Larry Willis, whose ringing authority as a pianist extended to swinging post-bop, blaring jazz-rock, Cuban rumba and free improvisation, died on Sunday morning at the Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md. He was 76 and lived in Baltimore.
His death was confirmed by Pierre Sprey, the owner of Mapleshade Records, for which Willis had served as music director in the 1990s and 2000s. Sprey, a close friend, said Willis had been admitted to the hospital for severe pneumonia on Friday, before suffering a pulmonary aneuorysm.
An unerringly tasteful and often understated pianist, Willis had a prolific career as a sideman over more than 50 years. He was a close associate of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and the anointed piano surrogate in a sextet led by Carla Bley. Among many others who sought out his sterling support were saxophonists Cannonball Adderley, Joe Henderson, Jimmy Heath, Clifford Jordan and Stan Getz.
“He was the perfect sideman,” attests Sprey. “He had that natural bent for accompanying, which a few people have. It’s not because they’re selfless; they just take pride in making other people play better than they would otherwise.”
Willis served stints in a several prominent bands, each highlighting a different facet of his musical persona. He was a member of Blood, Sweat & Tears for most of the 1970s, making his debut on the aptly named album New Blood. From 1988 through the mid-‘90s, he played pacesetting Latin jazz with Jerry González and the Fort Apache Band. And from the late-1990s well into the aughts, he embodied the avuncular elder in an impeccable Roy Hargrove Quintet.
But to hail Willis as the ultimate team player, much as he was, runs the risk of slighting his achievements as a composer and bandleader. His own discography runs from the fiery jazz-funk of Inner Crisis (1973) to well over a dozen hard-bop sessions like Blue Fable (2007). He released a smart run of albums on Mapleshade, including Sanctuary (2003), an ambitious jazz-gospel project, and Exposé (2008), one in a series of freeform duo explorations with drummer Paul F. Murphy.
Willis’ book of originals includes a few that approach the threshold of new standards, at least for musicians who value post-bop literacy — songs like “To Wisdom, the Prize,” memorably recorded by Hargrove, and “Isabel the Liberator,” favored by trumpeter Woody Shaw.
A mournfully elegant Willis ballad titled “Ethiopia” was a staple of his tenure in Hargrove’s band, and he recorded it a few times himself. The most recent version appears on a 2008 HighNote album titled The Offering, with Eric Alexander on tenor saxophone, Eddie Gomez on bass and Billy Drummond on drums.
Lawrence Elliott Willis was born the youngest of three brothers in New York City on Dec. 20, 1942. He grew up in Harlem, shooting hoops with friends including Lew Alcindor, soon to be known as all-time basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In a statement provided to WBGO, Abdul-Jabbar remembers Willis for his “consistently creative and groundbreaking career,” as well as his longtime friendship. “It seems impossible that he was here and the gone so suddenly,” Abdul-Jabbar adds. “Despite the pain of losing him, I am able to be uplifted by Larry’s legacy. Larry’s recorded work is a testimony to the joy of his musical focus.”
Willis had a piano in the house throughout his childhood, though he barely touched it; one of his older brothers, Victor, was a classical virtuoso, so it may have been a matter of territorial pride. The youngest Willis aspired instead to be a classical singer, pursuing that major at the High School of Music & Art.
It was there that he met his first jazz peers, like Gomez and trumpeter Jimmy Owens. At around the same time, he fell in love with the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, initiating what would be a lifelong infatuation with pianist Wynton Kelly. Following his instincts, Willis ditched his vocal studies for the piano, at the top of his senior year. It was a late start, and he was self-taught — but he made such brilliant progress that he received a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music.
Willis met Masekela during their overlapping time in the conservatory. In fact, it was at Masekela’s urging that he took his first and only lessons, with a seasoned pianist and serious pedagogue named John Mehegan.
As a measure of how advanced Willis was by then, consider his first record date, with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. He was 19 when he played on the album, a Blue Note release titled Right Now! — and he contributed two of its four compositions. One of these, “Poor Eric,” is a ballad for multi-reedist Eric Dolphy, who had died the previous year at 36. The song is poetically terse, with a plaintive beauty that comes across even without that tragic context.
Willis — who is survived by a nephew, Elliott Willis, and a cousin, Trish Cooper — faced a life-disrupting challenge in 2007, when a fire consumed his home and most of his possessions in Upper Marlboro, Md. With assistance from Catholic Charities and the Jazz Foundation of America, he relocated to Baltimore; a benefit to offset his expenses featured admiring pianists like Randy Weston and Geri Allen.
In recent years, Willis embraced his own role as a jazz elder. He made two albums for Smoke Sessions Records with a supergroup called Heads of State, featuring longtime associates: saxophonist Gary Bartz, drummer Al Foster, and either Buster Williams or David Williams (no relation) on bass.
“There was something very unique about the way he played,” says producer Todd Barkan, whose club, Keystone Korner Baltimore, presented Willis in his final engagement. That gig, on July 31 and Aug. 1, featured bassist Blake Meister and drummer Victor Lewis. Both musicians later joined Willis in the studio, along with saxophonist Joe Ford and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, to record what will now be his final album, a posthumous release on HighNote.
Though Willis approached music with utmost seriousness, he was unhindered by pretensions or preconceptions. “My piano teacher always used to impress upon me the need to approach music from an eclectic mindset,” he told Marian McPartland in 2007, for an episode of Piano Jazz.
The callback to John Mehegan went further: “He gave me some very, very good advice that I keep in my forefront,” Willis recalled. “He said, ‘Larry, the piano is the most complicated piece of machinery man ever invented. And I asked him why, and he said: ‘Well, for starters: every time you sit down at this instrument, the odds are always 88 to 10, and they don’t get any better.”