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Larry Willis, pictured in 2007 with a glass of pinot grigio at Sotta Sopra, accompanied Dizzy Gillespie, Hugh Masekela, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Stan Getz and Art Blakey as a jazz pianist.
Larry Willis, pictured in 2007 with a glass of pinot grigio at Sotta Sopra, accompanied Dizzy Gillespie, Hugh Masekela, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Stan Getz and Art Blakey as a jazz pianist. (AndrÈ F. Chung/Baltimore Sun)

Larry Willis, a jazz pianist who performed with Blood, Sweat & Tears and was nominated three times for a Grammy Award, died of an aneurysm Sunday at Mercy Medical Center. He was 76 and lived in downtown Baltimore at Basilica Place on West Franklin Street.

During a long career, he went on to accompany Dizzy Gillespie, Hugh Masekela, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Stan Getz and Art Blakey.

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Mr. Willis, in a 2007 interview in The Sun, said: “Music is my oxygen. It’s why I live."

Born Lawrence Elliott Willis in Harlem in New York City, he grew up in a family where classical music was favored.

He was a graduate of New York’s Music and Art High School and originally wanted to be an opera singer. In his senior year, he taught himself piano on the side. He was soon performing with two of his schoolmates: bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Al Foster.

Mr. Willis played basketball and was offered athletic scholarships but ultimately went to the Manhattan School of Music where he studied music theory and voice. He later told friends that as his leanings toward jazz were increasing — and he was playing at joints in Harlem — the school did not feature courses in the subject. He said he was asked to leave a practice area for trying to pull together a jam session.

“Having never played piano before, he taught himself piano at 16 and, within three years without having taken any piano lessons, joined the band of Jackie McLean, the leading alto player in the generation after Charlie Parker,” said Pierre Sprey, his producer at Mapleshade Records in Lothian.

McLean caught a performance of Mr. Willis, who was then 19. The two worked together and Mr. Willis played on Mr. McLean’s 1965 album “Right Now!"

Mr. Willis wrote two selections on that album.

He also went on a tour with Mr. Masekela, a South African trumpeter who was one of his classmates at Manhattan School of Music. Mr. Masekela encouraged him to take private lessons with John Mehegan.

Mr. Willis joined Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1972.

“He played for Blood, Sweat & Tears for five years and, particularly in live performances, laid down some of rock’s most intense, innovative electric keyboard solos,” Mr. Sprey said.

In 1987, before he had settled in Maryland, he played at the old Ethel’s Place with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. He became stranded in a 23-inch late-February snowstorm.

“I’m going to catch anything that will get me there,” he said in The Sun of his attempts to meet up with saxophone player Stan Getz in New York.

Mr. Willis moved to Upper Marlboro in the 1990s. He became music director of Mapleshade Records and toured internationally.

“He was popular and had strong followings in Spain, Italy, Israel and Russia,” Mr. Sprey said. Mr. Willis also played in China and was a regular at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London.

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He moved to downtown Baltimore in 2007 and settled into a life that mixed performing at local venues — he played locally as recently as Aug. 1 at Keystone Korner in Harbor East — and elsewhere in the world. He toured widely with other musicians.

“Larry has always been a special person to his many patrons in Baltimore. His music, grace and persona touched many of us here. He performed for us a few dozen times," said Henry Wong, owner of An Die Musik on North Charles Street. “He often had a glass of wine and shared his life story. He used our piano to rehearse. He gave a rare solo performance this past Mother’s Day."

Mr. Wong also said: “Larry had a rich knowledge in different forms of music. He knew so much, listening to him was like listening to your grandfather talk.”

In 2008 Mr. Willis described his international traveling and performing schedule to a Baltimore Sun reporter: “Hectic, but enjoyable. I just signed an extension on my record contract. I just got back from France last week, after being in Ecuador and Israel. I went to Russia the end of last year, and to Italy.”

In the interview, he said he was a big sports fan and "a frustrated former athlete."

“I particularly like to go to Camden Yards because I enjoy Boog [Powell’s] barbecue,” he said.

Friends described Mr. Willis’ performing style.

“It was easy to see that onstage he was an inspiring accompanist for the great musicians he played with,” Mr. Sprey said. "Not at all obvious to the jazz public was that he was an equally inspiring and selfless producer in the recording studio.

“From 1992 to 2007 he produced two-thirds of the albums we recorded at Mapleshade and I was an eyewitness to the dozens of recording sessions he transformed, just with a quiet word here and there, from near-disaster to joyously swinging triumphs.”

Mr. Sprey said he and Mr. Willis often enjoyed seafood at the Thames Street Oyster House.

“And he loved to go to the Korean barbecue spot, Jong Kak on 20th Street. It’s open until 4 a.m. and that is the right time for a jazz musician,” Mr. Sprey said.

Mr. Willis received the Don Redman Award in 2011 and the Benny Golson Jazz Master Award at Howard University in 2012.

He is survived by a nephew, Elliott Willis of Cheverly. A funeral is being planned.

Larry Willis spent five years with Blood, Sweat & Tears, was music director of Mapleshade Records and toured internationally.
Larry Willis spent five years with Blood, Sweat & Tears, was music director of Mapleshade Records and toured internationally. (Eldon Baldwin)
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