Pianist Larry Willis’ early life in Harlem, with its frequent sightings of American legends, from Duke Ellington to Willie Mays to Leonard Bernstein, sounds like something novelist E.L. Doctorow might have cooked up.
Yet even that story is no match for Willis’ remarkable if largely unheralded career: Four decades distinguished by an unusually colorful range of recordings, more than 300 in all, and an extraordinary array of collaborations with the likes of Jackie McLean, Cannonball Adderley, Hugh Masekela, Stan Getz, Woody Shaw, Herb Alpert, Blood Sweat and Tears, Carmen McRae and the Fort Apache Band.
Tales of encounters with Roy Campanella soon give way to another concerning Leonard Bernstein. Turns out, the renowned composer and conductor introduced Willis, then a voice major participating in Bernstein’s Young People Concerts, to both Carnegie Hall and the storied CBS 30th Street recording studio. No, it’s not a much of a surprise to discover that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of Willis’ neighborhood pals and dearest friends, is encouraging the pianist to write his memoirs—or, for that matter, to find that Willis has already chosen a title: Beyond My Wildest Dreams.
If you can develop a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Willis had mastered it by the time he began to think seriously about pursuing music as a profession: first, at the High School of Music and Art, where Jimmy Owens, Billy Cobham and Richard Tee were among his classmates; later, at the Manhattan School of Music, where Willis befriended Masekela, Eddie Gomez, Ron Carter, Richard Davis and Donald Byrd.
“Oddly enough, the school was very anti-jazz,” Willis recalls. “We used to get kicked out of the practice room for jamming. And now, of course, they have a big jazz program.”
Masekela suggested that Willis take piano lessons from John Mehegan, who always warned students of the challenges they faced. “He said the piano is the most complicated piece of machinery man ever invented. Just look at it: Every time you sit down, the odds against you are 88 to 10—and they don’t get any better.”
Showtimes: 7:30pm and 9:30pm Admission: $29.
7:30pm Show is SOLD OUT! Purchase 9:30 seats below: