Remembering Larry Willis

December 20, 1940 – September 29, 2019

 

A tribute to the prolific and versatile jazz pianist

Pianist Larry Willis passed away on September 29, 2019 at the age of 76.

Lawrence Elliott Willis was born in Manhattan, NY on December 20, 1942, growing up in Harlem.

He had hopes of becoming an opera singer but, after teaching himself piano, Willis gravitated towards jazz, studying at the Manhattan School of Music.

At 19 he joined Jackie McLean’s band in 1965, appearing on McLean’s Right Now album although his recording debut was actually as a singer with the Music and Arts Chorale Ensemble (directed by Leonard Bernstein) before he gave up his singing career..

Among his countless number of musical associations were Hugh Masekela, Blood, Sweat and Tears (1972-77), Nat Adderley, Woody Shaw, Jerry Gonzalez’s Fort Apache Band, and Roy Hargrove.

Willis, who led at least 23 albums in his career and recorded with Hargrove, Adderley, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Shaw, Gonzalez, Gary Bartz, Cindy Blackman, Carla Bley, Louis Hayes, Jimmy Heath, Joe Henderson, Clifford Jordan, Carmen McRae, Lee Morgan, and David “Fathead” Newman among others, was music director of Mapleshade Records in the 1990s, producing two-thirds of the recordings released by that label during a 15 year period.

A top hard bop-oriented pianist for 50 years, Larry Willis was active up until the end.

Larry Willis is featured with trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s group in 1998, performing his emotional ballad “Ethiopia.”

-Scott Yanow