Willie Pickens, a pianist who was a commanding presence on Chicago’s jazz scene for over half a century, has died.
“Dad left this earth today in New York at Lincoln Center, about to practice before soundcheck,” Bethany Pickens, who is also a musician, wrote early Wednesday on Instagram. “Now, he’s with my mom.”
Mr. Pickens, 86, had been scheduled to play Tuesday and Wednesday in New York at a “Jazz at Lincoln Center” show at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised Mr. Pickens as a “towering figure in our city’s cultural landscape, lighting the keyboard on fire with splashy chords and lightning runs over a career that spanned half a century.”
Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis called him “one of the great ones.”
“I’ve always admired Willie Pickens because he had 100 percent command of the instrument, but he was very humble,” Lewis said. “He would never say, ‘Yeah, I got it.’ He always said , ‘Oh, I’ve got so much to learn.’ ”
He mentored other musicians, like the night pianist Judy Roberts had trouble hitting the right chords in “Killer Joe” at the Jazz Showcase. Roberts said that when she spotted Mr. Pickens in the audience, “I yelled out, ‘Willie, help me play this!’ Willie got up, and he ran over, and he was hitting my leg on the beats. I finally lined up my chords.”
Mr. Pickens, who lived in Hyde Park, began his music career as a teacher at Lindblom High School and later taught at Wendell Phillips High School, both on the city’s South Side.
Roberts’ husband, saxophonist Greg Fishman, said Mr. Pickens was an extremely versatile jazzman: “He did bebop, post-bop and modern jazz.”
In a 1994 interview, he told the Chicago Sun-Times he had to overcome his short, stubby fingers to succeed.
“I don’t have big paws like Oscar [Peterson] or a nice, big stretch like Benny Green’s,” Mr. Pickens said. “I have to create illusions, make it sound like I’m doing something I’m not.
“I’m not able to play real stride” — the left-hand-driven style popularized in the early 1900s, he said. “I have to do rhythmic stuff with my left hand to suggest the feeling of momentum. It’s all a matter of compensation.”
But he was so skilled, the length of his digits didn’t matter, said Lewis: “Sometimes, he would seem to have 20 fingers.”
In his long career, Mr. Pickens accompanied stars including Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Elvin Jones and Sonny Stitt. He also played the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Ravinia Festival.
At Ravinia, the music education programs he offered for students “changed many students’ lives,” a spokesman said.
Jason Moran, the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., said: “Willie would attend performances to offer his enthusiasm and critique. It meant so much to us pianists who would perform in Chicago. He was a man full of heart, generosity — and a seriously ferocious pianist.”
According to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where Mr. Pickens was a visiting artist, he “began his career on Eddie Harris’ 1961 hit record ‘Exodus.’ ”
Growing up in Milwaukee, he was surrounded by music. His mother was an amateur pianist, and his stepdad played alto sax. He listened to recordings by Nat King Cole and Art Tatum. He went to high school with alto saxophonist Frank Morgan.
As a teenager, he met jazz trumpeter Jabbo Smith, who would become a school janitor. “He told us about chords and harmony and stuff, but it was a long time before we knew who he was,” he told the Sun-Times.
Mr. Pickens moved to Chicago in 1958.
In the 1960s, he recorded four albums with tenor sax great Harris. He also recorded with the Jazz Machine.
Mr. Pickens suffered a heart attack in 1987 but recovered and continued to perform.
In 1999, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley invited him to travel to China with him and other musicians on a trade and cultural mission.
Mr. Pickens’ wife Irma, whom he married in 1959, died before him.
Services are pending, said the Rev. Ashley Whitaker of Hyde Park Union Church, where Mr. Pickens was a longtime member.
Mr. Pickens’ humility was his hallmark, according to Whitaker, who said, “To meet him, to talk to him, you would have no idea he was this giant of jazz music in our city, country and the world.”