McCoy Tyner loves to tell this story.
When he was growing up in West Philadelphia, he says, his mother, Beatrice, owned a beauty parlor in the family’s home. Tyner, with the blessing of his mother and father, who sang in a gospel quartet, began playing the piano at age 13. Unfortunately, he did not have a place to practice until his mother bought him a piano. And she placed it in the biggest room in the house — the beauty parlor.
“In our home, everything was either above or behind the shop,” he says. “The kitchen was behind the shop, the living room was behind the shop, and the bedrooms were above the shop. I had a little band of guys I was going to school with. She’d be in there doing hair, and she’d tell us, ‘Y’all go ahead in there and jam. Go on ahead and play.’ “
After that, any time a customer came to Beatrice Tyner’s beauty shop, they got a free jazz concert.
More than a half-century later, McCoy Tyner, now a grandfather, is still playing his piano, but he’s making a whole lot more money. This young kid from West Philly is now one of the most decorated, iconic and influential jazz pianists on earth. He has won five Grammys. Tyner will play on Monday, March 15, at McCarter with his longtime sidemen Gerald Cannon on bass and Eric Kamau Gravatt on drums. Joining the trio is saxophonist Gary Bartz, a fellow Philadelphian whom Tyner has known for years. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a young(er) Cuban pianist whom Tyner has greatly influenced, will appear as a special guest.
“He’s a really gifted artist, and a nice person too,” says Tyner of Bartz. “And that helps. Some people hook up better than others. That happened with John (Coltrane) as well — although Gary is a different type of player — they both have an honesty about what they play. It comes from their heart. It is very important to be able to listen to something that someone else is playing and be able to respond accordingly so I know how to accompany him. When you’re on the stage in the same group, you have to know how to work together.”
And working together Tyner does. He was a member of several of jazz’s most important bands, especially the John Coltrane Quartet between 1960 and 1965, where he recorded, among other classics, “My Favorite Things,” as well as the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet, where he recorded the original version of the standard “Killer Joe.”
Recently he has been collaborating with tap dance artist Savion Glover, an array of guitarists (on his 2008 disc “Guitar”), and saxophonist Joe Lovano, whom he appeared with last month at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Tyner, whose brother Jarvis and nephew Colby have also achieved some degree of prominence in their own right, says he loves playing in Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia is a great city,” he says. Tyner was born in 1938 to African American emigrants from North Carolina, and he is one of three brothers. He attended Sulzberger Junior High School and West Philadelphia High in his old neighborhood.
“I had some great teachers,” he says. “I studied all the classical repertoire, Bach, Beethoven, all of that. I studied harmony and theory. Of course, the first band I had was rhythm and blues.”
While in Philadelphia he played with and learned from some of the best — Golson, Morgan, saxophonist Paul Jeffrey. The biggest influence on a young McCoy Tyner, at least from the pianistic perspective, however, was the great Bud Powell, who also came from the Philadelphia area. “He was from Willow Grove, not far from Overbrook or West Philly. He had been in New York and had played with Bird, with all the greats, Diz, all of them” Tyner says. “Bud was kind of eccentric though. He’d be walking around our neighborhood — sometimes he’d stay with us or a neighbor — and he’d just be walking around the neighborhood. So we young musicians would walk around the neighborhood with him. One time he came and played my piano in my mother’s shop. I never forgot that.”
Tyner says Powell’s biggest influence on him was in terms of technique. “His dexterity was phenomenal on the instrument. He wasn’t a technician with no ideas; he was a technician with ideas. Some people just run up and down the keyboard without saying anything, just fast bunches of notes. The thing is, his technical improvisations were filled with phenomenal harmonic ideas. He had a great harmonic sense. He learned a lot from Thelonious Monk.”
Another great influence on Tyner, of course, was Coltrane. “I was playing in Calvin Massey’s band — he was a trumpet player and a writer. We had rehearsed a lot with John — they were friends. He was on a break from Miles (Davis) at the time. He said he had some gigs around and asked me if I wanted to play on them. Me being a teenager (17), I was honored.”
Thus began one of Tyner’s most creative, intense periods, both personally and professionally. With Coltrane, Tyner developed his modal style of accompaniment, where chord changes didn’t mean anything; scales and modes governed where improvisations went. The approach was horizontal rather than vertical, as the possibilities of where tunes and improvisations could go was broadened substantially. Tyner had already been hip to a massive array of sounds, from the blues and gospel to African and Afro-Latin music to the early precursors of hip-hop and even to Appalachian and Japanese music. He synthesized all of these influences into a percussive, left-hand-heavy, sophisticated style that has been copied so much by those who have come after Tyner that it has become almost cliche.
“He was a great character, a great composer, and he was able to recognize the talent I had. Great musicians can recognize the talent that others have, and know how to nurture it,” says Tyner.
As a Coltrane sideman, Tyner recorded classics such as “Live at the Village Vanguard,” “Impressions,” “Crescent,” “A Love Supreme,” “Ascension,” and “Meditations.” After leaving Coltrane in 1965 because he couldn’t handle the atonality of the saxophonist’s later work, he began recording with greats such as bassist Ron Carter, former bandmate/drummer Elvin Jones, and saxophonist Joe Henderson. His run of popular and critically acclaimed discs, from “The Real McCoy” in 1967 to last year’s “Solo: Live from San Francisco,” will not stop any time soon.
He has immensely enjoyed his collaborations with Glover. Tap dancing, he says, is an aspect of African American culture that many in this generation do not understand. “That is a black art form, and he is one who is keeping it alive,” he says of the 36-year-old Newark native. “He is an offshoot of Bojangles and all of them. Jazz and tap go hand in hand. Look at those guys, Fred Astaire, Donald O’Connor, Gene Kelly, they all watched what black tap dancers did.”
He says he would like to do more with Glover. “I want people around of the world to see the connection. When we perform, we do exchanges with the drummer — he’d tap eight bars, the drummer would do eight bars. Dancing is a very important thing to me.”
And jazz, which always seems to be threatened, will survive, says Tyner. “I know about hip-hop, that’s part of our culture too. But I think that a lot of the young people in the music are going to continue putting what they do into a jazz setting, and that the music will grow and live through them.”
McCoy Tyner Trio with special guest Gonzalo Rubalcaba, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Monday, March 15, 7:30 p.m. McCoy Tyner, a Philadelphia native, joined the jazz scene in the early 1950s. Gary Bartz joins the trio on alto saxophone. $43 to $54. 609-258-2787 and www.mccarter.org.