After a 40-year long career that has seen him excel as a leader, soloist, arranger, musical director, and accompanist for some of the most celebrated names in jazz and Latin music, Bill O’Connell can lay claim to a track record of challenging and artistic-diverse triumphs that few of his peers can match. As a recording artist, his 13 dates as a leader have drawn universal critical acclaim while his talents as a pianist and arranger have been tapped by a diverse range of noted soloists to elevate their sessions. Today, as both a respected educator and leader of The Latin Jazz All-Stars, O’Connell’s professional life brims with new opportunities to express and fulfill his singular music vision.
O’Connell was born in New York City on August 22, 1953. After high school, he studied classical piano at Ohio’s famed Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Returning to New York, he was drawn to and became quickly immersed in the heady Latin jazz and salsa scene that was flowering in the city in the 1970s. His first big break came when he joined Cuban conga player and bandleader Mongo Santamaria’s Latin jazz group in 1977 as keyboardist. Working with the legendary conguero for two years afforded the young pianist the opportunity to hone the three attributes he would emphasize throughout his career – composing, arranging, and playing. His time with Santamaria also resulted in the first of O’Connell’s many recordings on two LPs for the Vaya label, Amanacer and Mongo ala Carte – essential albums that are today coveted by collectors of vintage Latin jazz vinyl. Another rarity, and further documentation of his involvement in the avant-garde of Latin music at the time, was Jasmine (West 54), an LP by a quartet of the same name that featured Roger Rosenberg on baritone sax.