Willie Pickens, 86

Hyde Park jazz legend Willie Pickens

Staff Writer

Willie Pickens, legendary Jazz pianist and Hyde Parker passed away on Tuesday, Dec. 12. He was 86.

Bethany Pickens, his oldest child, said Pickens died on his way to a sound check after practicing on Tuesday evening in New York. He was scheduled to play alongside one of his former students, Marquis Hill at the Lincoln Center.

He had a fatal heart attack, Bethany said.

Pickens was born on April 18, 1931, in Milwaukee he was one of six children. His mother was an amateur pianist and played a significant role in exposing him to various styles of music.

To his friends, family, and students he was warm embracing soul humble, encouraging, and loving.

The lively jazz clubs of the 1950s and ’60s were what initially drew Pickens to Hyde Park from Milwaukee.

“My fondest memory is performing with him,” said Bethany, who is an award-winning pianist and composer. Pickens taught his daughter how to play at six years old. “Everyone [in the family] including my mother was musically inclined.”

Bethany is a piano instructor at Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave.; where she attended high school and the place where her father was the school’s first band instructor. He taught at Kenwood for over 20 years and established the schools’ accomplished Jazz band.

Over the years Pickens still maintained a presence at the school, said Gerald Powell, who heads the music department and band at Kenwood. Powell who plays the tuba and trombone traveled to Poland to play with Pickens and Ed Wilkerson, a jazz composer, musician, and educator in 2009.

Powell said he was an inspiration to Hyde Park, Chicago, and the world. “You can hardly go anywhere in jazz and find someone who does not know Willie Pickens,” Powell said. “He was a remarkable man.”

As a musician “he was consistent, hard-working and had exemplary technique,” Bethany said.

Before moving to Chicago in 1958, Pickens graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in music education. He married his wife, Irma in 1959 and they were married for 56 years. Mrs. Pickens died two years ago.

“He was such a huge fixture on the jazz scene,” said Judith E. Stein, board secretary of the Hyde Park Jazz Society and co-founder of the annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival.

Pickens was a constant force in Chicago’s jazz performance scene for over half a century, Pickens also made himself into one of the city’s most respected jazz educators.

“He was primarily a solo artist and accompanied all the jazz greats,” Bethany said. “He was a Chicago-based musician he didn’t go on the road like that because he wanted to be with his family.”

He has toured and recorded with many such as, Elvin Jones, Joe Henderson, Clark Terry, Eddie Harris, Wynton Marsalis, Quincy Jones, Louis Bellson, Bunky Green and Red Holloway.

For many years he performed at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival since its creation in 2007 and his performances were highly anticipated.

“He was an electrifying pianist,” Stein said. “He had a distinctive, mesmerizing, and powerful sound he always knew how to get an audience going.”

Eddie Harris’s 1961 national hit record, Exodus, put Pickens on the map. It was groundbreaking because “it was the first jazz hit on the radio, the first jazz golf record,” Bethany said.

Pickens taught high school band from 1966 through 1990 and was an educator for Chicago Public Schools, Northern Illinois University and the American Conservatory of Music. Pickens was also the founding director of the Ravinia Jazz Scholar Program. He was also a member of the American Federation of Musicians.

The Jazz Ravinia Scholars program trains and mentors top jazz high school students in Chicago Public Schools. On a yearly basis, Pickens visited Kenwood to recruit students for the program. Marquis Hill, is also a graduate of Kenwood and went through the Ravinia Scholars Program. Many alumni from the program have gone on to study music at colleges including Juilliard, Oberlin, Manhattan School of Music and New York University.

“He had a profound influence on local musicians because he mentored so many up and coming pianists and because he was always available and willing to talk to them,” Stein said.

Pickens leaves behind one remaining sibling and in addition to Bethany, two children David Pickens and Kiron Pickens and two grandchildren Olivia Bethany Pickens and Selden Willie Pickens.

“It’s such a huge loss to the jazz community and to all the people who loved him,” Stein said.

“I will miss hearing him play,” Bethany said.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been finalized.