Pianist Willie Pickens, who died Dec. 12, 2017, was an exemplary yet modest man. Gifted with world-class instrumental technique and creativity, he chose home and family over a musical life on the road, staying mostly in Chicago after arriving from Milwaukee in 1955, establishing himself as a first-call local accompanist, public school band director and faculty member at the American Conservatory of Music and Northern Illinois University.
Pickens’ family members presented a free memorial concert in his honor at Chicago’s Studebaker Theater on April 18, a date that would have marked his 87th birthday. The concert reflected many of his attributes, including his passion for jazz in its post-bebop, Coltrane-influenced form, and the role of mentors and educators to share their wisdom with younger artists on the bandstand. But most of all, the event radiated another aspect of Pickens’ personality: the warmth and pleasure of creating art that comes from the heart.
A full house of Pickens’ kinfolk, friends and fans listened for three hours to repertoire from their fallen hero’s six-decade career, performed by local stalwarts and colleagues from afar, interspersed with personal testimonials and an affecting slide show depicting his good, long life.
Pickens died while preparing for a gig, collapsing from a fatal heart attack on his way to a sound-check for a performance with trumpeter Marquis Hill at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York. Reportedly his last words, to Hill, were, “I’m so happy to be here to play with you.”
The memorial featured videotaped tributes from many jazz luminaries, including Jason Moran, Greg Tardy, Javon Jackson, Branford Marsalis and Bennie Green. They all referred to Pickens’ generosity of spirit and willingness to mentor, as did a note from a friend he’d met in 1957 who was best man at his wedding.
Producer Bradley Parker-Sparrow sent a poem avowing, “Legends do not fall/ Songs do not end.” Sparrow’s Southport Records label released four of the six available albums that showcase Pickens as a leader: his 1987 solo debut, It’s About Time!, two volumes of jazz interpretations of sacred music and a holiday collection, A Jazz Christmas.
Considering Pickens’ propulsive rhythmic sense, melodic originality and vibrant musical imagination—as well as the status he earned during his early 1990s tenure touring in Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine—it’s odd and unfortunate that other documentation of him is so limited. His discography includes two albums and a DVD with Jones, a duo album recorded with Marian McPartland in Chicago (Ain’t Misbehavin’: Live At The Jazz Showcase) and a Japanese import, Dark Eyes, on which he leads a trio with bassist George Mraz and drummer Joe Farnsworth.
Pickens’ longtime fans have a special appreciation for “Exodus,” the theme by Ernest Gold for Otto Preminger’s 1960 film about the founding of Israel, as swung by alto saxophonist Eddie Harris on Exodus To Jazz. Pickens, who had classical musical training, played the stately introduction and a chorus-long solo. He also was the namesake for the track titled “W.P.” and appeared on Harris’ four subsequent Vee-Jay albums.
At the memorial concert, Bethany Pickens—Willie’s daughter and an impressive pianist and bandleader in her own right—played “Exodus” in a quintet featuring alto saxophonist Donald Harrison (who had traveled from New Orleans for the event), guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Junius Paul and drummer Charles Heath. She followed that with “Straight No Chaser,” accompanied by Marlene Rosenberg (bass) and Robert Shy (drums).
Young musicians from the Ravina Jazz Scholars program that Pickens co-founded in 1995 had already stirred the crowd with renditions of “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “A Night In Tunisia,” as had pianist Stu Katz’s reminiscing about his family’s close relationship to the Pickens family.
Katz then dug into “Invitation,” which he said had been one of Pickens’ favorite songs, backed by bassist Larry Gray and Bethany Pickens on drums. She returned to the piano for a version of “Winter Wonderland” (it was snowing outside), with trumpeter Orbert Davis joining Paul and Heath.
Following David Pickens’ intimate reflections on his father, whom he described as a “man of faith,” Bethany Pickens, Walker, Paul and Heath cut loose on the spiritual “Wade In The Water,” and a 14-voice choir sang “Total Praise” and “Everyday Jesus.”
Photos of Willie Pickens were projected on the stage’s rear wall, accompanied by a recording of his solo rendition of “Lush Life.” There he was: a child in Milwaukee, an adult with Jones’ band in Japan, a slick promotional portrait, candid shots with fellow pianists, such as Barry Harris, Mal Waldron and Hank Jones, snapshots of his wife, children and grandchildren. In each picture Pickens had bright eyes and a small but engaging smile.
He had arranged Lorenz Hart’s “Spring Is Here” and Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring” for voices, so the choir visited those charts, backed by pianist Miguel de la Cerna, Rosenberg and Shy.
Pickens’ original compositions “In The Midst Of The Blues” and “Two For Good Measure” were offered by his fellow teachers from the Ravina program, including tenor saxophonist Pat Mallinger, trumpeter Pharez Whitted, trombonist Audrey Morrison, guitarist Broom, bassist Dennis Carroll, drummer Ernie Adams and percussionist Eric Hines.
More Chicagoans whose lives had been impacted by Pickens—among them trumpeter Tito Carrillo, soprano saxophonist Al Smith, guitarist Peter Lerner, bassist Joshua Ramos and drummer Marvin Sparks Jr.—paid tribute with a rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.”
An ensemble of Harrison, Hill, Katz, Broom, Gray and Shy tore up “Cherokee.” The evening ended with Harrison, Hill, Paul, Heath and Bethany Pickens playing her song “I Can Take You There.” The evening’s goal was to summon the spirit of Willie Pickens, and they succeeded in glorious fashion. DB