McCoy Tyner

By Tribune Staff

Pianist, bandleader and composer McCoy Tyner, one of the finest and most influential modern jazz soloists and stylists, passed last Friday at 81. His family announced his death with a post on Tyner’s Twitter account. 

He was best known for his years as a member of the John Coltrane Quartet. Over that period from 1960-65,  Tyner’s masterful solos and accompaniment were a vital part of the classic quartet’s music.

“The piano is like an orchestra,” Tyner told Jazz Times several years ago. “I’m very fortunate that I chose it as my instrument.”

Tyner began playing piano at 13, first taking lessons with a neighbor. Soon after, his mother bought him a piano that she kept at her beauty shop.

He met John Coltrane long before joining his band, as both were part of the Philadelphia music scene during the ‘50s. He began playing professionally at 16, but his jazz career accelerated at 20 with the Jazztet, co-led by another Philadelphia native, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, and trumpeter Art Farmer. Tyner also worked with trombonist Curtis Fuller. That led to his first meeting with bassist Jimmy Garrison, another Philadelphia resident. Tyner joined the Coltrane quartet in mid-1960. Early editions of the group included bassist Steve Davis and drummer Pete La Roca. The latter was eventually replaced by Billy Higgins, then Elvin Jones.

After making two albums’ worth of material for Atlantic Records with that first quartet, “My Favorite Things”  and “Coltrane’s Sound,” (released in 1961 and 1964) Jimmy Garrison became the group’s bassist in 1961. Tyner would subsequently begin his own solo career, recording six trio albums for Impulse! between 1962-64, and doing plenty of session work as well, particularly 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, when the music went in a direction he felt prevented him from operating at peak efficiency. He spent a season in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, then started to refocus on his solo career. Things exploded in 1967, with the Blue Note LP “The Real McCoy.”  He’d make six more Blue albums, then shift to Milestone in 1972. The LP “Sahara,” became not only a major hit by jazz standards, but established him as a major force. Tyner continued touring and recording through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, refusing to bow to such popular trends as fusion or electric keyboards. He occasionally played koto, celeste and harpsichord on albums, but remained a champion of acoustic, mainstream jazz. 

During the last part of his career, Tyner continued forging ahead. He did both big band and small group dates, even solo piano sessions. He was also named an NEA Jazz Master in 2002. He worked regularly until the last couple of years, when his health declined.