Willie Pickens

Born April 18, 1931
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.

Died December 13, 2017 (aged 86)
New York
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, arranger, educator
Instruments Piano

Willie Pickens (April 18, 1931 – December 13, 2017) was an American jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and educator.

Pickens was born in Milwaukee on April 18, 1931. He studied piano formally from the age of 14. He attended Lincoln High School in Milwaukee with saxophonist Bunky Green. Pickens also studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

Pickens joined the army in 1951. He obtained a B.S. in music education from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in 1958 and moved to Chicago in the same year.

In the early 1960s, Pickens played on saxophonist Eddie Harris’ first four recordings for Vee-Jay Records. His period with Harris lasted between 1960 and 1966. Pickens taught music at public schools from 1966 until 1990. He was also a faculty member of the American Conservatory of Music between 1971 and 1987.

Pickens recorded with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco in 1977, and drummer Louis Bellson in 1994. Pickens played in drummer Elvin Jones’ band between 1990 and 1997, including internationally.

According to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, “Pickens appeared regularly at international jazz festivals and performed at Chicago Jazz Festival almost yearly from its inception.” For jazz musicians in Chicago, Pickens has become “a revered mentor to younger players and a symbol of the music itself”, in the words of a Chicago Tribune commentator. He has taught at Northern Illinois University’s School of Music since 1997. The saxophonist Lou Donaldson recently when? told Donald Harrison, “Willie Pickens is one of the last great bebop pianists.”

Pickens died in New York on December 13, 2017.

Personal life

Pickens’ wife, Irma Pickens, died in 2015 after 55 years of marriage. A daughter, Bethany, also plays the piano professionally and has recorded with her father.


As leader/co-leader

Year recorded Title Label Personnel/Notes

1987 It’s About Time! Southport Trio, with Dan Shapera (bass), Robert Shy (drums); reissued on CD with concert solo piano tracks from 1981 and 1986[10]
1998 Jazz Christmas Southport Quartet, with Nicholas Payton (trumpet, flugelhorn), Larry Gray (bass), Robert Shy (drums)
2000 Ain’t Misbehavin’ Concord Jazz Duo, with Marian McPartland (piano)
2005 Mr Swing Pony Canyon Trio, with George Mraz (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums); also released as Dark Eyes
2005 Jazz Spirit, Volume 1 Southport Some tracks solo piano; some tracks duo, with Bethany Pickets (piano); other tracks include Pat Mallinger (tenor sax, alto sax), Ari Brown (tenor sax), Tito Carril (flugelhorn), Marlene Rosenberg, Rob Amster, Larry Gray (bass; separately), Kobie Watkins, Robert Shy (drums; separately)
2005 Jazz Spirit, Volume 2 Southport As Jazz Spirit, Volume 1; differences are Pat Mallinger (alto sax), Tito Carrillo (trumpet, flugelhorn)
2010* Just Like Me Skiptone Duo, with Milton Suggs (vocals)

As sideman

Year recorded Leader Title Label

1961 Eddie Harris Exodus to Jazz Vee-Jay
1961 Eddie Harris Mighty Like a Rose Vee-Jay
1961 Eddie Harris Jazz for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Vee-Jay
1961–62 Eddie Harris A Study in Jazz Vee-Jay
1963 Eddie Harris For Bird and Bags Exodus
1966 Bunky Green Playin’ for Keeps Cadet
1977 Buddy DeFranco Gone with the Wind Storyville
1990s Francine Griffin The Song Bird Delmark
1991 Elvin Jones In Europe Enja
1992 Elvin Jones Going Home Enja
1993 Elvin Jones It Don’t Mean a Thing Enja
1993 Steve Grossman Time to Smile Dreyfus
1994 Louie Bellson Salute Chiaroscuro
1994 Ed Peterson The Haint Delmark
1995 Clark Terry Top and Bottom Brass Chiaroscuro
1997 Frank Catalano Cut It Out Delmark
1998 Von Freeman 75th Birthday Celebration Half Note
1998 Von Freeman Von & Ed Delmark
1999 Malachi Thompson Talkin’ Horns Delmark
2014* Peter Lerner Continuation Origin

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