother was my biggest fan, even after I went to New York City and was making records on my own. I learned later that she used to call jazz DJs in the area including Joel Dorn, who had a big jazz show back then, and ask them to play selections from my albums,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1999.
He was 17 when he met Coltrane, and they agreed that the piano player would join the saxophonist when he was ready. Tyner was teamed with Philadelphia sax player Benny Golson and trumpeter Art Farmer in 1960 when Coltrane, out on his own after playing with Miles Davis, came calling.
The results were historic, starting with the album My Favorite Things, with Coltrane and Tyner joined by drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Steve Davis. The quartet developed a style of modal jazz on a series of albums that peaked creatively in 1965 with A Love Supreme.
“He’s sort of the one who gives me wings and lets me take off from the ground from time to time,” Coltrane said of Tyner in 1961. The sax visionary also expressed wonderment at his bandmate’s technique: “Tyner plays some things on the piano, but I don’t know what they are.”
“We got to the point where the music would just be totally made up, with no guidelines,” Tyner said of Coltrane in a 1997 Philadelphia Inquirer interview. “And we’d usually been playing the material we were going to record, so there was no time to fret over anything. I think that’s why the music sounded the way it did, because we were all so connected to each performance. It became a very intuitive thing.”
Tyner was the last living member of the John Coltrane Quartet.
Ethan Iverson, pianist in the acclaimed jazz quartet the Bad Plus, wrote a tribute to Tyner on his 80th birthday in 2018. “No one – not Art Tatum, not (Bud) Powell, not (Thelonious) Monk, not Bill Evans – dropped a bomb on jazz pianists quite like McCoy Tyner.” He added, “There was pre-McCoy and post-McCoy, and that was all she wrote.”
“The guy is a line in the sand on a pianistic level,” said Aaron Levinson, the Grammy-winning Philadelphia music producer. “He adds a kind of muscularity. He embraces Brazilian music, Afro-Cuban music, African music. He’s an eclectic experimenter of the keyboard. He’s connected to the piano in a way that even Herbie (Hancock) wasn’t. He’s really responsible for bringing the piano back to jazz as a percussion instrument.”
Tyner put out Inception, his first album as leader, in 1962, and left the Coltrane band in 1965. In 1967 he put out the classic The Real McCoy. He released more than 80 albums during his career. He won four Grammys and was named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In April 2015, Philadelphia honored Mr. Tyner during Jazz Appreciation Month. “It feels great because I grew up here and I went to school here,” he said. “It’s good to be back here and to be received in the town where you were born.”
At the awards ceremony, Maureen Malloy, jazz music director at Temple University radio station WRTI-FM (90.1), asked Tyner about his rugged approach to his instrument.
“I asked him about his left hand, and if it had gotten him into trouble throughout his career, and even growing up, with pianos,” she said. “He laughed really hard about it, and said that’s why he’s a Steinway artist now, because they would tailor things to him so he wouldn’t break them.”
Tyner’s death follows that of Philadelphia saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who got his start in an earlier era and died in January at age 93. Longtime WRTI DJ Bob Perkins spoke of Tyner’s death on Friday as another irreplaceable loss for Philadelphia and the jazz world at large.
“When you hear the first couple of notes with McCoy, that powerful stride … no one had the same drive that he did,” Perkins said. “He was like a giant at the piano. You know it was McCoy when you heard it.”
Perkins recalled a performance at a West Philadelphia club in the 1980s where a tribute to Tyner was staged:
“The place was packed with around 200 people, and there were great musicians in the house, including Grover Washington Jr., who could play jazz like a fiend when he wanted to. And they were all just silent and watched and listened when McCoy played. It was like God was in the house that night.”