Pickens will also conduct a workshop for aspiring musicians starting at 3 p.m. in the Redstone Room. Admission to that event is $10.
Pickens was born in 1931 in Milwaukee. His mother was an amateur pianist and his father played the alto saxophone. He first tried to play the piano at the age of five or six, but until he was 12 he spent more time working on song and dance that he performed in public. Willie began taking piano lessons at the Wisconsin Conservatory by the time he was in high school and continued his piano studies off and on for the next decade.
At age 14, Willie was getting weekly gigs for six dollars a night with school mates Frank Morgan and Bunky Green, playing for dances at the local social center. Among his influences at that time were Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, and Bud Powell. Willie eventually helped form a little big band that at times performed with Little Miss Cornshucks, Jimmy Scott, King Pleasure, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. After finishing high school, Willie spent two years in the Army and played in the Army band. After discharge, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in music education.
Willie moved to Chicago in 1958, and in no time began getting gigs at various clubs, including Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase, where he has performed off-and-on to the present time with jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon, James Moody, Sonny Stilt, Jackie McLean, Pepper Adams, Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, Curtis Fuller, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Louis Bellson, and Max Roach.
In 1966, Willie accepted a job as chair of the music department at Wendell Phillips High School that he kept until he retired in 1990. From 1971 to 1987 he served as instructor of jazz improvisation and director of jazz ensembles at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. And from 1971 to 1974, he was assistant instructor of the All-City High School Band of Chicago.
In 1974, Willie was part of the organization Concerned People for the Arts, which under the direction of Mayor Jane Byrne started putting on jazz performances at Grant Park that by 1979 became the world-famous Chicago Jazz Festival.
From November 1990 to August 1995, Willie was a member of Elvin Jones' Jazz Machine, which toured Europe five times and Japan once. Willie recorded three CDs with Elvin.
Willie's daughter, Bethany Pickens, is also a topnotch jazz pianist. In 1992, she led her own quintet at the Chicago Jazz Festival. On a number of occasions Willie and Bethany performed together as a duo.
For the past 11 years, Willie has been the pianist for Ravina Jazz Mentors, a group consisting of master players who check out student musicians from 10 high schools three times a year. At the conclusion of the third visit, the jazz mentors select the top musician for each instrument.
For the past 11 years, Willie has led a Christmas jazz show at his church, Hyde Park Union Church, gathering some of his musician friends. On February 17, 2006, the church sponsored a gala 75th-birthday tribute and jam session for Pickens at Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry. The event attracted more than 1,500 fans who paid $50 each to enjoy four hours of live jazz by such legends as Clark Terry, Jon Faddis, Gary Bartz, Bunky Green, Barry Harris, Richard Davis, and Louis Bellson, along with Willie and Bethany.
The Hyde Park Union Church has helped produce some of Willie's latest CDs: A Jazz Christmas, The Willie Pickens Trio with Nicholas Payton, and the just-released two-volume set Jazz Spirit, with Willie performing solo, duet, and ensemble arrangements of European canonical hymns and African-American spirituals and gospel songs.
The Willie Pickens Trio also includes Larry Gray on bass and Robert Shy on drums.
Crockett Gives Students the Opportunity to Truly Learn Jazz
Jazz and blues are known to many as America's classical music, but there aren't many opportunities for young people to genuinely learn the music.
Jazz is taught at many schools and colleges, mainly through organized jazz ensembles that from time to time perform in public at the institution's auditorium. Yet for the most part, the only thing the students have learned about playing jazz is how to read the compositions and arrangements of jazz legends.
To be a real jazz musician, one must have an absolute love of jazz music, shown by listening to live jazz and recordings of jazz greats, demonstrating technical ability on one's instrument, practicing daily (including improvising with a blues feeling), and performing regularly in public, preferably in small groups.
Black Hawk College professor Edgar Crockett has given his students the opportunity to perform in public and show audiences what they have learned about playing jazz. Beginning in October 2005, Crockett has brought his Black Hawk College students to the River Music Experience every Tuesday to perform at Mojo's from 7 to 9 p.m. I have found it amazing to hear these youngsters performing dozens of both well-known and little-known jazz standards composed by some of the legends, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Clifford Brown.
Crockett gives each student a chance to solo on nearly every tune. Among the students I caught on Tuesday, March 14, were Derek Reid, Jon Fowler, and Alex Slack on saxophone; Brendan Chambers on trumpet; James Possen and Anthony Lloyd on guitar; Alan Vrombaut and Bez Lanciel on piano; Joe Brown on bass; and Eric Pobanz and Andy Ross on drums. As always when Black Hawk College students perform jazz, Crockett played trumpet.
He has always encouraged students from other schools, and local and visiting musicians, to sit in. On the evening of March 14, for instance, East Moline trumpet legend Manny Lopez II sat in with his flugelhorn on several numbers.
Quad Cities jazz lovers and those who support the education of our children should make every effort possible to make it to Mojo's on Tuesday evenings. Your mere presence will help these young people become better musicians.