Saxophonist & Jazz Educator Pete Yellin Dies at 74


Pete Yellin (1941–2016) (Photo: Courtesy of the Yellin family)

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Pete Yellin, an acclaimed alto saxophonist and jazz educator, passed away in Berkeley, California, on April 13, following a series of strokes. He was 74.

Peter Michael Yellin was born July 18, 1941, in New York City. He lived and worked in the New York metro area until he moved to Northern California in 2006.

Inspired by Art Pepper’s recordings in the 1950s, Yellin began studying music with his father, who was an NBC studio pianist. Later he enrolled in The Julliard School.

Following his graduation from the prestigious institution, he started working professionally in the New York area. He later earned a master’s degree in saxophone at Brooklyn College.

During the 1960s Yellin performed with Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich, Tito Puente and many others. Yellin met keyboardist Chick Corea and they became good friends and collaborators, working together off and on for decades.

He was in Joe Henderson’s band from 1970 to 1973 and went on to play with Mario Bauza, Maynard Ferguson, Sam Jones, Charles Earland and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

In 1974 Yellin formed his own band and went on to release several albums. His concert highlights included performances at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Among the titles in Yellin’s discography are Rich’s Swingin’ New Big Band (1966), Henderson’s In Pursuit Of Blackness (1971) and Puente’s The Mambo King: His 100th Album (1991). Yellin’s name was misspelled in the credits of the Henderson disc, which also featured contributions from George Cables (piano), Stanley Clarke (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums, electric piano), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Woody Shaw (trumpet), Lenny White (drums) and Airto Moreira (percussion).

Yellin’s leader project Mellow Soul (1999) highlighted his original compositions. He surrounded himself with a remarkable cast, which included Corea, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, saxophonist Vincent Herring, drummer Carl Allen and bassist Harvie S (aka Harvie Swartz).

In addition to being an accomplished musician, Yellin was well regarded as a jazz educator. He founded the jazz program at Long Island University in 1984 and served as the Coordinator of Jazz Studies there until the late 1990s.

In the 1980s and ’90s, he worked extensively with Eddie Palmieri, George Benson and others.

One of his longest-running partnerships was with bandleader (and Yellowjackets saxophonist) Bob Mintzer, who formed his own big band in 1984. Yellin would work with the group until 2007.

Among the Mintzer albums on which Yellin appeared are Incredible Journey (1985), Camouflage (1986), Art Of The Big Band (1990), Only In New York (1993), Latin From Manhattan (1998) and Gently (2003).

After Yellin suffered a major stroke in 2011, Mintzer posted a tribute at his blog. He wrote, “Pete Yellin has only to play a few notes and you know that it is Pete who is playing. He is of the generation where each player had a distinctive sound, and spent more time developing a personal vocabulary than copying other players. Granted, Pete came out of the Bird, Coltrane, Rollins school. But the majority of Pete’s sound is his own. The best way to describe his playing is free flowing, expressive, quirky and personal. There is only one Pete Yellin!”

Mintzer added, “Pete is one of the nicest cats you will ever meet. He will freely offer information about what he is doing musically at any time, and is quick to take an interest in whatever it is you are doing.”

Chick Corea also shared his thoughts: “To Pete Yellin, my dear friend and Musical Teammate for a lifetime. Thanks for your dedication to music throughout your whole productive life. You have made a big difference by your heartfelt contributions—and you have lifted the spirits of all the souls your music touched. For me you were a true friend and so kind to help me get to know the Big City where I found my musical heroes, my musical home and my musical self.”

Following the stroke in 2011, Yellin received many admirers into his home. Fellow musicians would routinely play mini-concerts in Yellin’s living room to lift his spirits. Yellin would hold his sax and contribute a few notes when he was physically able to do so.

Yellin will be buried in a private family ceremony in Oakland, California. Plans for a public celebration of his life will be announced later.

Survivors include his wife, Jane Oriel of El Cerrito, California; his daughter and son-in-law, Allegra Yellin and Jordan Ruyle, and two granddaughters, all of Oakland, California; and his siblings, Jill Fischer (residing in Connecticut), Bob Yellin (Vermont) and Gene Yellin (New York).

The family issued a statement, which said, in part, that Pete Yellin leaves behind “a multitude of friends who will miss his warm personality, ready smile, great sense of humor and generous heart.”

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