Charles Pender
Performing Arts, Film and Music Production
Material Type:
Homework/Assignment, Reading, Unit of Study
Community College / Lower Division, College / Upper Division, Graduate / Professional
  • Fine Arts
  • Humanities
  • Jazz
  • Memphis Music
  • Music
  • Piano
  • Tennessee Open Education
  • fine-arts
  • humanities
  • music
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    Memphis: the Jazz Tradition

    Memphis: the Jazz Tradition


    This is a look at some of the more successful jazz pianists from Memphis Tennessee.  Each artist has experienced national and international acclaim as both a pianist and composer.  What's more, they are all comtemporaries having attended the University of Memphis (then Memphis State University)at the same time.  

    Memphis Jazz Piano Triumvirate

    Memphis is regarded generally as the Home of the Blues and the birthplace of Rock and Roll.  However, Memphis has been mecca for jazz as well...particularly jazz piano.  James Williams, Donald Brown, and Mulgrew Miller, using Phineas Newborn as one of many sources of inspiration, became internationally acclaimed jazz pianists.  These three were contemporaries and good friends who studied together at the then Memphis State University.  Putting Memphis on similar footing with Vienna as Hayden, Mozart, and Beethoven gathered there.  When one considers B.B. King who is regarded as the King of the Blues and Elvis Presley the King of Rock and Roll were also contemporaries who started in Memphis; it is clear why the city is such a major player on the American Music landscape and help shape what is commonly referred to as pop music.     

    Two other pianists, Charles Thomas and Harold Mabern were also part of the great jazz piano landscape in Memphis.  Both made a tremendous impact on the jazz community far beyond their hometown, working with top names in the industry as primary performers, sidemen, and noted composers.  Of course all these pianists admired and were directly influenced by the great Phineas Newborn Jr..     

    James Williams

    James Williams was born on March 8, 1951 in Memphis and began playing the piano at the age of 13. At first, his musical influences were from gospel and soul music rather than jazz; Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder were early favorites. He became the organist at Eastern Star Baptist Church in Memphis, and attended Memphis State University, where he completed a degree in Music Education and first became interested in jazz. While at the university, Williams became friendly with the pianists Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown and began to play gigs with established jazz figures such as the bassist Jamil Nasser and the saxophonists George Coleman and Frank Strozier. 

    In 1974, Williams took a teaching post at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and a year later also began to gig mainly with the drummer Alan Dawson, though he also provided support for musicians such as Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Milt Jackson, and Red Norvo. 

    By this stage, Williams was held in high regard as an accompanist, and he was a familiar sight in jazz clubs - as a thoughtful listener when not himself on the bandstand. In 1977, he gave up his position at Berklee to become a full-time performer, recording his first album and playing the first concert devoted to his own compositions.  

    It was also the year that he met Art Blakey, and he quickly became part of a line-up which included Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson, Billy Pierce and Charles Fambrough, and which was almost constantly on the road for the next four years. 

    Williams's work with Blakey can be heard to best effect on the albums In My Prime (1978); In this Korner (1978); Live at Bubba's (1980) and Straight Ahead (1981). After leaving the band, James returned to Boston, and to Dawson, though he also accompanied visiting musicians, including the trumpeters Clark Terry and Chet Baker and the saxophonist Benny Carter.  

    In 1984, Williams moved to New York, where he established himself as much of a fixture in its clubs as he had been in Boston's and continued to play with many of jazz's leading figures. He released several albums as a bandleader, including The Arioso Touch (1982); Alter Ego (1984) and an eponymous album with his group Progress Report in 1985. The following year the band played at the National Association of Jazz Educators conference, and Williams continued to teach, as well as becoming involved in music production. With a later band, Intensive Care Unit, he was artist-in-residence at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2000 and later that year, with the Magical Trio, released the album Awesome! 

    Williams was also director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University at Wayne, New Jersey, and taught classes at many other institutions, including Harvard, McGill, and the Royal Academy of Music. After a brief illness he died on July 20, 2004 at age 53. 

    Donald Brown 

    Donald Ray Brown is a noted jazz pianist and composer who was born in Hernando Mississippi and raised in Memphis.  He learned to play trumpet and drums at an early age.  From 1972 to 1975 he was a student at Memphis State University and by this time had made the piano his primary instrument. He was a member of the famed Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from 1981 to 1982.  Also a gifted educator, he taught at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.   

    While enrolled at Memphis State, Brown was recognized as part of the noted Memphis Three...which included Brown, Mulgrew Miller, and James Williams.  These three were exceptional pianists all enrolled at the university at the same time.  They were all friends and greatly inspired and encouraged each other.  While enrolled at the university, Donald began session work at famed Memphis recording studios Stax and Hi.  He also arranged and composed for the university jazz band.  Donald performed with many local bands until eventually being called to replace Williams in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  Here he performed with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Billy Pierce, and Charles Fambrough.   

    While teaching at Berklee, Brown taught several outstanding musicians including pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Danilo Perez.  In 1986 Wynton Marsalis recorded Donald’s composition “Insane Asylum” for the album “J Mood”.  The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist”.     

    In addition to teaching duties at Berklee and UT, Donald also served as artist-in-residence at the Julliard School of Music and the Brubeck Summer Jazz Colony among several other institutions. Donald has recorded over 15 albums and worked with some of the top names in jazz including Kenny Garrett, Diane Reeves, Christian McBride, Wallace Roney, and Russell Malone among many others.  He has toured nationally and internationally across Europe, Asia, and several other parts of the world.    

    Coming from a very musical family, Donald has known he wanted to be a musician since the very early age of 3 or 4 years old.  He grew up playing several brass instruments and readily grasped music theory concepts.   As a high school student he began arranging and composing for his band to the amazement of his director.  He originally entered Memphis State University on a brass scholarship.    

    Mulgrew Miller   

    Mulgrew Miller was a fixture in the postbop mainstream for more than 30 years,  Mr. Miller developed his voice in the 1970s, combining the bright precision of bebop, as exemplified by Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson, with the clattering intrigue of modal jazz, especially as defined by McCoy Tyner. His balanced but assertive style was a model of fluency, lucidity and bounce, and it influenced more than a generation of younger pianists.  

    He was a widely respected bandleader, working with a trio or with the group he called Wingspan, after the title of his second album. The blend of alto saxophone and vibraphone on that album, released on Landmark Records in 1987, appealed enough to Mr. Miller that he revived it in 2002 on "The Sequel" (MaxJazz), working in both cases with the vibraphonist Steve Nelson. Among Mr. Miller's releases in the past decade were an impeccable solo piano album and four live albums featuring his dynamic trio. 

    Born in Greenwood, Miss., on Aug. 13, 1955, Mulgrew Miller grew up immersed in Delta blues and gospel music. After picking out hymns by ear at the family piano, he began taking lessons at age 8. He played the organ in church and worked in soul cover bands, but devoted himself to jazz after seeing Oscar Peterson on television, a moment he later described as pivotal. 

    At Memphis State University he befriended two pianists, James Williams and Donald Brown, both of whom later joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Mr. Miller spent several years with that band, just as he did with the trumpeter Woody Shaw, the singer Betty Carter and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, led by Ellington's son Mercer. Mr. Miller worked in an acclaimed quintet led by the drummer Tony Williams from the mid-1980s until shortly before Williams died in 1997. 

    Though he harbored few resentments, Mr. Miller was clear about the limitations imposed on his career. "Jazz is part progressive art and part folk art," he said in a 2005 interview with DownBeat magazine, differentiating his own unassuming style from the concept-laden, critically acclaimed fare that he described as "interview music." He added, "Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé." 

    But Mr. Miller worked with so many celebrated peers, like the alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and the tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, that his reputation among musicians was ironclad. And his legacy includes a formative imprint on some leading players of the next wave, including the drummer Karriem Riggins and the bassist Derrick Hodge, who were in one of his trios. The pianist Robert Glasper once recorded an original ballad called "One for 'Grew," paying homage to a primary influence. On Monday another prominent pianist, Geoffrey Keezer, attested on Twitter that seeing Mr. Miller one evening in 1986 was "what made me want to be a piano player professionally."  Mulgrew Miller died of a stroke at the age of survived by his wife, Tanya; his son, Darnell; his daughter, Leilani; a grandson; three brothers and three sisters.