A close up of a piano keyboard with broken/warped keys going in various directions.
Black Mystery School Pianists
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

Black Mystery School Pianists

In viewing the history of jazz piano as it has influenced me, I find various tributaries and streams and ways of being that have contributed to my understanding of the jazz piano language and to finding my way through all of this. I have come to see a subgroup of jazz pianism that has influenced me as something I call the Black Mystery School of Pianists. Like all categories, there is an illusionary aspect of it and phenomena go in and out of each other, but the category does denote something. It’s a way I have viewed the work of certain practitioners of the art of jazz piano and I have followed offshoots of this branch. There are many pianists that might fall in and out of this category that are not mentioned here. The list is an outline that defines aspects of a certain attitude and is not meant as any type of dogmatic statement.

So what do I mean by a Black Mystery School pianist? Well, obviously the word “Black” is in here, so for the purposes of looking at this tree, all of the practitioners I will mention except for one will be Black. That is not to imply a non-black person cannot enter this realm. I am just outlining a code—that there is a definitive tree-like formation that has seemed more often than not to go down a certain path. The word “mystery” is here also which implies a secret code, passed through an underground way of passage, a language outside the mainstream and, yes, outside the mainstream of jazz, even though the father of this school Thelonious Monk’s image has been subsumed into the mainstream of jazz after a long period of incubation.

Mystery School posits an alternative touch.

Mystery School posits an alternative touch—something that does not directly fall within the mainstream’s easily digestible paradigm of being able to play the instrument, even though the practitioners of the Mystery School are obviously highly skilled virtuosos whose touch, language, and articulation are extremely hard to copy. In some ways, in the subconscious of the jazz idiom, the Mystery School is a counter strike to the psychological space of any variant of an Art Tatum approach of playing, filtered down to Oscar Peterson, and then watered down to something like André Previn as a prevailing way of viewing piano playing. And I say that despite Monk’s roots in stride piano. Mystery School pianists have developed profound ways of generating sound out of the instrument grounded in a technique they invented and one that cannot be taught in school. It is a code that somehow gets passed down.

The Mystery School seems to have a subconscious urge to resist academic codification of any sort. Despite however great artists and jazz musicians they are, and this is not meant as a pejorative, jazz students can go to jazz schools and learn to play like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock, but there is something completely elusive in the sound world of Randy Weston, Mal Waldron, and the legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali that defies the jazz academy.

The other major aspect of the Mystery School is the iconoclastic nature of it. As in the ultimate example of Monk, the artist carves out a niche for themselves within the world of the jazz universe. That niche is a worldview or a planet. The artist in utmost stubbornness will stick to that vision with a fuck the world attitude—that the world will have to come to this vision of the piano and, if it doesn’t, then so be it. This vision is extreme in its iconoclastic nature, although some mystery school pianists, like Mal Waldron, have done gigs like backing singers (e.g. Billie Holiday, etc.). The phrasing and rhythm employed in the code that these players utilize is of such nature as to not be able to fall under the hands of a jazz student who is studying, say, Brad Mehldau.

Another aspect of the Mystery School is despite Monk being the spiritual father, the descendants tend not to play Monk tunes. They develop their own body of work. And I say this despite some great interpretations of Monk music by Mal Waldron through the years.

Next, let’s look at who is not in the Mystery School according to this very particular way of looking at things. This is important because this is such a specific delineation of a slice of something that it is not a platform to just throw a bunch of great jazz pianists in. It is very specific. So first, Ellington is not in, although he is a big influence on the pianism of Monk, Randy Weston, and Cecil Taylor. Also Ellington’s piano work on the album Money Jungle is on the level of the greatest piano playing ever. It is playing that could never be reached by someone with the mindset of a post-Tatum pianism, and no one who comes out of a bebop or post bebop mindset could ever get to the language there. Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, or Tommy Flanagan—as great as they all are—could never generate the energy/sound fields that the piano work on Money Jungle does. So that is to say Ellington had a unique homemade style that is as idiosyncratic as any. But Ellington doesn’t fall into this school because there is a posture and an attitude inherent in the code that he does not quite embody and his relationship to the mainstream of his day does not exactly delve into the stance and attitude of the Mystery School.

Ellington is not in, although he is a big influence on the pianism of Monk, Randy Weston, and Cecil Taylor.

Bud Powell does not make it in the school because he is too tied to the classic idea of the development of bebop. That might seem a paradox being that Monk is also considered a founding father of bebop—but isn’t that one of the main things that gives juice to Monk’s legacy, that he is a founding father of bebop but at the same time set up a parallel universe of his own music that in some ways seems like it is counter to some of the assumptions of bebop? There is that aspect of the Mystery School that sets itself up as counter to bebop. Of course, Bud Powell is one of the greatest pianists ever to sit at the keys. But that does not put him in this particular school, although Bud is transcendental.

I also do not include Mary Lou Williams. Bud and Monk used to go over her place–she helped them both with touch on the piano. She usually did not go for the oblique, though.  But she is a tremendous jazz pianist.

I also do not include Mary Lou Williams… but she is a tremendous jazz pianist.

If you use the word “mystery,” and the math of the pyramids come to mind, then you could not think of a more profound player than Horace Silver, because his playing is undergirded by a code of this sort. But he does not make the school because he is in a different head-space. I look at him as a super gifted post-Bud Powell player who developed his own unique style and attack within those parameters and then went on to help invent hard bop. But his stance doesn’t have the punk attitude that the Mystery School can have, and I don’t think he would have ever been comfortable with the idea of being an underground language.

Erroll Garner could never be in this school, though strangely enough his playing could be very idiosyncratic at times, and is obviously homemade. But the areas of American culture that he was an actor in does not allow entry into this club. (I have an aunt who thought Erroll was the greatest pianist ever, but she went to her grave saying Monk could not play the piano.)

I have wrestled with whether Elmo Hope belongs in the group. I am not sure. I go back and forth for different reasons. If he is, a lot of it would be because of his influence on Hasaan Ibn Ali, who is another extreme of an ultimate example of this.

Most free jazz pianists do not make the list because the Mystery School is not about free jazz per se. And I say this despite the fact that most free jazz pianists feel a relationship with Monk, despite Monk’s problematic relationship with free jazz. But Cecil Taylor makes the list because he is a contemporary of Randy Weston and Mal Waldron and it is fascinating to see those three artists as branches off the Ellington/Monk piano branch. You could not find three artists as different as these three masters, yet they get their nourishment from some of the same sources.

McCoy Tyner does not make the school, because the Coltrane universe is a cosmology in and of itself and must be dealt with that way apart from everything else. I say that despite the fact that McCoy was influenced by Hasaan Ibn Ali and use to go over to his house in Philadelphia and soak in things.

So who is in the Black Mystery School of Piano?

Monk

Herbie Nichols

Mal Waldron / Randy Weston / Cecil Taylor / Andrew Hill

The legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali

Sun Ra / Horace Tapscott

A Spotify playlist of devoted to the 9 pianists cited above.


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Some further words about a few of these artists and their praxis…

Herbie Nichols was a contemporary of Monk who also was a writer and one of the first people to write about Monk’s music. Nichols was tremendous, but his music never received the fame that Monk’s did. Nichols is every bit as much of a father of this school as Monk. There have been several revivals of Nichols’s music in recent years. Perhaps, when the history of this school is written, he will take his proper place.

Andrew Hill is as iconoclast as iconoclast can iconoclast. He seems to directly be in the Monk line of the pianist/improviser as composer and, in his way, has as unique and powerful an application of that archetype as Monk. He has some of the stance of Monk in attitude and was obviously liberated by Monk’s use of space, but Hill has his own language and way of doing it on the piano. His universe is his own planet—completely. Hill is in line with Waldron and Weston as far as taking up some aspect of a post-Monk mantle –but what makes Hill so interesting is he is a parallel universe to Cecil Taylor.

Being a Black Mystery School pianist does not necessary equal avant-garde.

Of course being a Black Mystery School pianist does not necessary equal avant-garde. But Hill fits in both in the sense that his posture can be seen as a post-Monk conceptualist/iconoclast – but he also mollifies the Cecil Taylor monopoly on the perception of free-jazz piano in that if a free jazz pianist gets tired of getting compared to Cecil they can get inspiration from Hill and claim him as more of a direct influence. Andrew Hill’s elliptical phrasing seems like a direct extension of his elliptical mind. Hill is someone who managed to slip through all the cracks and defy any category though it is obvious what he comes out of. In some ways his playing is the ultimate fuck you to everything and everyone.

Hasaan Ibn Ali might be the most isolated of any one here. A Philadelphia-based pianist who never could get gigs even in his home town and who recorded only one album, which Max Roach brought him in the studio for. The album is this category in its purist form.

I include two big band leaders in this list: Sun Ra and Horace Tapscott. One is East Coast; the other West Coast. As far as their piano playing, both of their playing contains the geometry and the architecture that goes with this category. That is what puts them here, and that is something that is there or not; it cannot be faked.

As an aside, I also include Ran Blake in this school even though I use the word Black and Ran is a Caucasian. Ran is an offshoot of someone who is influenced by Monk and Ran is a spiritual brother to Mal Waldron. In another way, Dave Burrell can dip in and out of this school. I have heard Burrell approach one of the most organic synthesis of Monk tunes done in a free jazz way, not that that is what the Mystery School is about, because it is not about playing Monk tunes, but Burrell understands all of this.

The late Geri Allen also had a complete understanding of all of this and she was so gifted that she could embody aspects of this. Her relationship to the mainstream jazz audience of her time was a relationship that did not allow her to fully inhabit this space. But she was an offspring of the language and had a beautiful relationship with Mal Waldron. She once took me aside at a festival in France and told me I was one of the only pianists she had ever heard who could channel Mal Waldron. Even though I like to think of myself as a complete original, I took that as the highest compliment.

The pianist Rodney Kendrick had a close and direct relationship with Randy Weston and has spent time with Monk. His sound completely embodies this school. Rodney, who is a friend, completely disagrees with my way of looking at this in this piece. Maybe it takes someone who is contextualized within the avant-garde world like myself to see things this way. Maybe Rodney’s relationship with Barry Harris, who is the antithesis of this approach, taints his view. However Rodney comes out of this and no one like him exists at this time on the planet.

Classificatory schemes are illusionary and don’t always comport to reality.

To end this, classificatory schemes are illusionary and don’t always comport to reality. But I have talked about this school before in interviews and people always get something out of it and ask me to go deeper. I am not trying to lay out any dogma, just talking about a way I saw some things that contributed to abstractions I made that enhanced my creative life. Even if you don’t buy into the complete format as presented, you should check out the work of all the artists discussed here.

A Spotify playlist of most of the other pianists cited in this article. Should they be included in the Black Mystery School of Pianists or not? You decide.


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[Ed. note: We also invite you to further explore the extraordinary music of Matthew Shipp who turned 60 earlier this month and marked this milestone by remaining extraordinarily prolific despite the difficulties we have all faced in this pandemic year. Shipp’s discography is a treasure trove and this playlist only scratches the surface. We also encourage you to read and watch this 2005 conversation with him on NewMusicBox. – FJO]

A Spotify playlist highlighting some of the gems in Matthew Shipp’s extensive discography.


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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “Black Mystery School Pianists

  1. Kurt Ralske

    Great article, thanks!
    Two other nominations for the Black Mystery School: Lowell Davidson and Don Pullen. Thoughts ?

  2. Tim G

    I really enjoyed this glimpse into Mr. Shipp’s understanding of the piano lineage. It was especially gratifying to see Horace Tapscott included. I would never presume to tell Mr. Shipp how to configure his classification systems or personal pantheon but I’m curious about a few pianists who go unmentioned. For instance, I’ve often seen Muhal Richard Abrams included in this lineage. I would also be fascinated to hear any comments on other pianists, like Don Pullen or Paul Bley, who I had initially suspected to be the one non-Black person in the group. These are unfair demands for Mr. Shipp, who I imagine does not play requests, but non-practitioners rarely get to hear the insights of an innovator on their own tradition. Thank you for this piece!

  3. Martin Davidson

    I must confess that I don’t really understand the rules for getting included into this group, although it does contain some of my favourite pianists, as well as a few I don’t appreciate. Based on my (no-doubt) imperfect feelings, I would like to suggest the following additional candidates:
    James P Johnson (listen particularly to his 1943 Blue Note solos);
    Jelly Roll Morton;
    Stan Tracey and Richard Twardzik – both strongly influenced by Monk and Ellington;
    Richard Grossman.
    I would also recommend a re-evaluation of Duke Ellington – “Money Jungle” is far from being the only recording of his excellent piano work.

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