As the pianist for the legendary John Coltrane Quartet (my favorite band), McCoy Tyner has been an enigma to me. He is a legend. No one can take that away. And yet, his recent endeavors have been a lightning rod for criticism and the criticism has come, fast and furiously. I wondered if such faultfinding would hinder the man, who is arguably the most influential pianist of the last forty years. So I asked him, as well of his time with J.C. He answered candidly and here it is, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
McCoy Tyner: I really got excited about it. I really got involved and that became a priority in my life. Thank goodness for that because I really needed to express myself and music became the vehicle in which to do that. I studied very hard at the school, a lot of practicing everyday when I could because I didn't have a piano for about a year. When I was fourteen, my mother bought me a piano. My mother was a very supportive person. At fifteen, I formed a rhythm and blues band of junior high school buddies. They played in the orchestra, so it was like a side venture for them and it really gave me an opportunity to learn how to write for other instruments aside from the piano. Then, I got interested to some of the older musicians in my city and we had jam sessions all over, including my mother's beauty shop. That was the largest room in the house and we sort of lived behind and above and my piano could fit in the shop very, very conveniently and sometimes we would be in there jamming and women would be getting their hair done. It was an interesting time (laughing), very exciting, very interesting. And then after that, I met John Coltrane when I was seventeen years old in Philadelphia. He lived there and he came there as a young child and kind of grew up there. He was born in North Carolina, but he came to Philadelphia. I had a chance to play with him when I was seventeen. He was sort of on sabbatical. He was with Miles Davis in the early '50s and came to Philadelphia in the mid-'50s and then went back with Miles in the late '50s. He made so many marvelous recordings, recordings on his own for Prestige, so it was a long historical situation.
FJ: Most people associate you with your long tenure as a member of John Coltrane's landmark quartet with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. So much has been written about John Coltrane and that band, I would not be so audacious as to think I could contribute anything new to the discussion, yet you had an insider's viewpoint of the man and the myth.
MT: Well, as a human being, he was a really, really nice person. I don't mean that casually. He was like family to me. I was seventeen when I met him and I joined his band when I was twenty, and so he was literally like a big brother. I used to go over to his mom's house when he was in Philadelphia, during that period of staying home with his family, I would go and sit on his porch and we would talk about music and he came back to New York and finished up some recordings for Prestige. But as an individual, I mean, I couldn't think of a better person to work for and I learned so much from him that it was like going to a university, working with him. I couldn't wait to go to work at night, I mean, exploring different things and just unlimited experimentation and enjoyment. Conceptually, I think he was moving into an area, the whole band really was moving there, but John's spearheaded the whole thing because he was our leader and we were sort of playing off of each other and following him and he would listen to us and he'd get ideas and so we really worked as a unit, with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. It was a group effort. But we needed a good, strong leader and he was the guy who helped shape that music. Well, all of us helped shape that music, but he was the guy. It was really a fun experience. We did a lot and the band did a lot for, as well as John, as an individual, did a lot to open up conceptually, the music and the band, of course. Each individual did his part in terms of setting the tone for a new way of self-expression on the individual instruments that we had to play. It was all because of the whole combination of people and John's leadership and conceptualizing different things and writing certain songs. He was so open to everything that was going on around him. He told me that he was supplied by what was going on around him. We really communicated very, very well.
FJ: A Love Supreme is a favorite of mine, more than thirty-five years have past, what are your views of the radically innovative recording now?