Walk into any jazz room, anywhere on Earth, on any night, and you’ll probably hear a keyboardist copping McCoy Tyner’s licks and tricks.
Even though the piano player, who died Friday at 81, played in John Coltrane’s classic quartet—one of the most famous and influential combos in history—his towering legacy was not a foregone conclusion. At the height of Tyner’s career, his playing was sometimes dismissed or overlooked, and he nearly quit music a few years later before regaining his footing. But his sturdy and timeless style was so powerful that it made him one of the most imitated, and admired, pianists in jazz.
Tyner’s great achievement was the creation of a sound rooted in the blues but suited to the avant-garde. Its hallmarks are relatively simple to describe, belying its revolutionary impact: There are the great cascades of left-hand chords, less ludic than Thelonious Monk’s surprise attacks but no less jagged or forceful. There are the trilling flurries of notes in the right hand. And there are the signature open, epic chords. Despite all the imitators, Tyner’s playing is usually instantly recognizable—he was, as his 1967 masterpiece had it, The Real McCoy.
Tyner emerged from a Philadelphia jazz scene overflowing with talent. Among his peers were the trumpeter Lee Morgan and the drummer Tootie Heath. Just a few years older were saxophonists Jimmy Heath (who died in January) and Coltrane. As a teen, Tyner was so obsessed with the bebop-piano progenitors Monk and Bud Powell that his friends called him “Bud Monk.” Tyner became friends with Coltrane when the older man was briefly living at home in Philadelphia in the late 1950s, and when he launched his own band, he invited Tyner to join.