Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Pullen, Don (Gabriel)

Pianist Don Pullen straddled the line between the lyrical devices of bebop and the primal dissonance of free jazz. Throughout his career, His idiosyncratic, percussive and physical performing style placed him at odds with the jazz conventions of his time.

Pullen’s work with bassist Charles Mingus demonstrated his ability to simultaneously unify an ensemble and maintain an original voice. As a leader, Pullen was unafraid to fuse past and present designs.

Don Gabriel Pullen was born on December 25, 1941 in Roanoke, Virginia. Pullen was born into a musical family and began to play the piano by the age of ten. Don’s father was a preacher, which gave the young boy the opportunity to gain early performance experience playing during church services. An early influence on him was his cousin Clyde “Fats” Wright, a professional jazz pianist. Shortly after, Don began to study classical music while playing in local rhythm and blues groups.

During his late teens, Pullen developed a love for jazz by listening to the records of alto saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy and pianist Art Tatum. Early favorites of his were Coleman’s 1960 album This is Our Music and Dolphy’s 1961 album Live at The Five Spot Vol. 1.

Upon graduating from high school, Don enrolled at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he was a premed major. He left school in 1963 to pursue a career in music.

In 1964, Pullen moved to Chicago, where he began to study with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. While he only studied with Abrams for a short time, the experience made a lasting impression on Pullen’s playing. During this time, Don performed with Abrams’ ensemble The Experimental Band.

Pullen then moved to New York City, where he was introduced to tenor saxophonist Giuseppi Logan. Don was invited by Logan to record with his quartet alongside bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Milford Graves. The result is Logan’s first album The Giuseppi Logan Quartet in 1964.

A highlight of the record is the song “Tabla Suite.” Logan begins the song with a piercing screech that is immediately mirrored by Pullen’s jarring and discordant performance. While Giuseppi maintains long, sustained phrases, Don contrasts it by playing short, rhythmically abrupt expressions that employ a large harmonic range. The inclusion of Gomez’s deep tone and Graves’ frantic tabla playing make the song all the more sinister sounding.

During the early 1960s, Pullen began to perform with trumpeter Hugh Masekela" and singer Miriam Makeba. In May 1965, Don appeared on Logan’s record More before forming a duo with Graves. In May 1966, Don and Milford recorded the album In Concert at Yale University. The two men also started their own label, SRP, in order to release the record.

Throughout this time Pullen struggled to make a living by primarily playing free jazz. In order to supplement his income, Don began to perform on the organ and piano with rhythm and blues singers such as Ruth Brown, Big Maybelle and Arthur Prysock. By the mid 1960s, Don had focused his attention towards to leading his own ensemble, whose members throughout the years included guitarist Roland Prince, tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks and drummer Al Dreares.

Beginning in 1970, Pullen began to accompany singer Nina Simone while working as an arranger for several record companies. In 1972, Don also briefly performed with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and played organ with alto saxophonist Charles Wilson.

Pullen gained a considerable boost in the jazz community when he began to perform with Charles Mingus in 1973. Don received the gig upon the recommendation of Mingus’ drummer Roy Brooks, who in turn recommended tenor saxophonist George Adams for the vacant slot in the group. Along with Mingus, his profile in the jazz community was heightened and people began to take notice of his talents.

In 1973, Pullen recorded with Mingus on his album Mingus Moves, to which he contributed the composition “Newcomer.” Throughout his two-year stint with Mingus, he also recorded the albums Changes One and Changes Twoin 1974, two important albums that have since become a highlight of Mingus’ career.

Pullen's work with Mingus is exemplified by the song “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” from Changes One. Pullen's piano manages the horns and woodwinds by voicing the chords so that the harmony can tightly blend the two. During his solo, implements two different piano styles: the longer bebop influenced sound of the first half and the unpredictable avant-garde sound of the latter half. The end result is a solo that sounds like two completely different pianists.

Beginning in 1975, Pullen left the Mingus group focus solely on his solo career where he first began to give concerts as an unaccompanied soloist. Don gave his first solo concert in Toronto, which yielded the album Solo Piano Album for the Sackville label. During the late 1970s, Don recorded with several titans of the avant-garde scene including saxophonists Sam Rivers, David Murray and Hamiet Bluiett.

Around the late 1970s, Pullen began to involve more physicality in his performances, which included playing with his elbows and wearing a bell around his ankle, producing a tambourine-like sound while he stamped his foot. This is effect made it appear as if he was dancing at the piano.

In 1977, Pullen signed a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and his first album for the label was Tomorrow’s Promises. The following year, Don recorded the album Warriors, which featured contributions from saxophonist Chico Freeman, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Bobby Battle.

The following year, Pullen recorded the album The Magic Triangle with Art Ensemble of Chicago members woodwind player Joseph Jarman and drummer Don Moye. The trio continued to perform together in New York throughout the 1980s whenever their schedules allowed them to do so.

Pullen formed a second ensemble in the late 1970s called the 360 Degree Music Experience, which featured saxophonist Ricky Ford. Upon the death of Mingus in 1979, Pullen formed a group with former Mingus members George Adams, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Dannie Richmond. Throughout the next decade, the group released numerous albums under the name the George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet.

In 1985, Pullen released the album The Sixth Sense on the Black Saint label. The album featured contributions from Bobby Battle, Fred Hopkins, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. and trumpeter/cornetist Olu Dara.

The album’s opening song “The Sixth Sense” shows what Pullen is capable of as both a composer and arranger of an ensemble. Don begins the song with a four-bar intro before Bobby enters the song performing a laid back beat providing a perfect entrance point for the horns to come in.

Don fully utilizes the talents of Harrison and Dara and creates a wholly uniform sound that contains equals parts power and harmonic flexibility. Pullen's solo contains an extended sequence of ascending notes that resolves itself to light, semi-dissonant textures before going back to the verse.

Beginning in 1986, the Pullen/Adams group began to record solely for Blue Note records, releasing the album Breakthrough for the label the same year. During this time, Pullen continued to play organ in soul-jazz groups throughout the New York and New Jersey area.

Throughout the 1980s, Pullen found himself working steadily in clubs in solo and trio groups. Upon the death of Dannie Richmond in 1988, the Pullen/Adams group decided to carry on with several drummers filling the chair, though this was short-lived and the group broke up after a few months.

In 1990, Pullen performed with guitarist John Scofield on his video John Scofield: Live 3 Ways. The same year also saw Don recording sessions with saxophonist Maceo Parker and in the subsequent year with David Murray’s quartet. During late 1990, Pullen began to perform with an ensemble entitled the African-Brazilian Connection.

The ensemble performed traditional African music and included alto saxophonist/flutist Carlos Ward, percussionists Mor Thiam and Guiherme Franco, and bassist Nilson Matta. The idea of the ensemble grew out of Pullen’s artist in residence position at the Yellow Springs Institute in Chester Springs, Ohio.

In 1993, Don released the album Ode To Life, which received critical praise. The album was dedicated to the memory of George Adams, who passed away on November 14, 1992. The album reached number five on Billboard magazine’s Top Jazz Album chart and included the song “Ah George We Hardly Knew Ya” in tribute to Adams.

During his late career, Pullen toured with a variety of ensembles including the African-Brazilian Connection and as a solo artist. In 1994, Don was diagnosed with lymphoma. Despite the diagnosis, he spent the little time he had left to continue his artistic career.

On Saturday, April 22, 1995, Pullen succumbed to lymphoma at the home of his brother in East Orange, New Jersey, he was fifty-three years old. Shortly before he died, Don was in the studio with the African-Brazilian Connection recording with the Chief Cliff Singers, a drum and voice ensemble. The recordings were ultimately released as Sacred Common Ground in 1994.

Pullen is survived by his companion, performance artist Jana Haimsohn, three sons, daughter and granddaughter. A year after his death, David Murray and pianist D.D. Jackson recorded the album Long Goodbye: A Tribute to Don Pullen, a tribute to his life and music.

Select Discography

As a leader

Solo Piano Album (1975)

Tomorrow’s Promises (1976)

Warriors (1978)

The Magic Triangle (1979)

Evidence of Things Unseen (1983)

The Sixth Sense (1985)

Random Thoughts (1990)

Ode to Life (1993)

Sacred Common Ground (1994)

With George Adams

Don’t Lose Control (1980)

Lifeline (1981)

Decisions (1984)

Breakthrough (1986)

Song Everlasting (1987)

With Milford Graves

In Concert at Yale University (1965)

Nommo (1966)

With Giuseppi Logan

The Giuseppi Logan Quartet (1964)

More (1965)

With Charles Mingus

Moves (1974)

Changes One (1974)

Changes Two (1974)

Contributor: Eric Wendell