The Power of Perseverance: Advice to Young Artists from Jazz Legend McCoy Tyner of John Coltrane Quartet

Watching McCoy Tyner play is the equivalent to watching Rembrandt paint a picture.”                                  -Jazz Chicago

by Gary David Stratton, Senior Editor

Editors Note: This post first appeared two years ago today. However, we had so few readers at that time, it is doubtful that more than a few people read it. Now that THW readership has grown significantly, we thought a repost might be in order.
“We were like four pistons in an engine.” -McCoy Tyner (The John Coltrane Quartet, 1963: John Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner.)

Legendary jazz pianist, McCoy Tyner, happened to be my seat mate on a recent flight from LAX to Minneapolis.  Known for his work with the John Coltrane Quartet, the Brooklyn-based musician is spending his golden years traveling from a sold out one venue to another.

In addition to his five years with John Coltrane, Tyner’s 80 album solo career earned him multiple Grammy Awards (1988, 1992, 1994, 1995, 2004) and numerous musical honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts “Jazz Master” award, Steinway Pianos’ lifetime achievement award, BMI Academy’s “Hero Award,” and an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music.

While you would never know it from talking to the unassuming Tyner, he clearly deserves his reputation as one of the greatest pianists of all time. All About Jazz declared, “McCoy Tyner’s dramatic arpeggios, thunderous bass pulses and modulated chord voicings have inspired generations of aspiring jazz musicians.” Tyner’s sophisticated chords and an explosively percussive left hand transcended conventional styles revolutionizing jazz and becoming “one of the most identifiable sounds in improvised music.” (You can listen to vintage recordings of Tyner and Coltrane’s music on his website.)

Tyner’s 80 album solo career earned him five Grammy Awards, and innumerable nominations

Steve Turner first taught me that the lessons learned by artists in one field often translate to artists in other fields, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to interview Tyner hoping to garner a few insights for those trying to make it in Hollywood (not to mention my two sons, who are both musicians.)  Tyner was more than happy to share his insight and turned out to be a wonderful conversationalist. (He even wanted me to call him by his nickname, but I was too much in awe to comply.)

I asked McCoy what counsel he would give to young artists. He didn’t miss a beat, “One word, son… Persevere!” Growing up in south Philadelphia (not far from my hometown) Tyner related how there weren’t a lot of opportunities for young (black) musicians to perform. “There were times when I never thought I would make it and could barely put enough scratch together to eat, but you got to keep on keeping on.”

McCoy related how the support of friends and especially family were key to his success. “My dad wasn’t so sure about me being a musician, but my mother always believed in me.” She paid for McCoy’s lessons out of her hard-earned money in the hairdressing business.

“When I couldn’t get gigs, she would let my trio set up in her salon and we would play for her customers.”  Tyner laughed, “That woman loved me.  I never would have made it without her belief.”  Then he turned his penetrating eyes upon my and gently instructed, “Don’t stop believing in your sons’ dreams. They’ll need all the support you can give them to make it.”

Even in his golden years, an inner fire burns in the outwardly mellow legend as he still barnstorms the nation.

Tyner lit up when I promised to pray for him, and told me “everything I have is a blessing; I want to be a blessing to the people around me.” He related how artists need to be looking to bless everyone around them, not just paying customers, but other musicians as well.

He told me that competition is what kills most young artists, when what they need is to be there for one another. As he once told Jazz Times, “You learn not only to give respect but how to have that respect come back to you. It’s a reciprocal thing. And I think that’s a very important lesson for a guy who gets up on stage. If it’s all about him, that’s not playing music.”

He repeated to me his oft-quoted insight, “The Coltrane quartet was like four pistons in an engine.  We had to all work together to make the car go.” As if to prove his point, Tyner politely listened to a few examples of my sons’ music, and offered praise not criticism. “That is rich music,” he said. “You hear that harmony? It has weight. That’s what you need in your music, weight and substance. Tell them to keep it up, keeping doing what you love, and you’ll make it.”

In an industry where it takes an average of ten years for writers, actors, directors, and producers to become an “overnight success,” I can’t think of stronger encouragement from a legendary Jazz musician than Tyner’s parting advice for all young artists, “Tell them to remember what an old piano player told you, ‘Persevere!’”

2 Replies to “The Power of Perseverance: Advice to Young Artists from Jazz Legend McCoy Tyner of John Coltrane Quartet”

  1. Jamie,

    I WISH I was that cool. I knew he was someone important because of the fuss around him while we were waiting to get on the plane. It was only after we talked awhile that I realized who it was I was talking to. He introduced himself by his nickname, so I may NEVER have figured it out if I hadn't kept asking questions.

    Would you have recognized him?


    PS The cool thing is that I was on the noon flight from LAX only because I was bumped from my 7 AM flight from Burbank. Definitely worth the hassle.

  2. Gary – what a great encounter! My question is this – did you recognize him from the start? Or learn who he was later?

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