In Memoriam: Larry Willis (1942–2019)


Larry Willis (1942–2019)


Wills persevered through the rest of the decade, but his third album, My Funny Valentine (Jazz City) wasn’t released until 1988. It was his tenure with trumpeter and conguero Jerry González’s groundbreaking Latin jazz ensemble, Fort Apache Band, that really helped rejuvenate Willis’ career. The keyboardist made his debut with the combo on the 1993 disc Earth Dance (Sunnyside) and would go on to record an additional four discs with the troupe.

“Larry brought an energetic approach to the music each and every time,” said saxophonist Joe Ford, who was also a longtime member of the Fort Apache Band. “Nobody in Latin music comped on the piano like Larry. He was a lot more rhythmic, because he was locked in that rhythm section with drummer Steve Berrios, bassist Andy Gonzalez, and Jerry on congas.”

In the early-1990s, Willis also developed a fruitful relationship with MapleShade as a solo artist and recorded some splendid avant-garde duet discs with the likes of baritone saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett and drummer Paul Murphy; Willis also became the label’s de facto music director and producer. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove then recruited Willis for his 1995 disc, Family, and 2000’s ballad-heavy Moment To Moment. The 2000s found the keyboardist migrating to the HighNote imprint for a string of records as well. And in 2012, he received Howard University’s Benny Golson Jazz Master Award.

Toward the end of his life, Willis settled in Baltimore, where he continued playing with jazz musicians who spanned multiple generations.

“Mentorship is the best thing that describes him,” said Wolf. “He was all about playing with the younger generation and giving them a chance to succeed in this music. In Baltimore, there’s a lot of young musicians who need guidance. To have a legend like Larry living in the heart of the city was such a huge, positive thing. You could learn a lot just being around someone like him.” DB

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