Chicago Jazz Pianist Willie Pickens Is Remembered For Performing And Teaching

Dec 17, 2017
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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Let's take a moment to remember the Chicago Jazz pianist Willie Pickens, who died last week at age 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUAREZ: Pickens arrived on the Chicago jazz scene in 1958 and immediately drew attention with his freewheeling style. At a time when one-handed piano playing was in vogue, Willie Pickens cooked with both hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMSEY LEWIS: I mean, the word was out. When you go to Chicago, check out where Willie's playing.

SUAREZ: Jazz pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis worked with Pickens at the Ravinia Jazz Mentors Program, where Pickens was a beloved teacher.

LEWIS: He had a way with children, a way of teaching. And get out of the way of his piano playing. I mean, he could play that piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUAREZ: Over the years, Pickens played with all the jazz greats and some who would grow up to be great. He taught in the Chicago Public Schools. And his own daughter, Bethany, grew into a talented jazz pianist in her own right. Last year, the two took to the stage at the Kennedy Center for NPR's annual Jazz Piano Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE OF BETHANY AND WILLIE PICKENS' "O COME, O COME EMANNUEL")

SUAREZ: NPR Music's Felix Contreras chatted with the father-daughter duo after their set.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Which is stronger, the musical connection or the family connection? How's that work?

WILLIE PICKENS: First of all, I am the father.

(LAUGHTER)

W. PICKENS: So in one sense, I'm the boss. So that should be the strongest. But no, musically, I think our connection's very strong musically. She has a very strong sense of rhythm, and we work very well together. So I appreciate her efforts, and I couldn't do it without her.

(APPLAUSE)

BETHANY PICKENS: I've been told that the bassinette was rolled up to the piano, so I think that might be the start. I guess you could say I learned from the crib.

CONTRERAS: Ladies and gentlemen, Bethany and Willie Pickens.

(SOUNDBITE OF BETHANY AND WILLIE PICKENS' "LITTLE DRUMMER BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.