The great McCoy Tyner, giant of jazz, huge influence on me and countless others, died a week ago, on March 6th 2020. Back in 2008, when I was 26, I had the privilege of interviewing him for French magazine Jazzman ahead of the release of his album Guitars. Now seems like an apt time to share the interview below, which — aside from the translated and much condensed version that appeared in the magazine at the time — has never been published. Thanks to then editor-in-chief Alex Dutilh for trusting my young self with this assignment and giving me the opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.
Dan Tepfer: Hi, McCoy. I should start by telling you that I’m a pianist. I’ve been playing with Lee Konitz for a few years now. It’s been very special for me to find myself on the bandstand with someone I’ve listened to since I was a teenager. Likewise, it’s very special for me to get to talk to you now, because I’ve been listening to you since I was a kid.
McCoy Tyner: Yeah, well, it’s the same for me. I’m happy to meet you young guys on the scene, and when they say ‘well look, I’ve been listening to you for a long time’, I never think about how old I am, but I think ‘wow, that’s good that I helped somebody’ or ‘my presence has a meaning’, you know. That kind of thing makes me feel good — I have a purpose in life.
Q: You seem to have honored this sense of purpose to an extraordinary degree throughout your life.
A: I always had the idea that playing music is a great thing. I owe a lot to my mom. She really encouraged me a lot. She was a beautician and had a beauty shop and that’s where my piano went because that was the biggest room in the house.
Q: In the beauty shop?
A: Yeah, in the beauty shop! We’d have jam sessions in the shop as I got into my teens. There’d be a saxophone player playing a solo next to a lady in the drier.
Q: Did they applaud or was the music treated like background music?
A: Nah, it was treated like background music. My mother was pretty hip — she loved jazz. She knew Duke Ellington’s music. She was a very culturally-oriented lady.
Q: So there was never any question in your family that pursuing music for your career wasn’t a great idea?
A: She thought it was a great idea.
Q: How about your dad?
A: He didn’t mind. At first he wasn’t that eager to help me, because he worked manually. I used to go on Saturday and work with him. He didn’t consider playing music to be a regular job. But later on he woke up, he said ‘oh man, why not’, especially after he saw me in clubs. He was a convert.
Q: He never put his foot down and said ‘you’ve got to get a real job’?
A: No, he never did that. He wasn’t artistically inclined, but he loved the music. He grew up with Duke Ellington, Woodie Herman, Count Basie. They were heroes to them, the big music stars.
Q: Who were your heroes growing up?
A: What was really interesting was that Bud Powell moved right around the corner from me in Philadelphia. In my neighborhood. We had a heck of a scene in Philly, the cats were really practicing, jam sessions all the time. So I learned from the older musicians. And then Bud moved into the neighborhood, Bud used to be walking down the street and we would follow him. He was like in his own world. He was a genius, so I guess his mind was somewhere else. He would communicate, but only for short periods. The moments were very short. But he’d be walking and then he’d go back to his apartment, only a few blocks from where I lived. My hero was my neighbor.
Q: I remember reading a Monk quote where he said, about Bud: ‘he’s not crazy, he’s just doing that to attract attention! We taught him to do that’.
A: [laughs] Oh yeah? That could be! Well Monk was kind of… he wasn’t as extreme as Bud. But I remember meeting Thelonious because John [Coltrane] had played with Monk for a while. I was very fortunate to have been around when they were around, to have the chance to meet them personally. Monk liked John’s playing a lot so he would come around to hear the [John Coltrane] Quartet when we were in town.
Q: This was between 61 and 65 or so?
A: You’ve got the stats better than me, but it had to be about that time because that’s when the quartet was really happening. But I met John when I was a teenager, when he was with Miles.
Q: John was a little older than you, right?
A: Yeah, he was more than a little older. He could have been my older brother.
Q: Was that a situation where you were a big fan of his and suddenly you had the experience of ‘oh my god, here I am on the bandstand with him’, or did it feel more like a peer relationship?
A: He was someone I looked up to because his musicality was unmatched. And the thing is my girlfriend at the time, who became my wife, her older sister was a jazz singer and knew John’s wife Naima. He wrote that great song for her. She knew the family, so I knew her before I met John. So I knew him from the recordings that John did — with Miles and the later quartet stuff — but you know, I really got familiar with him through my association with her. It was a kind of big family thing around Philly. And then John left Miles — he tried quitting twice and left the second time — and I made some gigs with him in Philly. He treated me like a little brother. I studied some of his tunes — I knew Giant Steps, etc.
Q: I don’t think there’s a recording of you playing Giant Steps with John.
A: I think I recorded it solo, but not with John. I’m not sure — I’ve made more than fifty recordings in my life! But it was in my repertoire. He wrote some nice tunes: Giant Steps, Countdown, Mr P.C. — he wrote that one when he was with Miles, for Paul Chambers.
Q: I’ve been enjoying your recording of Mr P.C. on your new album, Guitars.
A: Oh yeah. Those are some great guys on there, some really nice guys. They’ve got their own style and they knew a lot of my songs and some of John’s. Bela Fleck was on My Favorite Things and Greensleeves.
Q: How did your repertoire choices come about for the record?
A: They knew my songs. It was nice to see that they knew my repertoire, stuff that I had written. John Scofield was on Mr P.C. — I think Sco brought that up. Passion Dance is something that I wrote, and Mark Ribot — these guys, they knew what they wanted — they wanted to play. And they did a great job!
Q: Coming back to these Coltrane tunes, the ones with very dense changes. You were on the scene at the time when these tunes emerged. Was that a big shock to players at the time? Were people struggling to navigate John’s changes?
A: No, you know I used to practice all the time. I couldn’t wait to get home. Before my mother bought me a piano, she had three clients whose hair she used to do who had pianos. So I would alternate — I would go to one of my mother’s clients one day… I had three homes I could go to to play. Then she bought me a piano, a spinet.
Q: How much did you practice a day?
A: It depended — I would try to get an hour in; sometimes it would run longer. An hour is a safe bet.
Q: Did you study classical music?
A: I did, I had a great teacher.
Q: What age did you start?
A: I was thirteen. I can’t believe it, I was thirteen — I once was thirteen! I formed an R&B band with a saxophone player who lived not far from me. I used to play with a lot of blues singers — they had the gigs! People would come and dance.
Q: So your evolution really comes out of dance music and the blues, and classical music for the technique.
A: Yeah, yeah. Also another thing: house rockin. Like blues, but with a backbeat. Like the shuffle. You’d rock the house with it. I played gigs in people’s houses, in my late teens. And then I met John [Coltrane] around that time. He came by the home twice. He was with Miles. Before he left Miles the second time, he told me ‘I’m leaving Miles and I want to have my own band’. He liked my playing. So I said ‘let me know whenever you’re ready’!
Q: When you joined that band, with John Coltrane, the rhythm section had one of the most incredible chemistries we’ve ever heard in jazz. Did that happen immediately, with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison?
A: Pete La Roca played drums with us for a while. John told me: ‘I know this drummer in Detroit, named Elvin Jones’. The first time we hit, man, it was at a rehearsal, I couldn’t believe this guy. I said ‘wow’! He was incredible… but he’d listen! Because playing with Hank, who was his brother and played piano, he had a sympathy, he was empathizing with the piano. You know his brother Hank Jones was one of the greatest piano players in jazz. Elvin would pick up the brushes. A lot of people would say he was very loud and all, but he would pick up the brushes when I would take a solo, not all the time but a lot of the time, so people could hear the piano. It was great, man. He was so musical. When he and Jimmy hooked up it was amazing, those guys really locked in.
Q: I remember seeing a video of you with Jimmy Garrison and Elvin playing on an outdoor stage somewhere and the piano — a big concert grand — is literally rocking back and forth. The energy you guys had on stage was phenomenal.
A: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. It was a joy playing with them guys. The thing is with them, they were supportive. They were listening to each other. I listened to Elvin, Elvin’s listening to me, Jimmy’s right there. Jimmy had good time and he’d be locking in. We were like brothers.
Q: So there was never a feeling being loud because you wanted to be loud, there was a feeling of the music just organically going there?
A: Yeah. It wasn’t… I know Elvin was a strong drummer, but he would pick up the brushes. He was very conscious of supporting — John would play a phrase and he would play a phrase that would complement the phrase that he was playing.
Q: There was never a feeling of him overpowering anyone.
A: No, no. Unless there was something wrong with the sound system. And he would come down! He would come down to compensate for what was not happening sound-wise.
Q: Before you were with Trane, you were part of the Jazztet. How did that happen?
A: I’ll tell you what happened. Benny Golson was from North Philly. I played a gig with him and he got a gig in San Francisco and he said man, would you like to go out with me and I said listen, I’ll go out with you but I’ve already promised John that I’d be in his band when he leaves Miles. He and Art Farmer hooked up and that’s when we put together the Jazztet. And that’s when we did Killer Joe and all those tunes. [Benny] and Art were playing in the band so I said okay, but I wanted to play with John. But every time John wanted to leave Miles he would always give him a raise and ask him to stay. John and Miles were pretty tight so it was hard for him to break away like that. But he had to do it and thank goodness because I was ready to join his band — we had a rapport, a good chemistry. It’s funny how things happen step by step, you know, one thing and you go from here to there and before you know it you complete a cycle and you’re in something else. You look back and it tells a story, I guess.
Q: You’ve done an incredible amount of work as a sideman and as a leader. I’m a young musician but I’ve had a taste of both sides, and there are differences. I remember coming across a quote of Joe Henderson’s, on the liner notes to Tetragon, I think, where he says: ‘My sole ambition when I’m a leader on a recording session is to completely forget that I’m a leader and feel like a sideman’.
A: Yeah, I can understand that. You don’t try to search for dominance, you know, because you’ve got other people and you want that chemistry. And that’s important. And that makes a record sound more harmonious. Makes it sound like you’re playing like a group. That happens when people are listening to each other, even if they haven’t been playing for that long.
Q: You’ve gone back and re-recorded tunes. You recorded Passion Dance on The Real McCoy, and then you have a record called Passion Dance that’s from 1978, 11 years later.
A: Yeah — and I recorded it again with Mark Ribot on Guitars.
Q: That must be an incredible thing to have a composition like Passion Dance that’s become such a staple that people want to hear it again and again. You’ve recorded it at all these different periods in your life, so it becomes a prism through which we can see your evolution as a musician.
A: Duke Ellington was like that. He wrote a lot of tunes and he played them with his big band. And that’s good to play your music. Nothing wrong with that. You get better and better at composing. I can tell when I’ve written something that really strikes home, were you say ‘I’m really glad I wrote this’. And your feelings change, it depends on the time period when you wrote the song, what was going on in your life and whatever.
Q: As you mature, do you feel that your outlook on music changes? Do you get more contemplative as you get older?
A: Yeah, I think things change. And that’s good. But I think it’s better when you’re building on something. Make everything part of your development. Use everything that you’re exposed to in terms of your own musical personality, and build on it. Not to say you should play the same thing for ten or twenty years, but use that time period as a stepping stone towards where you’re going next. You build and build and you look back and say wow, that’s what I did ten years ago, how interesting. And sometimes you’re so busy moving ahead you don’t have time to do that, but you can hear it in the music.
Q: That’s something that really fascinates me with your music. You’re someone who’s taken a germ of an idea and developed it over a long time. I’m speaking in particular of your use of chords built in fourths. Do you remember when you first came across those sounds?
A: I used to listen to a lot of different kinds of music. I played out of a book of different classics, a book of all the great European composers. But I knew that I had to have something that came from me. I kept that in mind. I always wanted to have my own feeling and my own sound. That’s what I think you have to do. You can’t forget that you’re the guy who’s really making this thing happen. I don’t care what you do; maybe you’re influenced by someone you like — Bud Powell moved into my neighborhood, Thelonious Monk I saw, a lot of great guys — I know Bill Evans was around, Herbie… everybody was looking for themselves. And I respected that. I realized when I was young: man, you’ve got something to offer. Why not let it happen?
Q: So you always had that feeling about yourself. And once you found something that felt distinctly your own, you just kept developing it.
A: Yeah, you have to. I think it’s important.
Q: As a pianist, I have to ask: these quartal sounds, how did you develop them? Did you create exercises for yourself?
A: No, just playing. Because you have to grow, and growing is by doing. It’s hard to practice something like that. Your sound is you, like the way you talk. Like if I have a couple conversations with you, next time you call I’ll say hey, what’s happening man? Your voice is your identity. It’s your signature.
Q: Do you feel that that’s something that’s maybe been forgotten a little bit today, with younger musicians?
A: I can understand being influenced — I was influenced by Bud and Monk and what have you, but you have to find out who number one is and that’s you. I think it’s a different world now, the business is different. I think that record companies, I don’t know what they’re looking for. I think originality maybe is not in some cases valued as much. At least by some promoters. But the good ones exist — you have to find the right guy.
Q: Another pianist question: you have one of the most physical approaches to the piano — you get this incredibly strong sound. I remember reading a quote of John’s about you: ‘beauty is exactly the word for McCoy’s playing, and it’s all of a piece because he lives like that too’. You manage to make a big, strong, loud sound that’s also beautiful, and that’s one of the hardest things to do as a pianist.
A: I think what it is, is you have to utilize the pedals. Use a lot of pedal but don’t lay on it so stuff runs into other things. Knowing how to lift off to get the sound. Then come back on it and let it come up because otherwise it’ll all come together. It’s a technique you can use — open the dampers on the piano.
Q: I wanted to ask you about your relationship to Africa. You have some beautiful albums, like Asante, which to me are some of the most successful integrations of African rhythms with jazz.
A: You know it’s really something, because I was always interested in African culture since I was a teenager. I used to play conga drums too. I stopped because it was making the joints of my fingers swell. I was hanging around with a guy who was a drummer who lived right up the street from me, Garvin [Masseaux]. He played trap drums and he played conga drums very well.
Q: This was in Philly?
A: Yeah. We took dancing lessons too. One of my teachers in junior high, she knew this lady who had a dance troupe, and she said she needed some male dancers. And so I said maybe I’ll give it a shot — maybe I can learn how to dance. But I didn’t stop playing piano. I played a little piano there for some of the pieces that were choreographed by the teachers there. But I really got interested in the dancing. There was a guy named Saka Acquaye who came to teach African dance at the dance school. So we were hanging out with some guys from Africa and kind of caught on, you know. Actually Garvin [Masseaux] was really a good conga player and a guy named Bobby Crowder from Philly was also a great player. We had the fortune of having these African guys who played for the dance school. And the chance to really meet them. So it was a combination of a lot of things: cultural identification as well as actually getting your notes from people who were active in that area.
Q: This was all when you were a teenager in Philly?
A: Yeah. Not many people know this, so I’m letting you in on a secret: I studied ballet and African dancing.
Q: Wow. I studied ballet too when I was a kid, actually.
A: Yeah, I studied ballet. I was a teenager. It was interesting because I heard a lot of different music. We danced to Stravinsky and some of the other composers and I played a lot of it. I was studying piano, had a great teacher and a book full of Chopin, Beethoven, Bach. They were real popular compositions that they had written back in the day. It was interesting, my teenage days.
Q: Your teenage years were so culturally diverse: you had all of European culture from your classical piano studies and the ballet, you had all of contemporary African-American musical culture too — house rockin, jazz, blues, and now you’re telling me that you also had the whole African cultural upbringing through African drumming and African dancing. That’s really incredible.
A: It’s amazing, isn’t it. Kind of covered the whole spectrum.
Q: And that was all when you were a teenager.
A: Yeah, because I enjoyed all the music. All the music I was studying out of my books. And then I had a one on one experience playing congas; of course I had to stop because like I said it was hurting the joints of my fingers so I said stop this. But it was really interesting while I was involved.
Q: Well, that certainly explains a lot of your later development. Tell me, if you would, a little more specifically about Asante.
A: Yeah, I think it was something that sort of grew out of my experience of being a teenager. Those rhythms. That’s what I was exposed to — different rhythms, African rhythms. So I think it stayed with me. It was part of my exposure as a teenager, culturally.
Q: Where would you say you get inspiration for composition?
A: I don’t know — it think it was a gift. I think it has something to do with the fact that studying piano and music itself — I studied theory as well. I was very fortunate — I was exposed to so many things, culturally. And for some reason — I had a band, too. Garvin [Masseaux] was playing not only congas but drums as well. And so I had a shot of that with some guys who I went to school with. A bass player and Garvin and some other people who were older than we were but that exposed us to different things as well. So it was a multitude of exposures.
Q: So that all informed your composing. What’s your creative process when you’re writing? Is it deadline-related? Or do you compose all the time?
A: Well yeah. I love to compose. When I do a recording, I always have to introduce some new material, some fresh stuff, something I just wrote. I don’t know why but I do. It’s good for me because if I have tunes of mine to perform, I think it’s directly because I’ve written a lot of those songs for recordings. I wanted to write something and I had a deadline — the date was set to record — and I had figured out the instrumentation I wanted to use, and I would write new songs. So a lot of my original material came from recording sessions. But a lot of my songs I wrote right before recording them. So I really got familiar with my music playing it on gigs. So sometimes I’m more familiar with my music after recording; when I’m doing club dates and concerts. Because tunes will grow and develop as you play them.
Q: So you’re able to sit down at the piano with the intent to write a song and something pretty much always comes up?
A: Yeah, it comes up through the soul. With major preparation. It’s just something that — I’ll play a melody and embellish on that and before you know it there’s a beginning and a middle part and a repeat, usually — I’ll go back to the first part of the melody, so it has form. And I’ll figure out the harmonic concept I want to use.
Q: Does that often come after the melody, for you? Or before?
A: Well, um, yeah. Sometimes the chords inspire the sound itself that I use. Inspires me to write a melody based on what sound I may run into at that time. Maybe ‘run into’ isn’t the best way to explain this…
Q: This stuff is difficult to explain.
A: Yeah — I’ve done a lot of music interviews over the years. And I do all right with explaining something but sometimes it’s hard to explain your style, because I know that a lot of pianists listen to my recordings and they learn more from that than they do from asking me questions. Because it’s hard for me to relate to what I’m doing by just talking about it. I mean I try to describe it — I do the best I can.
Q: I think you’re doing a great job.
A: thanks, Dan, I’m glad somebody thinks so.
Q: Speaking of personal style, I remember years ago transcribing your solo off of Passion Dance, on The Real McCoy. In the majority of the solo you’re playing in this Fsus area and it struck me that you’re virtually not at all using the note D in your lines. You’re avoiding that note. Years later I came across the concept of hexatonics, scales of six notes. And so I wanted to hear your thoughts on that, how you came across that idea.
A: For some reason I like that sound. You know, the fourths sound, the fifths. And rather than playing chords the way everybody else plays it, you know, and moving around. Once you set the root of the sound that the melody is based on, I usually try to keep the voicing open so I can move around. I can play an Eb seventh chord on top of an F or Ab, or B, all of that stuff1McCoy was being very specific here: Eb7 is the dominant of Ab Major or minor. In classical harmony, it’s common, instead of resolving from Eb7 to Ab Major, to instead perform a deceptive cadence to the relative minor, F minor (or, for more of a special effect, to go straight to the parallel Major of F minor, F Major). Likewise, since Eb7 resolves to Ab minor, it’s also common to resolve instead to the relative Major of Ab minor, another deceptive cadence to Cb Major, or (enharmonically) B Major. More generally speaking, Eb7 can resolve to Ab, B, D and F because Eb7 is an instance of G diminished. I think it’s interesting that McCoy is quoting rigorous classical theory here — theory which, by the way, someone like Steve Coleman uses extensively and teaches — but couches it in the more poetic language of “sounds that sort of connect”.. All of those sounds sort of connect. And I think that if you voice things properly you can go where you want to go. When you first start playing you play chords that are based on root, third, fifth, that sort of thing. But if you play the voicing open, you can move around because I think every chord is related to the other one, whatever chord you want to pick. It’s how you resolve things. I hope I’m making sense.
Q: You’re making a lot of sense.
A: I know you know what I’m talking about. You play piano.
Q: Yeah, I totally hear you and I think the readers will love hearing this stuff too. I guess the point of interviews sometimes is to let the people who don’t play have a glimpse of what’s going on.
A: Like a tapestry of sound. One sound is related to another.
Q: For example, in that solo, the fact that you’re avoiding the note D — that’s part of your tapestry, that’s part of the creation of the color?
A: Yeah, that keeps me from being locked into that F sound so I can’t move. Not that I can’t move, but it suggests movement.
Q: So leaving one note out makes it more open.
A: Yeah, you could say that. And then you resolve it. Once you establish the sound, maybe by leaving that D out, maybe in the melody or in the beginning of the solo, then you can move around, you can move the bass around, it’s all related. You can play Bb Ab B Db whatever you want to do you can move around, so long as you resolve things in a good way so it makes sense. To me, anyway. Everybody has a — if you talk to Cecil Taylor he probably has another idea of how it should go. And that’s great — that’s what it’s all about.
Q: I remember reading a great quote of Art Tatum’s, where he says “there are no wrong notes, there are only wrong ways of leaving notes”.
A: Exactly. Exactly. It’s perfect. There are no wrong notes — it’s what you do with them, how you resolve them, how you move from one thing to another. It’s a resolution, I think.
Q: You’ve made some great solo piano albums. How is playing solo piano different from playing in a band, for you?
A: I do things in contrast. If I do a quartet thing, then I might do something solo, then I might do something quintet, then in a sextet, then a big band. I try to make it so that if people buy my recordings they’ll have a little collections of different me’s in different settings.
Q: That explains why you’ve worked with so many different people in your bands over the years.
A: Yeah, you’re right. Just to add a little contrast to my performances. Just to give me something to do. Also when I play live. Sometimes, like, my big band — I’ve had some great guys in my big band — really nice guys.
Q: I love your album Uptown/Downtown.
A: Yeah yeah! Those guys are so nice, man.
Q: Do you think you’ll have a big band again in the future?
A: Yeah, I’d like to tour with it. It’s an expensive process. I have to have a tour set up so that — you know, with more than one gig, so they don’t fly out and do only a couple gigs. It’s hard to do that because it’s so expensive. Everyone’s trying to get paid, then you got transportation, but the promoter usually pays for that — the transportation and the hotels. And so me and my agency take care of the salaries of the musicians. And usually the guys in my big band — they’re still a lot of guys around who play in my big band and they’re happy to see the band — they ask: ‘when are we going to play with the big band?’ It’s the chance to see some musical friends and sit next to guys with whom they’re familiar. It’s fun but it’s an expensive process. We went a lot of places with the big band. That’s a lot of fun. Then I’ll break down and do a trio tour or quintet or something else. Some violins — I had John Blake with me — so the recordings are comprised of a variety of musical settings.
Q: I think I’ve covered what I wanted to ask you about, is there anything else you wanted to add to the interview?
A: Well, Dan, I wanted to tell you man, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Q: Oh it’s truly my pleasure, McCoy, you’re one of my heroes.
A: Really is. See, you’re a musician, that’s the difference. I mean, it’s good, there are guys who really know how to write articles in magazines and newspapers but when you talk to a musician it’s special.
Q: Well it’s special for me, I’ll tell you. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.