Don Pullen developed an extended technique for the piano and a strikingly individual style, post-bop and modern, but retaining a strong feeling for the blues. He produced acknowledged masterworks of jazz in a range of formats and styles, crossing and mixing genres long before this became almost commonplace. By chance, unfortunately for his future commercial success if not for his musical development, his first contact on arriving on the New York scene was with the free players of the 1960s, with whom he recorded. It was some years later before his abilities in more straight ahead jazz playing, as well as free, were revealed to a larger audience. The variety in his music made him difficult to pigeonhole, but he always displayed a vitality that at first hearing could shock but would always engross and delight his audience.
Don Gabriel Pullen was born (on 25th December 1941 not in 1944 as sometimes said) and raised in Roanoke, Virginia, USA. Growing up in a musical family, he learned the piano at an early age, played and worked with the choir in his local church, and was heavily influenced by his cousin, professional jazz pianist Clyde "Fats" Wright. He had some lessons in classical piano but knew little of jazz, being mainly aware of church music and the blues. Don sought to play in a very fast style and managed to develop his own unorthodox technique allowing him to execute extremely fast runs while maintaining the melodic line.
Don left Roanoke for Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina to study for a medical career but soon he realised that his only true vocation was music. After playing with local musicians and being exposed for the first time to records of the major jazz musicians and composers he abandoned his medical studies. He set out to make a career in music, desirous of playing like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy.
In 1964 he went to Chicago for a few weeks where he encountered Muhal Richard Abrams' philosophy of making music, then headed for New York, where he was soon introduced to avant-garde saxist Guiseppi Logan, and absorbed more of the philosophy of creative music. Logan invited Don to play piano on his two record dates, 'Guiseppi Logan'(October 1964) and 'More Guiseppi Logan' (May 1965) on ESP, both exercises in structured free playing. Although these were Guiseppi Logan's recordings, most critical attention was given to the playing of percussionist Milford Graves and the unknown Don Pullen with his astonishing mastery of his instrument.