Memorable Meetings: McCoy Tyner

By Joe Alterman, 12/14/2009

This past year, I have had the unique opportunity of interning at the world famous Blue Note Jazz Club. Besides being a jazz club, the club also houses a record label -Half Note Records- and a management firm. One of the clients of the management firm is the great McCoy Tyner.

He came in one night as a special guest of tap dancer Savion Glover. As I sat downstairs watching Savion tear it up during his soundcheck, McCoy's manager approached my boss and I. He asked for a favor.

"McCoy's sitting in the dressing room all alone. Would you mind keeping him company for a little while?"

Not at all!

We walked into the dressing room and my boss quickly introduced me to McCoy as a fellow pianist. My boss told him that I was trying to get lessons with the great Hank Jones, at which McCoy said, "You know what it is about Hank? He's got the magic touch."

"Oh Elvin loved Hank," McCoy said. "He really looked up to him.

We spoke for a while about many different things: McCoy, not knowing Joe Lovano's recent injury (he broke both arms), expressed deep sympathy when we told him (my boss didn't know the full story, so I had to tell it to him).

"Joe is one of the sweetest guys I know," McCoy said.

McCoy went on to talk about his time in Europe. He spoke of living just outside of London, getting involved with a woman, but having to leave London before it got too late. ("You know what I mean," he said, snickering.)

McCoy's producer entered the room and we left.

I was about to take off for the day and saw McCoy sitting at one of the Blue Note's tables. I went up to him and told it was an honor and a pleasure to meet him.

I asked him if he knew a teacher of mine from Atlanta, Gary Motley, to which McCoy responded: "It sounds familiar, but man, I meet so many people I just have a hard time remembering. A lot of people think that's a drag, but I don't. I really don't. I enjoy meeting people. I've realized that every person is unique and different and really has something unique to offer."

Then he looked at me and said, "You're a pianist, right?"

"Yes," I said.

"Well keep with it. Never give up. It's a life force."

With that we parted. I told him that his music has truly been an inspiration, and I thanked him sincerely.

A few weeks later, McCoy came back. This time it was his show.

As he finished up his soundcheck, McCoy and his manager got their coats to go to dinner. They left, and I went back upstairs to work. As the day winded down and I left the Blue Note, I was walking down the street and peered into a Japanese restaurant where I saw McCoy and his manager eating.

I honestly hadn't planned on eating there, but as I was hungry, about to get dinner anyway, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I went inside and placed an order. I said hi to McCoy and his manager Adam and asked if they didn't mind my sitting with them while I waited for my order.

"Of course not," they said.

I sat down, and somehow brought up the subject of my new album. I told Adam -McCoy's manager- that I meant to give him a copy of the CD and pulled one out to give him and his intern. "Well you gotta give one to the piano man now," Adam said.

McCoy laughed ("Yeah," he said) and I handed him one. He put it in his briefcase and looked at me, and very sincerely said, "I want to wish you the best of luck with your CD."

I told him that if he gets a chance to listen I really hope he enjoys.

Out of nowhere I decided to bring something up with McCoy and his manager. I looked at McCoy and said, "I didn't realize, until I got this CD out, how much B.S. is out there in this business." McCoy nodded. I told him, "I got an email from JazzIz Magazine. They said they wanted to feature me in the magazine. However, I did a bit more research and realized that the person who contacted me was actually in charge of advertisements for JazzIz, and sure they were willing to feature me - if I was willing to shell over $1500 bucks."

McCoy seemed a little outraged. He said, "That's ridiculous."

I expressed the difficulties I was having with these sorts of things. I told him I'd been receiving a few emails like that and it's hard to differentiate the B.S. from a truly good opportunity.

McCoy said, "Man, you gotta get someone to take care of all that stuff for you like I do. It's hard man."

As my food came and not wanting to impose any longer I got up and thanked McCoy again. He wished me best of luck on the CD and what seemed like a truly sincere congratulations. He looked me in the eye and said something I will never forget:

"I've gotten a lot of bad reviews in my day. What you need to remember is that you're gonna get some bad reviews eventually, but don't let it get to you, because really the people who write about jazz only write about it cause they wish they could play it, but they can't - and you can-, so you've always got one up on them. Always remember that."

I thanked him sincerely and told him that his music has been a true inspiration all my life.

As I walked away, I heard McCoy turn to his manager and say, "I like that kid."