Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Tyner, McCoy (Alfred)

McCoy Tyner’s melodic lines on the piano sound like they could easily come from the bell of a saxophone or a trumpet. This is one of the many aspects of his mastery of the instrument which has made him one of the most influential pianists in postwar jazz.

McCoy Alfred Tyner was born on December 11, 1938 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He had the good fortune to grow up in the same neighborhood as pianists Bud Powell and Richie Powell, and trumpeter Lee Morgan. His brother, Jarvis, went on to become a high-ranking official in the American Communist Party.

Tyner’s mother, a beautician who enjoyed noodling on the piano at a neighbor’s house, encouraged her son’s early interest in the instrument. McCoy’s interest in the piano grew after Bud Powell began to come over to his house to play. Powell and his brother Richie lived nearby, but had no piano. Tyner's mother arranged for them to come over and practice.

As a teenager, Tyner became a follower of Sunni Islam, and changed his name to Sulaimon Saud, though he maintained his birth name as a performer. As of today, Tyner is no longer a practicing Muslim and follows no specific religious doctrine.

By his late teens, Tyner was good enough to play in clubs around Philadelphia, and joined Benny Golson and Art Farmer's Jazztet in 1959. At first, he worked as a factory worker during the day and played piano at nights, until Golson asked Tyner to join him for a West Coast tour.

Tyner’s tenure in the Jazztet was short-lived, however, because he quickly received an invitation to join the quartet of another Philadelphia native, saxophonist John Coltrane.

This quartet is remembered by many as Coltrane’s “classic” showcase, and one of the most expressive and innovative ensembles in jazz music. The group featured Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.

In this setting, Tyner took a new approach to “comping,” the pianist’s art of tastefully providing a harmonic background for soloists. He changed the traditional voicings inherited by pianists from the classical tradition from intervals of thirds to fourths, and used this technique to create clusters of notes played by both right and left hands together.

With Coltrane, Tyner appeared on numerous albums released by Atlantic Records between 1960 and 1965. These included IMy Favorite Things, Coltrane Plays the Blues, Coltrane's Sound, and A Love Supreme. Many tracks from these albums remain standards of the jazz repertoire today.

On A Love Supreme, Tyner joins Coltrane for "Acknowledgment.” The title track of Ole Coltrane featured the band playing with an expanded horn section which included trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and Eric Dolphy on flute. On Coltrane's Sound, Tyner performs on the songs "Equinox ” and "Central Park West.”

My Favorite Things, released in 1961 is arguably the quartet's most important and referenced recording. This album featured Tyner performing on the title track as well as "Greensleeves.”

The John Coltrane Quartet first recorded for Atlantic, then moved to Impulse Records in 1962. Tyner remained with Coltrane until 1965, when he was replaced on the piano by John's wife, Alice.

Tyner released several albums as a leader while still a member of the John Coltrane Quartet. All of these albums were released under the Impulse label and included Inception, Nights of Ballads and Blues, Reaching Fourth, and McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington.

Tyner also appeared as a sideman on trombonists Curtis Fuller's 1960 Savoy release Images of Curtis Fuller, Wayne Shorter's 1964 Blue Note release JuJu and Lee Morgan's 1964 Blue Note release Tom Cat. Tyner also appears on Shorter's other Blue Note albums Night Dreamer and The SoothSayer, which were released in 1964 and 1965.

Tyner signed with Blue Note Records in 1966. The label released all of his solo albums until1970. Tyner's first release for the label was 1967's The Real McCoy, an album structured in the post-bop tradition which featured saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Elvin Jones. Many of Tyner's compositions from this album became jazz standards. The album featured the songs "Passion Dance” and "Search For Peace.”

Tyner’s other albums for Blue Note included Tender Moments, Expansions, and Cosmos. In the 1970s, Tyner moved to the Milestones label, and began to incorporate other styles of music into his compositions and also featured strings on many of them as well.

In 1972, he released the Grammy-nominated Sahara which was one of the first jazz recordings to fully incorporate African and world music elements into its compositional structure. In 1975, Tyner recorded his first trio recording in almost decade, combining forces with familiar friends bassist Ron Carter and drummer Elvin Jones for Trident. This album features the trio running down the voodoo on Coltrane's classic modal song "Impressions.”

During the 1980s, Tyner wrote for and performed off and on with his big band, in light of the financial constraints of running a band with fifteen or more members. He also remains active with his trio, which features bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Aarron Scott.

The trio released It's About Time for Blue Note in 1985. The group’s other albums for Blue Note include Revelations, Things Ain't What They Used to Be, and Soliloquy.

In 1995, Tyner returned to the Impulse! label and released the album Infinity, which featured tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker on the song "Flying High.” In 2002, Tyner was named a Jazz Master by the United States’ National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for jazz musicians.

Selected Discography

as McCoy Tyner

Inception (Impulse!-1962)

Reaching Forth (Impulse!-1963)

The Real McCoy (Blue Note-1967)

Extensions (Blue Note-1970)

Sahara (Milestone-1972)

Atlantis (Milestone-1974)

It's About Time (Blue Note-1985)

Infinity (Impulse!-1995)

with John Coltrane

My Favorite Things (Atlantic-1960)

Coltrane Plays the Blues (Atlantic-1960)

Coltrane's Sound (Atlantic-1960)

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse!-1963)

Live at Birdland (Impulse!-1963)

Crescent (Impulse!-1964)

A Love Supreme (Impulse!-1964)

with Wayne Shorter

JuJu (Blue Note-1964)

Night Dreamer (Blue Note-1964)

The SoothSayer (Blue Note-1965)

with Lee Morgan

Tom Cat (Blue Note-1964)

Delightfulee Morgan (Blue Note-1966)

Contributor: Jared Pauley