The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, along with Symphony Center Presents, mourns the loss of Chicago-based jazz pianist Willie Pickens, who died Dec. 13 in New York City. He was 86.
A composer, arranger and educator, Mr. Pickens was “a revered mentor to younger players and a symbol of the music itself,” Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich once observed. “It takes a lifetime to learn to construct such an essay in sound, and we’re fortunate that Pickens is here to show us how it’s done.”
Born in Milwaukee, Mr. Pickens remained “a constant force on Chicago’s jazz performance scene for over half a century,” after moving to the Hyde Park neighborhood in 1958. Leading his own trio, he made his belated Orchestra Hall debut as a headline artist in February 2016. However, over the last 20 years, he had appeared as a sideman in various lineups and programs, such as the CSO’s Day of Music in 1997 and 1998, and a 70th birthday tribute to Jazz Showcase impresario Joe Segal in 2003.
Though he recorded with saxophone great Eddie Harris on Chicago-based VeeJay Records from 1961 to 1966 and with clarinet icon Buddy DeFranco in 1977, Mr. Pickens spent much of his early career as an educator, teaching in area high schools from 1966 to 1990. Nearing 60, after receiving an invitation to tour with legendary drummer Elvin Jones, he decided to become a full-time performer, urged on by his wife, Irma, a jazz singer who had given up her own music career to nurture her husband’s ambitions. “I was going to take a leave of absence — a sabbatical,” Pickens said in a 2016 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “But there’s so much red tape when you take a leave. “She [Irma] said, ‘Just retire and go out on the road.’ She wanted me to have that experience. She was the one that encouraged me.”
Mr. Pickens went on to tour with Joe Henderson, Clark Terry, Eddie Harris, Wynton Marsalis, Quincy Jones, Louis Bellson, Bunky Green and Red Holloway, and appeared regularly at the annual Chicago Jazz Festival and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (where he performed in September). Between gigs, he also continued to teach. Since 1997, he had been on the faculty of Northern Illinois University’s School of Music and served as a Ravinia Festival Jazz Scholar. Mr. Pickens studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and received a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Irma Pickens died in 2015, after nearly 56 years of marriage. He is survived by daughter Bethany, a talented jazz pianist in her own right, who regularly appeared with her father in concert. Funeral services are pending.
A beloved Father of Chicago Jazz has made his transition. Willie Pickens’ spirit will be carried forward by all whose lives he touched. And we are many. pic.twitter.com/1iDTXcOkSb
— Jazz In Chicago (@jazzinstitute) December 13, 2017