Willie Pickens


A visitor to New York City asks a passerby, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” and is told “Practice, practice, practice!” Well, Willie Pickens did practice, practice, practice, and found his way to Carnegie Hall in 1992, as a member of the Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine, an experience that today he ranks as one of his fondest professional memories. Willie’s experiences as a member and leader of ensembles ranging from trios to big bands would fill volumes, yet at 75, his schedule is as busy as ever.

Willie was born into a Milwaukee family that valued music. Willie’s mother, herself an amateur pianist, saw to it that Willie’s emerging talent was developed by encouraging his formal study of the instrument. His stepfather, an avid jazz fan and alto sax player, introduced him to the music of Art Tatum via the radio; there were few jazz venues in Milwaukee. Willie also discovered the likes of Nat “King” Cole and Bud Powell—artists that would have a profound influence on his musical development.

In 1954, Willie earned a teacher’s certificate from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee and went on to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, in 1958, to receive his B.S. in Music Education. His sterling academic credentials have enabled him to share his gifts with many young players, both as a performer and teacher.

Ultimately, Willie’s love of jazz would drive his musical career. Having “caught the bug” playing with saxophonist Bunky Green and pianist Billy Wallace, Willie moved to Chicago as soon as he’d finished his degree. “Chicago was where the action was,” he says, and started his baptism by fire in the city many regarded as the hub of the jazz piano world.

Although Willie met with moderate success as a young musician, he married and started a family in 1959 and quickly realized that “if you’ve got kids, you’ve got to be sure how much money is coming in every week.” While continuing to perform, Willie landed a job as a music instructor in 1966 at Lindblom High School on the South Side of Chicago, close to his home in Hyde Park. Since then, Willie has had distinguished dual careers as a performer and educator: he has served as band director for Lindblom and Wendell Phillips high schools and as Chair of the Department of Music at Phillips; he started Kenwood Academy’s first jazz band; he has also directed the City of Chicago’s All-City High School Band and taught at the American Conservatory of Music (where his daughter Bethany, also a talented pianist, received her degree). Today he continues to teach piano part-time in the Northern Illinois University’s jazz program and serves in the Ravinia/Chicago Public School Jazz Mentors Program.

After he had recorded and toured with the multitalented Eddie Harris in the early ’60s, Willie’s live appearances were almost all limited to the midwest for the next two decades, while his career as an educator flourished. From 1966 to 1986, he appeared on recordings headlined by Bunky Green, E. Parker McDougal, Vernel Fournier, and Joanie Pallatto. He also performed with Sammy Davis Jr., at Orchestra Hall, and with Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack, and Minnie Ripperton at the Mill Run Theatre in Niles, near Chicago.

1987 saw the release of Willie’s first recording as leader. It’s About Time (Southport S-SSD008) featured bassists Larry Gray and Dan Shapera and drummers Wilbur Campbell and Robert Shy, in trio settings, as well as Willie in two solo cuts. Critic Jim Roberts, writing in Down Beat, hailed the release as “breathtaking in its complexity,” while Chicago Tribune music critic Larry Kart called it “a major breakthrough.” The album is even more amazing given the fact that Willie suffered a heart attack hours before he was to have begun his first recording session. A scare like that could have resulted in a more tentative approach, but after a few months rest and therapy, Willie came back to complete the project, which Lloyd Sachs called “lively” and “hard-driving,” featuring “flights of abandoned improvisation.” The Arts section of the Chicago Tribune named It’s About Time one of the ten best jazz and mainstream pop albums of 1987.

In 1990, Willie was invited to join the mighty Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. His first appearance with this legendary band took place later that year at the Bottom Line in New York and also featured Wynton Marsalis. Willie’s commitment to the Jazz Machine over the next several years meant retirement from full-time teaching in the public schools, but enabled him to serve as a linchpin for the group, appearing in Japan, Europe, and Canada, as well as in many U.S. cities.

Although Willie’s touring schedule has been less hectic for the past decade, he continues to be one of Chicago’s most in-demand pianists for visiting artists. He has performed several times at the famed Chicago Jazz Festival, to rave reviews, and has been the featured pianist on impresario Joe Segal’s Jazz Cruises, where he has shared the stage with Clark Terry, Louie Bellson, and Red Holloway, among others. He has also performed with fellow pianist Marian McPartland, both in concert and on her well-loved NPR show, Piano Jazz. 2001 saw the release of their album of duets Ain’t Misbehavin’ on the Concord label.

Both Willie and his wife, Irma, have been members of Hyde Park Union Church (HPUC) since the 1970s. Their contributions to the church, both musical and otherwise, have been immeasurable. Willie’s arrangements of hymns, spirituals, and carols have delighted the congregation for years. From the late 1980s through 1994, Willie and Senior Minister Susan Johnson led a special annual Christmas service in which Willie gave well-known Christmas music his own jazz treatment. “Gradually, it dawned on us that we should open it up to the public,” recalls Johnson, but she had to convince Willie to play in his trademark volcanic style; “Willie kept saying ‘but this is church,’ and he thought he should be more reverential while playing in the sanctuary.” In 1995, the first Jazz Christmas—a full-blown concert with featured guest artists—was held, and it has been growing in popularity ever since. Anchored by Willie on piano, Robert Shy on drums, and either Larry Gray or Marlene Rosenberg on bass, guests have included Kurt Elling, Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, and Susan May, to name only a few. In 1998, with guest Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Willie released A Jazz Christmas (Southport S-SSD0056). Listen to a sample track on the “Discography” page!

Most recently, Willie has concentrated on sacred music outside the Christmas tradition. His HPUC concert series, Stories That Tell Themselves, explored themes of theophany, unfathomable love, forgiveness, and service. Two CDs - JazzSpirit I and JazzSpirit II - featuring solo, duet, and ensemble settings featuring Gary Bartz (alto sax) and Terrell Stafford (trumpet) reinterpreting hymns and spirituals including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “My God Is So High,” and “Down By The River” were released in February 2006.

In JazzSpirit I and II, Willie Pickens takes European canonical hymns, American gospel music, and African-American Spirituals, which have become “church” and puts them into the wonderfully strange and compelling vernacular of jazz. Mr. Pickens uses the phenomenal range and power of jazz to magnify the unfathomable breadth and length and height and depth of the Divine.

In Mr. Pickens’ own words:

“I knew that I wanted to present this sacred music while maintaining the intent of the composer, rather than trying to force it into a jazz setting. The music had to speak for itself so my arrangements were conceived first, and then I matched the musicians to showcase their creative strengths...At the end of each recording session, all of my expectations were far exceeded.”

Lloyd Sachs, music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, writes:
"Pickens' joyful devotion to religion is matched by his joyful belief in the higher power of improvisation...his originality and winning personality shine forth."

JazzSpirit Volumes 1 and 2



JazzSpirit  Volume 1


Jesus Loves Me

    O My Soul Bless Your Redeemer

A Mighty Fortress

Including: Rob Amster, Ari Brown, Tito Carrillo, Larry Gray, Pat Mallinger, Bethany Pickens, Marlene Rosenberg, Robert Shy, Kobie Watkins

 Buy Now   $15.00

JazzSpirit  Volume 2


Fairest Lord Jesus

God Of Grace And God Of Glory

It Is Well With My Soul

Including: Rob Amster, Ari Brown, Tito Carrillo, Larry Gray, Pat Mallinger, Bethany Pickens, Marlene Rosenberg, Robert Shy, Kobie Watkins

      Buy Now  $15.00


To Contact Willie Pickens:


 E-mail Susan Johnson at susan@hpuc.org  - Hyde Park Union Church


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