Larry Willis has been our music director
at Mapleshade since 1992. His contributions here are immeasurable.
Though everyone at Mapleshade is a music lover and a fan, Larrys
the professional. As such, hes in charge of making sure
our music keeps on getting better and hes done just
that. He produces most of our recordings, always with the same
selfless, inspiring dedication that makes him one of the most
in-demand pianists in jazz today. In addition to producing,
of course, Larry plays on quite a number of our very best recordings.
Larry was born in 1942 in Manhattans
Harlem. Surprisingly, he entered music not as a pianist but as
a voice major, first at New Yorks High School of Music and
Art for gifted students, then at the Manhattan School of Music.
His senior year in high school, at 17, he had his first recording
date, a classical gig with the Music and Arts Choral Ensemble
singing a Copland opera conducted by no less then Leonard Bernstein.
But something even more important than
that happened to Larry at the beginning of that senior year. He
started playing the pianono lessons, no teacher, just figuring
it out by himself. By the end of the winter, he was playing
his first professional gigs in a jazz trio with two of his classmates,
Al Foster on drums and Eddie Gomez on bass. No one knew it then,
but that little trio was probobly the most distinguished high
school jazz group in the country.
Soon after entering the Manhattan School
of Music, Larry switched from voice to music theory. For one,
he was running head-on into the all-too-evident barriers facing
black musicians in the classical world.
On the positive side, Larrys interest
in jazz was turning into passion. A fellow student, Hugh Masakela,
heard him jamming with Al Foster. Hugh was so impressed that he
hooked Larry up with John Mehegan, the legendary New York jazz
piano teacher. Those were Larrys first-ever lessons. By
the end of that year at the Manhattan School, at age 19, Larry
was playing regularly with Jackie McLean, the great alto saxophone
I know of no more remarkable entry into
jazz: a kid of 17 decides to play the piano for the first time;
four months later, hes playing gigs with a soon-to-be world
class trio. A year and a half after that, hes making jazz
history with the next giant of the alto after Bird. Talk about
a natural gift!
A year after Larrys graduation
in 1965, Jackie gave him his first recording dateRight Now,
on Blue Noteand on that first date recorded the first two
pieces in a continuing stream of Willis compositions.
Since then, Larry has played on more
than 300 records. Hes played or recorded with almost every
great jazz musician of the modern era, stars like Dizzy Gillespie,
Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw, Hugh Masakela, Cannonball and Nat Adderley,
Stan Getz, Art Blakey, Art Taylor, Clifford Jordan, Carmen McRae,
and Shirley Horn. His most recent CDs include a Larry Willis Quintet
and four Larry Willis Trio recordings plus two solo sessions (labels
are Audioquest, Steeplechase, Evidence and Mapleshade).
Larrys extraordinary versatility
as a pianist ranges from rock and pophe spent 7 years as
keyboardist for Blood, Sweat and Tearsto African, Brazilian
and Afro-Cuban music. Hes one of the only non-Hispanic players
who ever impressed Mario Bauza as a Latin pianistI was there
the night it happened.
Another facet of Larrys genius
that Ive seen flowering recently is his composing and arranging
for orchestras and big bands. Hes always had a very special
gift for arranging strings, strings that form a gorgeous, open
framework for jazz improvisation. His first major string works
were symphonic arrangements for a Brooklyn Symphony concert with
the Fort Apache Band in 1994. Since then hes done gem-like
string quartet and quintet arrangements for three Mapleshade jazz
CDs: John Hicks Trio Plus Strings (#05532), Sunny Sumters
Sunny (#05932), and Monica Worths Never Let Me Go (#06732).
Recently, he wrote larger scale arrangements for albums by Roy
Hargrove, Vanessa Rubin and Joe Ford, among others. Within the
last year, Larry composed an orchestral suite in four movements
for the Florida Southern College Symphony Orchestra and then performed
it in concert. He was also featured soloist with an Italian chamber
orchestra, performing his own compositions.
For me, its been deeply satisfying
to see Larry gaining such deserved recognition over the years.
Larry is a three-time Grammy nominee with Fort Apache as well
as pianist on two of their New York Jazz Critics Award-winning
CDs. Hes was also on Roy Hargroves Grammy-winning
Crisol Band CD and toured for three years with Roy. Currently,
he is touring actively with his own Trio and Quintet as well as
with Fort Apache from time to time. In the coming year Larry will
be touring Israel and Europe.
Upper Marlboro, MD