By Suzanne Cloud
Alfred McCoy Tyner was born in Philadelphia in 1938 to parents who had come to Philly from North Carolina for a better life. His father sang in the church choir and his mother had a beauty shop that would become internationally famous after she bought a piano for her eldest son. According to Tyner, “My mother said I could either study singing or piano, and I didn’t have much of a voice, so I chose piano.”
By 15 years of age, McCoy Tyner (McCoy, as he would always be affectionately called) was the pianist for a local dancing school, which exposed him to European music, and at the same time, he was inspired rhythmically by Ghanaian drummer Saka Acquaye, who was then at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The 1950s were a fertile and dynamic time in jazz with a plethora of talent blossoming in the city—trumpeter Lee Morgan, organist Jimmy Smith, pianists Ray Bryant and Richie Powell, brother of famed bebopper Bud Powell, an idol of Tyner’s along with Thelonious Monk. These influences so shaped Tyner’s powerful and percussive lyricism. In an NPR Jazz Profile, pianist Mulgrew Miller said, “His music was so intense it took over you… He makes those notes dance.”
By age 17, Tyner was playing with Philly trumpeter and composer Cal Massey when he met John Coltrane, who was staying at his mother’s house in Strawberry Mansion with his cousin Mary Alexander. Even though Coltrane was 12 years older than Tyner, the two struck up a special spiritual bond. Tyner said, “John told me he wanted me to be in his band whenever he left Miles, but whenever he wanted to leave, Miles would offer him more money… I was getting impatient.” So, Tyner joined Philly saxophonist Benny Golson and trumpeter Art Farmer to form the famed JazzTet. He didn’t stay with the group long, as Golson remembered, “John Coltrane stole him away from me. But that’s where he should have been anyway.”
So, at age 21, McCoy Tyner joined the John Coltrane Quartet with bassist Steve Davis and drummer Elvin Jones. Interviewed for his 60th birthday, he said, “Between John and Elvin I was in school.” His first full album with Coltrane was My Favorite Things, which became a huge hit for Atlantic Records in 1961—and once bassist Jimmy Garrison joined the band—the Classic Quartet was born. It’s a musical ensemble whose social fusion exceeded its own intentions, with each musician prepared to bleed for the next measure.
Until late 1965, when Tyner left the group, this quartet transformed jazz in the 1960s stretching modal playing within their highly charged, emotional bubble of collective improvisation. The intensity and interplay of the quartet was astonishing, and Tyner’s piano work was crucial to the band’s sound. Coltrane said, “McCoy Tyner, holds down the harmonies, and that allows me to forget them. He’s sort of the one who gives me wings and lets me take off from the ground from time to time.”
After leaving John Coltrane, Tyner had a difficult time establishing himself as a leader. He said, “I was kind of struggling a bit, but it increased my faith in life.” But building on his two earlier albums as a leader—Inception (1962) and The Real McCoy (1965)—Tyner came roaring back in 1972 with his Grammy-nominated album Sahara with saxophonist Sonny Fortune on the Milestone label.
In 1979, jazz critic Gary Giddens called McCoy Tyner the most influential pianist of the decade, and he was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2002. The pianist told writer Nat Hentoff, “To me, living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life…I play what I live.”
McCoy Tyner died March 6, 2020, at the age of 81.