McCoy Tyner, Groundbreaking Pianist Of 20th Century Jazz, Dies At 81

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Jazz great McCoy Tyner, seen here in a 1970 photo, died Friday at the age of 81.
Jazz great McCoy Tyner, seen here in a 1970 photo, died Friday at the age of 81. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

McCoy Tyner, a pianist whose deep resonance, hammering attack and sublime harmonic invention made him a game-changing catalyst in jazz and beyond, died Friday, March 6, at his home in New Jersey. His death was confirmed by his manager. No cause of death was given. He was 81.

Tyner was the last surviving member of the John Coltrane Quartet, among the most momentous groups in jazz history. Few musicians have ever exerted as much influence as a sideman. His crucial role in the group's articulation of modal harmony, from the early 1960s on, will always stand as a defining achievement: The ringing intervals in his left hand, often perfect fourths or fifths, became the cornerstone of a style that endures today.

But Tyner was always a more multidimensional musician than the sum of his mannerisms would seem to suggest. And he had a long, consequential post-Coltrane career as a composer and bandleader. Among his dozens of albums are a handful regarded as classics, like Reaching Fourth, The Real McCoy and Atlantis. A number of his compositions, including "Passion Dance" and "Peresina," have entered the common repertory.

Alfred McCoy Tyner was born Dec. 11, 1938 in Philadelphia, the oldest child of Jarvis Tyner and the former Beatrice Stevenson. The oldest of three siblings, he began taking piano lessons at 13. Within a few years he was playing professionally in and around Philadelphia, as part of a modern jazz scene that was one of the most vibrant in the country.


In 1959, Tyner joined trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson in a group they called The Jazztet; he appeared on its first album, released the following year. That same year, 1960, Tyner played on Coltrane's album My Favorite Things; his tolling, meditative chords on the title track, a popular song borrowed from the hit Broadway musical The Sound of Music, were a key part of its allure.

The classic John Coltrane Quartet — with Tyner, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums — formally coalesced in 1962. For the next several years it created at a prodigious pace, recording landmark albums like Crescent and A Love Supreme, and setting a fearsome bar for intensity on the bandstand. Recordings like Live at Birdland have been prized by generations of musicians and fans; in 2005 another live document, Live at the Half Note: One Down, One Up, left another major impression, 40 years after its recording date.

Tyner stayed with Coltrane until soon after that recording, as the music grew more cacophonous, rhythmically abstract and untethered from root tonality. His piano chair was passed on to Alice Coltrane, who quickly made it her own.

"I was so immersed in the music when I was with John," Tyner told me in 1997. "The influence was so great, and the roles we all played in that group were so powerful; you couldn't divorce yourself from it just because you weren't physically there. For a while there, all the horn players that were with me wanted to sound like John. So I deliberately started using alto sax instead of tenor, and other instruments, because I wanted to kind of try something different."

But the intrepid tone and earnest spiritualism in Coltrane's music carried over into Tyner's — especially during a feverish stretch in the 1970s, on a series of searching, Afrocentric albums like Extensions and Sahara. The critic Gary Giddins, reflecting on the 1970s in The Village Voice, once pegged Tyner "the most influential pianist of the decade," an assessment that could credibly be extended outside that frame.

Tyner was a 2002 NEA Jazz Master, and a five-time Grammy winner — most recently in 2004 for his album Illuminations, featuring a band with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash. He worked extensively in a trio format; one longtime working band had Avery Sharpe on bass and Aaron Scott on drums.

The legacy of Tyner's pianism can be heard far and wide, in the music of everyone from salsa legend Eddie Palmieri to Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste. His innovations in harmony, with their intimations of transcendence, form a standard proudly upheld by contemporary pianists like Nduduzo Makhathini, whose forthcoming Blue Note debut bears the influence unmistakably.

"I feel very honored, actually," Tyner told me about the legions of pianists who have emulated his style. "I really do, because I think that if I could make a statement that makes a difference, and the influence could be preserved through the generations to come, that means that my stay here on earth has a meaning."

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