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, Larry’s the professional. As such, he’s in charge of making sure our music keeps on getting better —and he’s 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 Manhattan’s Harlem. Surprisingly, he entered music not as a pianist but as a voice major, first at New York’s 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 piano—no 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, Larry’s 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 Larry’s 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 innovator.

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, he’s playing gigs with a soon-to-be world class trio. A year and a half after that, he’s making jazz history with the next giant of the alto after Bird. Talk about a natural gift!

A year after Larry’s graduation in 1965, Jackie gave him his first recording date—Right Now, on Blue Note—and 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. He’s 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).

Larry’s extraordinary versatility as a pianist ranges from rock and pop—he spent 7 years as keyboardist for Blood, Sweat and Tears—to African, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music. He’s one of the only non-Hispanic players who ever impressed Mario Bauza as a Latin pianist—I was there the night it happened.

Another facet of Larry’s genius that I’ve seen flowering recently is his composing and arranging for orchestras and big bands. He’s 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 he’s done gem-like string quartet and quintet arrangements for three Mapleshade jazz CDs: John Hicks’ Trio Plus Strings (#05532), Sunny Sumter’s Sunny (#05932), and Monica Worth’s 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, it’s 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. He’s was also on Roy Hargrove’s 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.

Pierre Sprey
Upper Marlboro, MD


Alter Ego (#11432) The Powers Of Two Vol. 2 (#11232) The Powers Of Two Vol. 1 (#10232) Sanctury (#09932) Sunshower (#08532)

Solo Spirit (#01432) Gentle Giant of the Tenor Sax (#09032) If Trees Could Talk (#06332) Mellow Side of Clifford Jordan (#05032) Shades of Brass (#03932)

Barge Burns… Slide Flies (#02832) Big Sweet 'N Blue (#02632) Afterglow (#02132) Portraits In Ivory And Brass (#02032) The Offering (#01332)


(click to enlarge)