I would like to say a few things about my big brother, Mulgrew. We all called him “Grew” for short, which is apropos because you couldn’t help but to grow being around this cat. I spent a lot of time with Grew over the years and you get to know someone on a lot of different levels when you interact with them often. As an artist, he is absolutely astounding. And though he has passed, I will refer to him in the present throughout this piece because that which has lived can never truly die . . .
Along with Herbie Hancock, Mulgrew is the Quintessential Pianist. What I mean by that is his repertoire and range of versatility allows him to play in any context with virtually anybody and he possesses the uncanny instinct to know just the right shit to play at any given moment. And even though he had established a level of mastery and developed a distinctive style very early in his career, he never snubbed others and, at a certain point in his journey, was willing to play with just about anyone — free of judgment. I remember years ago at a jam session we were all playing some tunes and this cat from a well-known alternative Black rock band approached the stage to sit in. Most of the guys split the stage posthaste, myself included, because our elitist, jazz attitudes wanted no parts of this dude. So ol’ boy got on the mic and said, “I guess it’s time for a little acapella,” which is to perform without accompaniment. Not so. Mulgrew not only stayed on stage, but proceeded to play with this dude while he did an abstract poem that at one point resolved with him chanting “Love,” while flashing the peace sign, followed by “Hate,” while he flashed half of a peace sign. Though the spoken word performance was highly questionable — behind it — Mulgrew was comping his ass off! He taught us all a big lesson that night about how you can elevate your surroundings through simplicity and sincerity of expression.
He has a full command of his instrument and an even tone and touch from top to bottom on the piano. His span of knowledge of the history of the Black American music aesthetic reaches back as far as the Delta Blues — he’s from Greenwood, Mississippi — to gospel, as he has roots in the church. He also came up playing Soul music, but had a life-changing moment in his youth when he witnessed the brilliance of Oscar Peterson during a television performance.
He then moved from Mississippi to attend Memphis State University where he would make acquaintance with two individuals who would also become highly influential pianists, James Williams and Donald Brown. He was later recommended by another friend from Memphis, reedman Bill Easley, to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of his son, Mercer Ellington. From there, he moved to New York where he quickly became a first-call pianist for some of the top names in Black music like Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin, Woody Shaw, Art Blakey and Tony Williams, just to name a few.
For as beloved as he was by musicians, the critical establishment and the recording industry often miss the mark on Grew. He is constantly referred to as being conservative or a traditionalist, which are critical code words for labeling someone as old hat or not being forward thinking. What’s so backwards about that is pretty much all the pianists whom critics tout as being the most modern, site Mulgrew as a top influence. What is deceptive about Grew is that for all the virtuosity he has at his disposal, he isn’t a flashy player. He has the skill and the technique to make very difficult things appear to be a lot easier than what they are. That’s the sign of true genius. Couple that with the fact that he always swings and gets such a beautiful sound out of the piano, his angularity and edginess take on a palatable form and goes over the heads of those looking to be wowed by contrived, hyperbolic displays of narcissism.
He is loved and revered equally by his protégés, peers and predecessors — a remarkable feat of accomplishment to be adorned by a span of multigenerational musicians. Young cats love Mulgrew. Old cats love Mulgrew. Shit, Barry Harris loves Mulgrew and he don’t dig nobody but Bird, Bud and Monk!
But as impressive as Mulgrew is as an artist, he’s just as impressive — if not more — as a man. In all the years I’ve been around Mulgrew, I never once heard him speak an unkind word of anyone. And when you’ve been on the road with a cat for weeks and doing a lot of 4 a.m. departures, you’re bound to say, “Fuck, so-and-so…” about someone at some point. Not Grew — authentically a class act, all the way.
Talk to any young pianist across the world, and they’ll invariably share a Mulgrew story about how gracious he was with his time. I was blessed to have him on my first record. He has been on a lot of cats’ first records. He also played my first weeklong engagement as a leader in New York City at The Village Vanguard. At the time I called him, he was the most in-demand pianist on the scene. He was there for me and so supportive of my vision, even though I had little experience as a leader at that point. He’s obviously played a lot of piano in his life, but I’m proud that one of his most classic recorded solos appears on my debut album.
In this solo on a tried and true American standard song, he beautifully illustrates that soulfulness, intellect and refinement are not mutually exclusive ideals. From the outhouse to the penthouse, it’s all there.
Grew, thank you for all you have given us. The last 30 years of music would not be what they have had it not been for you. Though I am deeply saddened by the loss of your physical presence here on Earth, in the true spirit of the African aesthetic of ancestry, I know we have not lost you at all. We have gained a loved one in another dimension. You are now a part of the ancestral lineage of masters — in whom those who know — seek your guidance into a better future.
Sending love and light to his wife Tanya, his children Darnell and Leilani, and family.
– Nicholas Payton