Jazz Pianist, composer, arranger and educator
Willie Pickens was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 18, 1931 to Minnie Hill. Although he never had a relationship with his biological father, he was raised in a loving home. Willie demonstrated an inclination and high aptitude towards music at a very young age, performing on street corners in top hat and tails with a song-and-dance routine at age 8. He began his classical training while in high school, taking private classical piano lessons at the Milwaukee Conservatory. After graduating high school he joined the Army were he played clarinet for the Army Band. After his honorable discharge from the Army, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and received his Bachelor’s degree in music in 1955. Upon graduating from college he moved to Chicago where he met his soon to be wife, Irma Jean Burrell. Willie put down roots in Chicago instead of moving to New York, as was his original plan.
In 1961 Willie joined Eddie Harris’ band playing a pivotal role in the musical success of Harris’ internationally renowned album, Exodus to Jazz. Between 1961 and 1966 Willie continued to play with Harris, and also at the famed Playboy Club in Chicago.
In 1966 Willie began his lifelong service as an educator and mentor, teaching in the Chicago Public Schools and at The American Conservatory (‘70’s & ‘80’s) while continuing to perform regularly for major Jazz clubs, events and the Chicago Jazz Festival. He retired from CPS in 1991. 1991 to 1995 he toured internationally and recorded with famed Jazz drummer, Elvin Jones. He later joined the music department at Northern Illinois University, retiring in 2015. In 1995 Willie became the founding director of the Ravinia Jazz Mentor Program where he continued until his death. Needless to say, Willie Pickens mentored scores of great musicians and educators.
Throughout his illustrious career, Willie played beside many of the greats, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Clark Terry, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Jr., Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack, Louie Bellson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marian McPartland and Bunky Green, to name a few! 1987 to 2010, Willie release 7 albums, and played on numerous recordings as a sideman.
“Pickens has become "a revered mentor to younger players and a symbol of the music itself", -Howard Reich, Chicago tribune
"Willie Pickens is one of the last great bebop pianists." -Lou Donaldson, Saxophonist
“I don’t have big paws like Oscar (Peterson) or a nice, big stretch like Benny Green’s… I have to create illusions, make it sound like I’m doing something I’m not” –Willie Pickens