During a recording session for Clifton Anderson’s «Decade» on Doxy Records, we caught up with one of the great and truly under appreciated pianists in Jazz, Larry Willis.
Larry was born in 1942 in Manhattan’s Harlem. Surprisingly, he entered music not as a pianist but as a voice major, first at New York’s High School of Music and Art for gifted students, then at the Manhattan School of Music. His senior year in high school, at 17, he had his first recording date, a classical gig with the Music and Arts Choral Ensemble singing a Copland opera conducted by no less then Leonard Bernstein.
But something even more important than that happened to Larry at the beginning of that senior year. He started playing the piano—no lessons, no teacher, just figuring it out by himself. By the end of the winter, he was playing his first professional gigs in a jazz trio with two of his classmates, Al Foster on drums and Eddie Gomez on bass. No one knew it then, but that little trio was probobly the most distinguished high school jazz group in the country.
Soon after entering the Manhattan School of Music, Larry switched from voice to music theory. For one, he was running head-on into the all-too-evident barriers facing black musicians in the classical world.
On the positive side, Larry’s interest in jazz was turning into passion. A fellow student, Hugh Masakela, heard him jamming with Al Foster. Hugh was so impressed that he hooked Larry up with John Mehegan, the legendary New York jazz piano teacher. Those were Larry’s first-ever lessons. By the end of that year at the Manhattan School, at age 19, Larry was playing regularly with Jackie McLean, the great alto saxophone innovator.
I know of no more remarkable entry into jazz: a kid of 17 decides to play the piano for the first time; four months later, he’s playing gigs with a soon-to-be world class trio. A year and a half after that, he’s making jazz history with the next giant of the alto after Bird. Talk about a natural gift!
A year after Larry’s graduation in 1965, Jackie gave him his first recording date—Right Now, on Blue Note—and on that first date recorded the first two pieces in a continuing stream of Willis compositions.
Since then, Larry has played on more than 300 records. He’s played or recorded with almost every great jazz musician of the modern era, stars like Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw, Hugh Masakela, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Stan Getz, Art Blakey, Art Taylor, Clifford Jordan, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn. His most recent CDs include a Larry Willis Quintet and four Larry Willis Trio recordings plus two solo sessions (labels are Audioquest, Steeplechase, Evidence and Mapleshade).