Pianist Larry Willis has had an important and distinguished 40-year career in jazz. Since making his recording debut on Jackie McLean’s landmark 1965 album “Right Now!,” the New York-born Willis has played everything from free jazz to fusion to rock while performing as a valued sideman with such jazz titans as Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey and Woody Shaw.
Larry was born in 1942 in Manhattan’s Harlem. Surprisingly, he entered music not as a pianist but as a voice major, first at New York’s High School of Music and Art for gifted students, then at the Manhattan School of Music. His senior year in high school, at 17, he had his first recording date, a classical gig with the Music and Arts Choral Ensemble singing a Copland opera conducted by no less then Leonard Bernstein.
But something even more important than that happened to Larry at the beginning of that senior year. He started playing the piano no lessons, no teacher, just figuring it out by himself. By the end of the winter, he was playing his first professional gigs in a jazz trio with two of his classmates, Al Foster on drums and Eddie Gomez on bass. No one knew it then, but that little trio was probably the most distinguished high school jazz group in the country.
Soon after entering the Manhattan School of Music, Larry switched from voice to music theory. For one, he was running head-on into the all-too-evident barriers facing black musicians in the classical world.