Even a novice jazz fan soon notices that the word “legendary” is a favorite adjective among the idiom’s writers and critics. It’s one those modifiers that precedes the name of any jazz artist who reaches the age of 30 and garners a few favorable reviews. But make no mistake, McCoy Tyner certainly deserves the word “legendary” preceding his name. Truly a jazz icon, the pianist has won many awards and prizes, including four Grammys, and the field’s highest honor: in 2002, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. His impact on the art form has been both significant and lasting.
The Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series recognizes Tyner with a tribute program Dec. 4 titled “Echoes With a Friend,” featuring pianists Geri Allen and Danilo Pérez performing in both solo and trio sets alongside McCoy Tyner Trio members Gerald Cannon (bass) and Francisco Mela (drums). To close the program, Tyner himself will join his trio.
With nearly 80 recordings to his name, Tyner has been at the forefront of jazz long enough to have inspired and influenced several generations of musicians, including Allen and Pérez. Allen is a founding member of the cutting-edge M-Base Collective, and her own all-female ACS Trio consisting of Terri Lyne Carrington (drums) and Esperanza Spalding (bass). Panama native Pérez frequently performs in the Wayne Shorter Quartet and with his own Danilo Pérez Trio.
The inspiration for the SCP Jazz program comes from Tyner’s 1972 solo piano tribute to composer-saxophonist and fellow jazz icon John Coltrane. Recorded live in Tokyo, “Echoes of a Friend” (Milestone) features two signature songs by Coltrane, “Naima” and “Promise,” along with works by Tyner, and “My Favorite Things,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard that was closely associated with Coltrane.
Tyner, who turns 77 on Dec. 11, grew up in Philadelphia; at 15, he was gigging with local groups around town. His main influences were the jazz piano greats Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum. “I loved them because they were so dedicated,” Tyner said. “I’ve always tried to honor those who went before me.”
But it was Tyner’s association with the John Coltrane Quartet from 1960 to 1965 when his artistry truly blossomed. “He can take anything, no matter how weird, and make it sound beautiful,” Coltrane said of him.
Fifty years later, Tyner looks back on his formative years with Coltrane. “I was very young but musically the two of us jelled very well. He was a big brother to me, a constant inspiration. He was very creative. I learned a lot listening to him.”
Before the young McCoy Tyner played his first notes of jazz, he studied classical piano. “I had a good background as a pianist,” he said. “In my early years as a pianist, I played a lot of Bach inventions and Beethoven. I bought books and studied. I liked Debussy and I liked Stravinsky’s music and a lot of Ravel. That music is so interesting, but as I got older and started performing in a blues band, I developed my own way of looking at things.”
Despite a lifetime of acquiring accolades, Tyner remains a modest man. He attributes much of his success and happiness to his wife and family life, and his explanation of his formidable pianism is a model of straightforwardness: “I practiced all the time.”
Jack Zimmerman is a Chicago-based writer and novelist.