Rhythm and Bombast: In Memory of Willie Pickens (1931-2017)

Willie Pickens at Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park

Willie Pickens at Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, July 2011 (Viewminder, CC BY-NC-ND)

Exhibit Dates: February 19 – April 29, 2018
Exhibit Location: The Joseph Regenstein Library, Fourth Floor

“I don’t have big paws like Oscar [Peterson] or a nice, big stretch like Benny Green’s. . . . I have to create illusions, make it sound like I’m doing something I’m not.”
— Willie Pickens (Lloyd Sachs, “Willie Pickens Rides Jazz Machine to Glory,” Chicago Sun Times, March 13, 1994)

Internationally known Jazz pianist and Hyde Park resident, Willie Pickens, passed away on Tuesday, December 12, after practicing for a “Jazz at Lincoln Center” show at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York. Pickens was known for his bombastic style and thunderous sound, paired with a melodic and harmonic ingenuity and versatility. He was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 18, 1931. One of six children, his mother, Minny Hall, was a pianist who exposed him to music at an early age. Young Willie took to the piano early, practicing for hours at a time as a boy.

He graduated from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1955, with a BA in music education, and soon after moved to Chicago. In Chicago, Pickens found his place among the jazz community, in which he would excel as a musician, a teacher, and a mentor. Pickens achieved international acclaim with his piano work on Eddie Harris’ hit recording “Exodus,” from the gold record “Exodus to Jazz,” released by Chicago-based VeeJay records in 1961. He released his recording debut as a trio leader with his 1998 album “It’s About Time” on Southport Records. During his career, he toured with Joe Henderson, Clark Terry, Wynton Marsalis, Quincy Jones, Louis Bellson, Bunky Green, and Red Holloway. He appeared regularly at the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.

Willie Pickens’ debut album, “It’s About Time”

Willie Pickens’ debut album as a trio leader, “It’s About Time” (Southport Records, 1998)

Willie Pickens was a devoted teacher and mentor, including to his daughter, jazz pianist Bethany Pickens. He taught in Chicago high schools from 1966-1997. He launched the music program at Hyde Park’s Kenwood Academy in the 1960s. Bethany Pickens currently teaches in this program. In 1995, he became a founding member of the Ravinia Jazz Mentor Program, and in 1997 joined the faculty of Northern Illinois University’s School of Music.

This exhibit in two cases displays examples of Pickens’ work from the University of Chicago Library’s general collection, as well as materials from the Chicago Jazz Archive.

An online exhibit is available as well.

The social media post announcing the passing of Willie Pickens

The social media post announcing the passing of Willie Pickens, from his daughter, Bethany Pickens (reproduced with permission)

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