Growing up in the midwest, Willie Pickens earned a teacher’s certificate from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee and went on to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, in 1958, to receive his B.S. in Music Education, before beginning his remarkable career as a jazz pianist. Over the years, his sterling academic credentials have enabled him to share his gifts with many young players, both as a performer and teacher.
Upon graduating from school, he moved to Chicago and began his career on a national hitrecord -- Eddie Harris' 1961 Exodus. After that big hit, Willie’s live appearances were almost all limited to the midwest for the next two decades, while his career as an educator flourished. From 1966 to 1986, he appeared on recordings headlined by Bunky Green, E. Parker McDougal, Vernel Fournier, He also performed with Sammy Davis Jr., at Orchestra Hall, and with Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack, and Minnie Ripperton at the Mill Run Theatre
In 1990, Willie was invited to join the mighty Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. His first appearance with this legendary band took place later that year at the Bottom Line in New York and also featured Wynton Marsalis. Willie’s commitment to the Jazz Machine over the next several years meant retirement from full-time teaching in the public schools, but enabled him to serve as a linchpin for the group, appearing in Japan, Europe, and Canada, as well as in many U.S. cities.