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https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/03/arts/music/larry-willis-dead.html?action=click
 

Larry Willis, Pianist Who Crossed Genres, Is Dead at 76

By Giovanni Russonello

Oct. 3, 2019

In a career that began in the early 1960s, he worked with a long and varied list of musicians and groups including Hugh Masekela, Carla Bley and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Larry Willis performing in London in 2015.
Larry Willis performing in London in 2015. Robin Little/Redferns, via Getty Images

Larry Willis, a prolific pianist who nimbly traversed genres over a five-decade career, died on Sunday in Baltimore. He was 76.

The bassist Blake Meister, who played with him often, said the cause was a pulmonary hemorrhage. 

Mr. Willis became a trusted accompanist for figures like the bebop-and-beyond saxophonist Jackie McLean, the South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela and the eclectic composer and arranger Carla Bley. He played in the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears, and later in Jerry Gonzalez’s Fort Apache Band, a pioneering Latin-jazz ensemble.

He ultimately took part in sessions for hundreds of albums, including nearly two dozen of his own.

Raised in Harlem, Mr. Willis didn’t start playing piano until his late teens, but once he did, he soared. Immersed in a thriving New York music scene, he worked with some of jazz’s most prominent figures before branching out into Latin music, fusion and occasionally free jazz. The breadth of his career, he later said, reflected the world in which he’d been raised.

“Harlem was a melting pot of a lot of different ethnic people,” he said in a 2010 interview for the website All About Jazz. “There are so many valid schools of thought under the umbrella of this music that we call jazz.”

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“Every time I sit down at the piano, the more I learn about it, the more I don’t know,” he added. “That keeps my interest in this music, in all forms. I’m trying to be not just a better pianist, but the best complete musician that I can be.”

Lawrence Elliott Willis was born in Harlem on Dec. 20, 1942, the youngest of Maggie and Peter Willis’s three sons. His brother Victor was a classically trained pianist, but Larry mostly ignored the family piano, focusing instead on his studies as a classical voice student at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan.

It was only in his senior year of high school, when a friend started coming over to play Miles Davis albums on the Willises’ record player, that Larry became transfixed by the jazz piano. First it was Red Garland on “Milestones,” then Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on “Kind of Blue.” 

“That was it,” Mr. Willis later said. He was determined to teach himself piano.

By the end of the school year he had done just that, and was working professionally in a trio with two classmates, the bassist Eddie Gomez and the drummer Al Foster.

Mr. Willis grew up playing basketball alongside his friend Lew Alcindor (who would soon become known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and he was offered basketball scholarships to multiple universities. But he chose instead to study theory at the Manhattan School of Music. 

Mr. Willis was married and divorced several times. Both his brothers died before him. Information on survivors was not immediately available. 

At 19, Mr. Willis caught Mr. McLean’s ear. He joined Mr. McLean’s touring band and recorded with him throughout the 1960s, including on the now-classic album “Right Now!,” Mr. Willis’s debut on record. 

He composed two of the album’s four tracks, the minor-key ballad “Poor Eric— dedicated to the saxophonist Eric Dolphy, who had recently died — and “Christel’s Time,” an up-tempo number with a spiraling melody. Even on the other tunes, Mr. Willis’s bright, dancing accompaniment and perfervid playing in the middle-high register announced a personal style, although he was just 22 years old when it was recorded. 

He also began working frequently with Hugh Masekela, who had been his classmate at the Manhattan School of Music. Mr. Willis would appear on a handful of Mr. Masekela’s albums, including the standout “Home Is Where the Music Is” (1972); their musical partnership would continue until Mr. Masekela’s death in 2018.

In 1970 Mr. Willis made his first recording as a leader, “A New Kind of Soul,” for the small LLP label, incorporating elements of funk, Latin jazz and South African music. He followed it in 1973 with “Inner Crisis,” a similarly eclectic record, for Groove Merchant.

He joined Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1972 and stayed for five years. His jazz career continued apace, with work alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Art Blakey and Nat Adderley.

It would be 15 years before Mr. Willis released a third album of his own. But starting with “My Funny Valentine” in 1988, he recorded prolifically for the SteepleChase, Mapleshade and HighNote labels, often leading all-star bands. 

After moving to a Maryland suburb, he became a frequent presence on stages in Washington and Baltimore, and joined Mapleshade as its music director. On several releases he arranged music for orchestras, a challenge he found particularly rewarding.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Mr. Willis was a member of the young trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s quintet, playing twin roles as accompanist and mentor.

After a house fire in 2007, he moved to Baltimore, where he remained a figure of broad renown among fellow musicians. He gave his final performance on Aug. 1 at the city’s newest jazz club, the Keystone Korner.

A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 5, 2019, Section B, Page 16 of the New York edition with the headline: Larry Willis, 76, Pianist, Who Criss-Crossed Genres. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

 

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