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Willie Pickens
Born (1931-04-18)April 18, 1931
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
Died December 12, 2017(2017-12-12) (aged 86)
Manhattan, New York
Occupation Musician, composer, arranger, educator
Years active 1958–2017

Willie Pickens (April 18, 1931 – December 12, 2017) was an American jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and educator.

Early life

Pickens was born in Milwaukee on April 18, 1931.[1] He studied piano formally from the age of 14.[1] He attended Lincoln High School in Milwaukee with saxophonist Bunky Green.[2] Pickens also studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.[1]

Later life and career

Pickens joined the army in 1951.[1] He obtained a B.S. in music education from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in 1958 and moved to Chicago in the same year.[1]

In the early 1960s, Pickens played on saxophonist Eddie Harris' first four recordings for Vee-Jay Records.[3]:655 His period with Harris lasted between 1960 and 1966.[1] Pickens taught music at public schools from 1966 until 1990.[1] He was also a faculty member of the American Conservatory of Music between 1971 and 1987.[1][4]

Pickens recorded with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco in 1977,[3]:364 and drummer Louis Bellson in 1994.[3]:109 Pickens played in drummer Elvin Jones' band between 1990 and 1997,[1] including internationally.[5]

According to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, "Pickens appeared regularly at international jazz festivals and performed at Chicago Jazz Festival almost yearly from its inception."[1] For jazz musicians in Chicago, Pickens has become "a revered mentor to younger players and a symbol of the music itself", in the words of a Chicago Tribune commentator.[6] He also taught at Northern Illinois University's School of Music.[1][4] Saxophonist Lou Donaldson once told Donald Harrison, "Willie Pickens is one of the last great bebop pianists."[7]

Pickens died of a heart attack in Manhattan, New York, at the age of 86.[8][9] His wife, Irma, died in 2015 after 55 years of marriage.[6][10] A daughter, Bethany, also plays the piano professionally and has recorded with her father.[11]


An asterisk (*) indicates that the year is that of release.

As leader/co-leader

Year recorded Title Label Personnel/Notes
1987 It's About Time! Southport Trio, with Dan Shapera (bass), Robert Shy (drums); reissued on CD with concert solo piano tracks from 1981 and 1986[12]
1998 Jazz Christmas Southport Quartet, with Nicholas Payton (trumpet, flugelhorn), Larry Gray (bass), Robert Shy (drums)
2000 Ain't Misbehavin' Concord Jazz Duo, with Marian McPartland (piano)
2005 Mr Swing Pony Canyon Trio, with George Mraz (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums); also released as Dark Eyes
2005 Jazz Spirit, Volume 1 Southport Some tracks solo piano; some tracks duo, with Bethany Pickets (piano); other tracks include Pat Mallinger (tenor sax, alto sax), Ari Brown (tenor sax), Tito Carril (flugelhorn), Marlene Rosenberg, Rob Amster, Larry Gray (bass; separately), Kobie Watkins, Robert Shy (drums; separately)
2005 Jazz Spirit, Volume 2 Southport As Jazz Spirit, Volume 1; differences are Pat Mallinger (alto sax), Tito Carrillo (trumpet, flugelhorn)
2010* Just Like Me Skiptone Duo, with Milton Suggs (vocals)

As sideman

Year recorded Leader Title Label
1961 Harris, EddieEddie Harris Exodus to Jazz Vee-Jay
1961 Harris, EddieEddie Harris Mighty Like a Rose Vee-Jay
1961 Harris, EddieEddie Harris Jazz for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" Vee-Jay
1961–62 Harris, EddieEddie Harris A Study in Jazz Vee-Jay
1963 Harris, EddieEddie Harris For Bird and Bags Exodus
1966 Green, BunkyBunky Green Playin' for Keeps Cadet
1977 DeFranco, BuddyBuddy DeFranco Gone with the Wind Storyville
1990s Griffin, FrancineFrancine Griffin The Song Bird Delmark
1991 Jones, ElvinElvin Jones In Europe Enja
1992 Jones, ElvinElvin Jones Going Home Enja
1993 Jones, ElvinElvin Jones It Don't Mean a Thing Enja
1993 Grossman, SteveSteve Grossman Time to Smile Dreyfus
1994 Bellson, LouieLouie Bellson Salute Chiaroscuro
1994 Peterson, EdEd Peterson The Haint Delmark
1995 Terry, ClarkClark Terry Top and Bottom Brass Chiaroscuro
1997 Catalano, FrankFrank Catalano Cut It Out Delmark
1998 Freeman, VonVon Freeman 75th Birthday Celebration Half Note
1998 Freeman, VonVon Freeman Von & Ed Delmark
1999 Thompson, MalachiMalachi Thompson Talking Horns Delmark
2014* Lerner, PeterPeter Lerner Continuation Origin

Main source:[3]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Gillaspie, Deborah. "Pickens, Willie". 
  2. Stokes, W. Royal (1993). The Jazz Scene. Oxford University Press. p. 125. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Cook, Richard; Morton, Brian (2008). The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. Penguin Books. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Willie Pickens". 
  5. D'Souza, Jerry (February 22, 2009). "Elvin Jones Jazz Machine". 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Reich, Howard (December 25, 2013). "Willie Pickens: The Lion in Winter". 
  7. Wyckoff, Geraldine (January 9, 2017). "Another Solid Week of Musical Offerings". 
  8. Reich, Howard (December 13, 2017). "Chicago piano titan Willie Pickens dies at 86". 
  9. Hill, Tonia (December 13, 2017). "Legendary Jazz Musician Willie Pickens Has Died". 
  10. Reich, Howard (February 16, 2016). "Willie Pickens Makes a Belated Debut and Struggles with a Loss". 
  11. Santella, Jim (March 19, 2006). "Willie Pickens: Jazz Spirit, Volume 1 & 2". 
  12. Gribetz, Sid (May 1999) "Willie Pickens – It's About Time!". JazzTimes.

External links

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