About Willie Pickens

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Willie Pickens (1931-2017)

The Donald Meade Legacy Society in conjunction with the African American Jazz Caucus confers the 6thAnnual Donald Meade Legacy Jazz Griot Award to Willie Pickens for his numerous and invaluable contributions to jazz over the past sixty six years - as a musician, educator, mentor,virtuoso piano player and resolute advocate of jazz music. 


Willie was born into a Milwaukee family that valued music. His 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. Willie also discovered the likes of Nat “King” Cole and Bud Powell—artists that would have a profound influence on his musical development. 

He studied piano formally from the age of 14 and attended Lincoln High Schoolin Milwaukee, and later studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. After a stint in the army in 1951 he obtained a B.S. in music education from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukeein 1958 and moved to Chicago. 


In the early 60s, Pickens played on saxophonist Eddie Harris 1961 national hit record, Exodus.  Later he played with James Moody, Roy Eldridge, Max Roach, Clark Terry, Ira Sullivan, and going on the road with Elvin Jones for five years. But instead of staying on the national and international jazz scene, Willie chose to make a home in Hyde Park, and become a Chicago Public School (CPS) teacher, an active member of the Hyde Park Union Church, and a mentor to scores of upcoming musicians. 

Pickens taught music at public schools from 1966 until 1990. He was also a faculty member of the American Conservatory of Music between 1971 and 1987. 


Until death He maintained a vigorous schedule, mentoring in Ravinia’s Jazz Scholar program, teaching at Northern Illinois University until he retired 2015 and performed frequently at the Jazz Showcase, among other venues. The Chicago Tribune’sHoward Reich wrote that Willie’s intense dramatic performances result from his “large and complex chords, his great splashes of color and dissonance in the right hand and his barrelhouse octaves in the left.”  He has also commented that it “takes a lifetime to learn to construct such an essay in sound, and we're fortunate that Pickens is here to show us how it's done.”


“When many jazz enthusiasts think of Willie Pickens, they have memories of the great jazz pianist who is a fixture at the Jazz Showcase or at the many Chicago jazz locations throughout the city or through his work with the great Elvin Jones, but I have a different memory of his greatness” said Marvin Sparks.  “As a high school student at Morgan Park HS (Chicago), I was honored to be selected as a member of the All-City Band and Orchestra during my junior and senior years (1969-71).  One of the band directors assisting the All-City band was Mr. Willie Pickens, clarinetist and band director at Wendell Phillips HS.  At this point in my life, I was a classical percussionist and had little knowledge of the “jazz” world.  During this time, there were very few African-American students and directors participating in these bands but the few members (directors and students) were of the highest quality.  I was a section leader, playing primarily mallets and timpani.  I will never forget the encouragement Mr. Pickens gave me and the joy he had to see me week after week work hard to deliver all the emotions and excellence that our conductor required.  He would always say, ‘Marvin can read flyspecks’.  Mr. Pickens is the epitome of a “Griot” who shared his wisdom and talent his entire life.  He’s made a big difference in my life!” 


Irma and Willie Pickens raised three children and celebrated the arrival of grandchildren, but music was the added glue that bonded their lives together.  Irma Pickens, the woman who knew him and his music better than anyone died last year just a few days before their 56th anniversary.

On 12-10-16 Willie and his daughter Bethany Pickens performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington headlining NPR's “A Jazz Piano Christmas.” 

This event held particular meaning for the 85-year-old pianist, since Willie Pickens began teaching daughter Bethany when she was 6 years old and continued her training through college. This performance marked a high point in their lifelong journey together in jazz. As a teacher, Willie Pickens was "meticulous, very direct, no nonsense," remembers Bethany Pickens. "He said, 'Excuses don't work,'" she adds.  There are no shortcuts, really. 


Willie Pickens passed away December 12, 2017


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WDCB Live Broadcast Featuring Willie and Bethany Pickens

WDCB Live Broadcast Featuring Willie and Bethany Pickens, Piano

"Invitation" live at the Jazz Showcase

"Invitation" live at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago with Willie Pickens and Brian Gephart


Willie Pickens Trio - Don't Explain

Willie Pickens (p),George Mraz (b),Joe Farnsworth (ds) Album:"Willie Pickens Trio / Dark Eyes~Tribute to Wynton Kelly"  Recorded: New York City, December 10 & 11, 2001


Willie Pickens Performance and Conversation

Willie Pickens performed at the 2009 Hyde Park Jazz Festival  on September 26, 2009. He was interview before event.