Just Play

Ruminations on the themes of McCoy Tyner’s life on the occasion of his passing

McCoy Tyner photographed by Tom Marcello, Rochester, 1976

Of all the McCoy Tyner tunes, “Fly With the Wind,” stays with me. It is a movement of energy and spirit that is presented to us, rather than forced on us. The song invokes Oya, the Yoruba deity who is represented as wind. Her place in the pantheon reminds us of a kind of power that is not jealous or angry but might be rendered as forceful invitation. She is there to mark and invoke changes in nature, especially in and of moments of tumult. This might well describe the way that Alfred McCoy Tyner played piano. There is a forcefulness in his kind of playing that produces and then revels in power. The chords are attacked. It is warrior music. But it never imposes itself. We are only invited. For what is being produced is a change in nature we all needed, and at the end of this playing is a peace. Force is not its own rationale but a mode of breaking out of a place we can no longer remain if we are to ever experience liberation. Tyner’s playing is a means of discovering what Ashon Crawley has called an otherwise mode of existence. Music powerfully evokes a feeling of what that existence might be, and “Fly With the Wind” is a journey of breaking through and finding respite.

Joined by a string orchestra, Tyner’s band of Billy Cobham on drums, Hubert Laws on flute, and Ron Carter on bass makes the wind a beautiful reminder of possibility amid the tumult of Black life in the modern world. It opens with Tyner and Laws playing under the strings that carry forth the introduction and invitation. A minute later, Tyner rejoins with a statement of the theme that breaks the calm and moves us to its peak, a three-part movement of givenness and response, of statement, question, and resolution. There is as much here in the composition of the head as there is in the solos that punctate its lines throughout the remainder of the tune. But one never is released from the hold of the Tyner’s chops, even when he passes the responsibility of the theme to the orchestra. Tyner’s energy is the foreground to Laws’s brilliant solo, and Cobham’s driving rhythms, and Carter’s groove. His accompaniment is the force. But its resolution is a peace, a peace after unsettlement. One can be insistently present without domination. There can be movement together. Though initially released in 1979, this tune remained an important part of Tyner’s repertoire until his transition on March 6, 2020. Just as it has remained with me.

My friend Anyabwile Love once had the fortune of speaking with Alice Coltrane. Asked about the music that she and John Coltrane made together, she told Love, “If you want to understand my husband, you have to start with his spirituality.” And ever since then, Love has been trying to make that evident not only in the work of John and Alice Coltrane but also in the work of Coltrane’s “classic” quartet, which consisted of McCoy Tyner, the bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. It was Tyner who played piano on what many consider the “most spiritual” of Coltrane’s records, A Love Supreme. This record and its impact have led some of those who market jazz to create a new subgenre known as “spiritual jazz,” which, as I have written elsewhere, is the height of tautology. We should enlarge Alice Coltrane’s dictum to include all of the music under the label jazz. It is all spirituality.

There are various genealogies of what Jacob Carruthers has called “African deep thought” that connect these spiritual traditions to the music. For John Coltrane — as it was for Thelonious Monk, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, and Charles Mingus — it was the deep expressiveness of the Black church, which he experienced in his large extended family, all of whom were intimately involved and made in those communities of the saints. It was the same for Monk, who played for an evangelist at an early age, a woman who likely could not have had her own congregation, so she made do by traveling around the country with a band that included the teenaged pianist. Gillespie, when asked about his music, often referred to the sanctified church, much in the same way that Zora Neale Hurston’s evocation of that institution reminds us of its role in forging African identity in the Americas. Mingus’s “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” embodied the form most eloquently. Here is Crawley’s description of that composition:

It opens with Mingus on bass, the announcement of pitch low, vibration slow. Feel the pulse-pulse of the movement, divine call and encounter, in and of openness to spirit. Like open doors to a church, like a prayer meeting for study, gathering together the dispersed parts of severed sociality. Refusing enclosure, refusing seclusion. Throughout this particular performance, the song increases in speed moment by moment. The saxophone solo at 7’40”, the sax breaking off into what sounds like speaking in tongues. At 6’19”, a clap interlude. The handclaps function to both keep and break with rhythm. The drums, the bass, the piano. Each instance of the solo enfleshed the airy space with the black symphonic. You hear the density of the space when there is abandonment and reanimation of sound, when there is the leaving and arrival, the breaking away from and coming back to of instruments.

In Mingus, in Monk, in Gillespie, in the Coltranes, the spiritual is ever present.

So it was in how Tyner spoke of the spiritual connections to jazz music as early as 1963, where in a DownBeat interview he stated: “I believe early jazz came out of the churches, through the spirituals, which were a form of worship.” To the extent that this provenance is known among jazz critics, it is usually rendered as a background to the lives of these musicians, often in throwaway lines about their childhood or early years. For ethnomusicologists, there is also a tendency to treat the Black religious setting as merely a training ground. Only a rare few see these sanctified spaces as the ground or foundation to the music that follows. Still fewer can link this religious ground to the African forms of spirituality that many concede have permeated all around this diaspora. So, why would this not be present in African America?

In the 20th century, Philadelphia became a place where these crossroads of African spiritual traditions broke ground and became an opening for the music. And in the case of Tyner, it was in the particular embrace of Islam by African-descended folk in this city that would push his music to another kind of place. It was a different genealogy than the Afro-Christian influences that his collaborator John Coltrane had experienced. But the cultural unities were also enough for them to see each other, to play each other’s lives, to evoke the same spirit — a love supreme.

Philadelphia was just the place for this to happen. The presence of Islam in Philadelphia has a long and varied history. Its provenance is linked to the influence of Noble Drew Ali and the Moorish Science Temple and the multiple traditions that emerged out of that network in the first three decades of the 20th century. But as historian Michael Gomez has shown in works like Black Crescent, Islam has an even deeper root in the West African cultural retentions that existed in African-American cultural traditions — it was one of the sources of what we might call Black corporate identity in the U.S. South. In Philadelphia, many of these movements led to the introduction of Sunni Islam, a presence that today accounts for one of the largest African-American Muslim communities in the country.

But it was not Sunni Islam that first attracted Tyner; it was the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, which, along with the influence of his eventual wife Aisha, helped him move away from the church. By his teenage years, the Ahmadiyyas, a sect of Islam, had exerted a considerable influence in Black urban environments and had captured the imagination of jazz lights, including Art Blakey, Yusef Lateef, Sahib Shihab, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik. When he began playing piano in his mother’s Philadelphia beauty shop as a teenager, these figures were emerging. As was a veritable tradition of Philadelphia sound coming from the likes of Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Red Garland, Benny Golson, and so many others. By the age of 18, Tyner would convert to Islam through the Ahmadiyyas. And he would move through this Philadelphia world of music to eventually emerge in the 1960s as one of the leading exponents of the Philadelphia jazz tradition. In describing the influence Islam had on this music, Tyner remarked that it instilled in him a sense of the “unity of mankind,” a religious ideal that could be played and sounded. Elsewhere, Tyner reflected on how it also instilled a sense of discipline amid a jazz world of substance abuse and violence, which took the lives of many that he had closely admired, like Bud Powell. In the DownBeat interview, Tyner stated, “We talk a lot about freedom in Jazz, but there are underlying disciplines too. When you have the discipline of religion, as I have, I think you can meet the demands of music and function better.”

But as Robin D. G. Kelley indicates in his Africa Speaks, America Answers, Islam was also an opening to Africa and the larger Eastern world. For African Americans, who had to live surrounded by regimes of anti-Blackness, which of course included the jazz industry, it was a connection to heritage and to dignity. This opening would influence the sound of the music in profound ways. By the late 1960s and 1970s, Tyner’s work reflected the growing African consciousness that had always pervaded the music but was now becoming an explicit and acknowledged link to that foundation, evident in albums like Extensions (1970) and Asante (1970). But perhaps none more so than 1972’s Sahara, where Tyner takes us through the many and varied formulations of the jazz world of that time. We get wrenching solo work in “A Prayer for My Family,” and the familiar quartet vibes, thrust with his signature energy, in “Ebony Queen” and “Rebirth,” but on “Valley of Life,” and the title track, we see him adding Eastern and direct African influences, even playing flute and koto. On the album’s cover, Tyner is seated with his koto, a Japanese stringed instrument, in his lap, apparently in Philadelphia, which is depicted in a state of urban decay, signifying that these musical journeys were integrated with particular meanings of home, not escapes. The Black Scholar, a Black-studies journal, interviewed Tyner in 1971, asking him about the importance of Africa in the music. He responded: “We were the originators of the music. This music, the blues, is based on African music. There’s some talk about the American or European influence on our music, but again, the five-note scale is African. Africa is the mother of civilization and all else is, obviously, based on that.” Ironically, Tyner’s commercial success coincided with his exploration of these themes.

In 1972, Tyner signed with the Milestone label and continued to sharpen the sound that emanated from these experiences and perspectives. Over the course of 19 albums in little under a decade, these sounds unfolded. Sometimes it was hard-driving bop, and other times it was open and light, receptive to spirit — and wherever it led. There was a lush quality to the music that prepared the listener for sudden bursts of passion that then diffused and filtered into moments of both release and relief. There were always returns to standards and to the Coltrane years. There was always an acknowledgment that the new moments were part of older cycles. Sometimes in one solo.

There is his 1975 recording of Coltrane’s “Impressions,” on the album Trident, where Tyner solos for two and a half minutes in his distinctive, hard-driving style. It is a clear homage to the days of the classic quartet, trio style with alumnus Elvin Jones and Ron Carter. Yet, you know it was a Tyner-led band because of the verve that accompanies this moment. In the recent release of the Coltrane classic quartet’s Both Directions at Once, both takes of “Impressions” feature the saxophonist soloing exclusively. But as soon as we get the feel for McCoy’s approach to the tune through his solo, he and Jones drop out unexpectedly to allow for Carter’s improvisatory flourish — a moment that has been sampled repeatedly in hip hop. There is much anticipation within the pause. And then Jones recalls the moment and the theme returns, with Tyner taking us through a new phase of the music, a new phase of that moment. In so many of these moments, whether Tyner was speaking to his direct past or crafting new compositions, we become aware that he was creating a sound that was both of his generation and of all generations. McCoy Tyner did all of that.

In a period where the avant-garde or freer expressions of the music were garnering wide attention, Tyner’s sound stayed lodged in the space that he created for himself, out of the many influences of his life. He told the Black Scholar that “avant garde” only “came about because of our environment” and from “musicians thinking about our heritage.” In that same vein he would describe the moment he came in to record Coltrane’s Ascension. As they came into the studio, Coltrane said nothing. When it was time to record, he said simply, “Play”: “Just ‘play.’ No details. No structures. He had a line, which he would call a melody line, that he opened with. That was all. We’d just build.” What better way to approach life, and living otherwise?

The spiritual message of the music may be that we are all building communities of common strugglers, thinking of ways to love and live together without strain, but with an underlying discipline that imposes beingness, rather than order. Tyner helped us see how that sounded. If we could truly see each other, we could see how we all possess something to bring to the ongoing practice of freedom. Jazz was a place to test this theory, to hear how that sounded, to see what otherwise structure might be built. Tyner’s music generated an intensity that was strongly correlated with his desire to construct spaces for the myriad artists that came along to work with him. The collaborations with string orchestras throughout his work made new meaning out of instrumental structures thought to be connected to other worlds. His arrangements with the big-band form brought that elemental feature of jazz together with compositional work that emerged in later evolutions of the music. The brilliant duo work with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson channeled the percussive melodies and pierced the expectations of bebop. Even his solo work was communal, featuring solo arrangements of Coltrane compositions, such as the beautiful tribute album Echoes of a Friend (1972), as well as the ever present work honoring Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. In his final years, he would work alongside the likes of Christian McBride, Esperanza Spalding, and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, each of whom has seriously shaped this music in ways that speak directly to Tyner and beyond.

Though in later years there were notable mainstays like bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Louis Hayes, Tyner never recreated a “classic” trio or quartet of his own, perhaps because community was larger than crew. The result was a sound that was equally large. One of my favorite examples is the title track to the live album Atlantis (1974). Recorded at the famous Keystone Korner in San Francisco, the tune begins with Guilherme Franco alternating between triangle and gong, before Tyner enters playing with an ethereal touch, summoning the head. The full quintet, featuring saxophonist Azar Lawrence, drummer Wilby Fletcher, and bassist Juini Booth, joins in, and finally the head bursts. It is rhythmic, pulsating, with Tyner setting up the groove perfectly, together with Booth. And as the almost 18-minute tune unfolds, a feeling of celebration and a rhythmic camaraderie among bandmates and between the bandstand and audience emerges. It was the only time this tune was recorded and sold. There was something unique to that moment in time and place. Like many live expressions of the music, it had a “now” quality. Yet it remains available for us.

After Tyner’s transition, my friend Anyabwile reminded me that one of the later iterations of his evolution included work with the tap dancer Savion Glover. He was able to play to Glover’s movement in ways that reminded us of another pianist, the Detroit great Geri Allen, who also worked closely with tap and whose transition came much too soon. There is something beautiful about these two forms together. The rhythmic percussiveness of the piano, which is of course also melodic, and the movement and sound of tap. It is improvisation. It is play.

There are thousands of books and articles that try to capture the essence of what occurs on these bandstands and in these musicians’ lives. Tyner is the subject of much of this interrogation. And I think, like Max Roach and Nicholas Payton and Mary Lou Williams, Tyner offers through plain language far more than formal jazz commentators have been able to capture. For instance, when asked by Nat Hentoff about the meaning of his music, Tyner simply replied, “I play what I live.” And to the Black Scholar he replied: “I’m trying to uplift and stimulate people through my music. You see, I believe a good musician is a medium. He’s a medium through which truth and divine messages come. A musician is a messenger; he delivers the message.”

We, who learn from and listen to these messengers, might, like McCoy Tyner did so beautifully, simply listen to Coltrane’s instructions . . .

Just play.