Richard Wyands, Consummate Accompanist and Impeccable Jazz Pianist, Is Dead at 91

Oct 1, 2019

Richard Wyands, a pianist whose articulate touch and sensitive phrasing made him a first-tier accompanist over a career spanning 75 years, died on Sept. 25 in New York. He was 91.

News of his death spread this week, as the jazz world was still mourning the loss of two other esteemed pianists and veteran sidemen, Larry Willis and Harold Mabern.

Among the former associates to pay him homage was guitarist-bandleader Peter Bernstein, who saluted Wyands on social media as “one of the greatest jazz pianists ever to play.”

“His virtuosity was in his incredibly beautiful touch and total control of sound,” continued Bernstein, who worked often with Wyands in Jimmy Cobb’s Mob. Playing with him, Bernstein continued, “was a unique experience in the way he made you hear yourself and everything around you with greater clarity.”

Wyands brought that complementary skillset to hundreds of albums, some of them recognized now as classics. He played on the 1960 Roy Haynes Trio album Just Us, and on Roland Kirk’s 1961 salvo We Free Kings. He appears on more than a few albums by guitarist Kenny Burrell, including the 1971 gem God Bless the Child. And he is the most crucial accompanist behind vocalist Etta Jones on two notable early-1960s dates for Prestige, including Don’t Go to Strangers, which has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Though he evidently harbored no grand ambitions as a bandleader, Wyands made a small armload of albums, most often in a trio format. His first was Then, Here and Now, a 1978 effort for the Storyville label; his most recent was Lady of the Lavender Mist, for the Japanese label Venus.

Somewhere in the middle of that timeline, you’ll find Reunited and Get Out of Town, made with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, a rhythm team now all but synonymous with pianist Bill Charlap. The assertive yet effortless quality of Wyands’ playing in this band makes it easy to understand why any horn player or singer would want him percolating behind them.

Richard Francis Wyands was born on July 2, 1928 in Oakland, Calif., and raised in nearby Berkeley. He began playing the piano in grade school, at 7 or 8, taking lessons from a neighborhood teacher. (He was friendly with her kids.) He studied the classical repertory first, before taking a shine to jazz pianists like Fats Waller.

He was playing around the Bay Area by his teenage years, and enrolled at San Francisco State College, where he earned his degree in music in 1950. For a time, he was the house pianist at the Black Hawk, where he backed an array of star attractions passing through town — and often played opposite fearsome pianists like Art Tatum and Erroll Garner, who informed his style along with earlier influences, like Teddy Wilson and Nat King Cole. 

Wyands relocated to Canada for a stretch in the mid-‘50s, becoming a fixture on the scene in Ottawa, where he worked with singers including Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae. He followed McRae to New York in ’58, and eventually found work with everyone from bassist Charles Mingus to saxophonist Gigi Gryce to Burrell, one of his most productive associations.

In the last couple of years, Wyands led his trio in a weekly residency at the 75 Club in Lower Manhattan, usually working with two longtime associates, bassist Lisle Atkinson and drummer Leroy Williams. And he made a point of keeping his ears open.

“I have to listen to everybody,” he told Eugene Holley, Jr. last year, in a feature for Hot House magazine. “I try to understand everybody’s playing.”