Don Pullen: Biography      HOME
by Mike Bond

Don Pullen developed an extended technique for the piano and a strikingly individual style, post-bop and modern, but retaining a strong feeling for the blues. He produced acknowledged masterworks of jazz in a range of formats and styles, crossing and mixing genres long before this became almost commonplace. By chance, unfortunately for his future commercial success if not for his musical development, his first contact on arriving on the New York scene was with the free players of the 1960s, with whom he recorded. It was some years later before his abilities in more straight ahead jazz playing, as well as free, were revealed to a larger audience. The variety in his music made him difficult to pigeonhole, but he always displayed a vitality that at first hearing could shock but would always engross and delight his audience.
Don Gabriel Pullen was born (on 25th December 1941 not in 1944 as sometimes said) and raised in Roanoke, Virginia, USA. Growing up in a musical family, he learned the piano at an early age, played and worked with the choir in his local church, and was heavily influenced by his cousin, professional jazz pianist Clyde "Fats" Wright. He had some lessons in classical piano but knew little of jazz, being mainly aware of church music and the blues. Don sought to play in a very fast style and managed to develop his own unorthodox technique allowing him to execute extremely fast runs while maintaining the melodic line.
Don left Roanoke for Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina to study for a medical career but soon he realised that his only true vocation was music. After playing with local musicians and being exposed for the first time to records of the major jazz musicians and composers he abandoned his medical studies. He set out to make a career in music, desirous of playing like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy.
In 1964 he went to Chicago for a few weeks where he encountered Muhal Richard Abrams' philosophy of making music, then headed for New York, where he was soon introduced to avant-garde saxist Guiseppi Logan, and absorbed more of the philosophy of creative music. Logan invited Don to play piano on his two record dates, 'Guiseppi Logan'(October 1964) and 'More Guiseppi Logan' (May 1965) on ESP, both exercises in structured free playing. Although these were Guiseppi Logan's recordings, most critical attention was given to the playing of percussionist Milford Graves and the unknown Don Pullen with his astonishing mastery of his instrument.
Subsequently he and Milford Graves formed a duo and their piano and drums concert at Yale University in May 1966 was recorded. They formed their own independent SRP record label to publish the result as two LPs. These were the first records to bear Don Pullen's name, second to Milford's. Although not greatly known in the United States, these avant-garde albums were well received in Europe and most copies were sold there. These have never been reissued after the first run sold out.
Finding little money in playing avant-garde jazz, Don began to play the Hammond organ to extend his opportunities for work, transferring elements of his individual piano style to this instrument. During the remainder of the 1960s and early the 1970s, he played with his own organ trio in clubs and bars, worked as self-taught arranger for record companies, and accompanied various singers, including Arthur Prysock and Nina Simone.
He suffered at this time, and for a long time after, from two undeserved allegations; the first (despite his grounding in the church and blues) that he was purely a free player and thus unemployable in any other context, the second that he had been heavily influenced by Cecil Taylor or was a clone of Cecil Taylor, to whose playing Don's own bore a superficial resemblance. Don strenuously denied that he had any link with Cecil Taylor, stating that his own style had been developed in isolation before he ever heard of Cecil. But the assertion of Cecil's influence continued to the end of Don's life, and persists even to this day.
He appeared on no more commercial recordings until 1971 and 1972 when he played organ on three recordings by blues altoist Williams, one being issued under the title of a Pullen composition, "Trees And Grass And Things".
In 1973 drummer Roy Brooks introduced Don to bassist Charles Mingus, and after a brief audition he took over the vacant piano chair in the Mingus group; when a tenor saxophone player was needed, Don recommended George Adams; subsequently Dannie Richmond returned on drums; and these men, together with Jack Walrath on trumpet, formed the last great Mingus group.
Being part of the Mingus group and appearing at many concerts and on three Mingus studio recordings, 'Mingus Moves' (1973), 'Changes One' and 'Changes Two' (both 1974), gave great exposure to Don's playing and helped to persuade audiences and critics that Pullen was not just a free player. Two of his own compositions 'Newcomer' and 'Big Alice' were recorded on the 'Mingus Moves' session but 'Big Alice' was not released until a CD re-issue many years later. However musical disagreements with Mingus caused Don to leave the group in 1975.
Don had always played piano with bass and drums behind him, feeling more comfortable this way, but in early 1975 he was persuaded to play a solo concert in Toronto. This was recorded and as 'Solo Piano Album' became the first record issued under Don's name alone. Among other pieces, it contains 'Sweet (Suite) Malcolm' declared a masterpiece by Cameron Brown, Don's long time associate of later years.
There was now growing awareness of Don's abilities but it was the European recording companies that were prepared to preserve it. In 1975 an Italian record company gave Don, George Adams and Dannie Richmond the opportunity to each make a recording under his own name. All three collaborated in the others' recordings. In the same year, Don made two further solo recordings in Italy for different record labels; 'Five To Go' and 'Healing Force', the latter being received with great acclaim. He became part of the regular seasonal tours of American musicians to Europe, playing in the avant-garde or free mode.
In 1977, Don was signed by a major American jazz record company, Atlantic. This led to two records, the untypical 'Tomorrow's Promises' and the live 'Montreux Concert'. But after these, Don's association with Atlantic was terminated and he returned to European companies for three recordings under his own name or in partnership; 'Warriors', and 'Milano Strut' in '78 and 'The Magic Triangle' in '79. These, especially the startling 'Warriors' with its strong 30 minute title track, have remained in the catalogues over the years.
Meanwhile he recorded with groups led by Billy Hart (drums), Hamiet Bluiett, (baritone sax.), Cecil McBee (bass), Sunny Murray (drums) and Marcello Melis (bass). On the formation of the first Mingus Dynasty band Don occupied the piano chair and appeared on their recording 'Chair In The Sky' in 1979, but he soon left the band, feeling the music had diverged too far from Mingus' intentions.
In late 1979 Don, George Adams and Dannie Richmond were booked to play as a quartet for a European tour of a few weeks duration. Don invited Cameron Brown to join them on bass. They were asked to bill themselves as a Mingus group but not wanting to be identified as mere copyists they declined and performed as the George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet. They played more structured music than Don normally favoured, but the immediate rapport among them led to the group touring the world with unchanged personnel until the death of Dannie Richmond in early 1988. From very early in their first tour in 1979, and until 1985, the quartet made a dozen remarkable recordings for European labels, both studio and live. Of these, 'Earth Beams' (1980), 'Live At The Village Vanguard' (1983) and 'Decisions' (1984) provide typically fine examples of their work at that period.
Although highly regarded in Europe, the quartet felt they were not well enough known in America so in 1986 they signed to record for the American Blue Note label for which they recorded 'Breakthrough' (1986) and 'Song Everlasting' (1987). Beginning the Blue Note contract with great hope of increased fame and success, (as shown by the title of their first Blue Note album) they became disillusioned by the poor availability of these two records. Although the power of their live concerts maintained their reputation as one of the most exciting groups ever seen, the music recorded for the Blue Note sessions was at first deemed 'smoother' than on their European recordings, and took time to achieve the same high reputation.
After the death of Dannie Richmond the quartet fulfilled their remaining contracted engagements with a different drummer and then disbanded in mid 1988. Their music, usually original compositions by Don, George and Dannie, had ranged from blues, through ballads, to post-bop and avant-garde. The ability of the players to encompass all these areas, often within one composition, removed any sameness or sterility from the quartet format. Except for the early recordings on the vanished Horo label, their European recordings remained regularly available, unlike those made for Blue Note.
During the life of the Quartet, Don also made a duo recording with George Adams 'Melodic Excursions' (1982) and made three recordings under his own name, two further solo albums, the acclaimed 'Evidence Of Things Unseen' (1983) and 'Plays Monk' (1984), then with a quintet, another highly praised recording 'The Sixth Sense' (1985). He also recorded with (alphabetically) Hamiet Bluiett; Roy Brooks, the drummer who introduced him to Mingus; Jane Bunnett; Kip Hanrahan; Beaver Harris; Marcello Melis; and David Murray.
All Don's future recordings under his own name would now be for Blue Note. On 16th December 1988 he went into the studio with Gary Peacock (bass) and Tony Williams (drums) to make his first trio album 'New Beginnings', which astonished even those familiar with his work and became widely regarded as one of the finest trio albums ever recorded. He followed this in 1990 with another trio album 'Random Thoughts', in somewhat lighter mood, this time with James Genus (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums).
In late 1990 Don added a new element to his playing and his music with the formation of his African Brazilian Connection ('ABC'). This featured, as well as Don, Carlos Ward (alto sax), Nilson Matta (bass), Guilherme Franco and Mor Thiam (percussion) in a group which mixed African and Latin rhythms with Jazz. Their exciting first album "Kele Mou Bana" was released in 1991. Their second, but very different, album of 1993, 'Ode To Life' was a tribute to George Adams, who had died on 14th November 1992, containing Don's heartfelt and moving composition in George's memory 'Ah George We Hardly Knew Ya'. A third album 'Live .... Again' recorded in July 1993 at the Montreux festival, but not released until 1995. This featured 'Ah George...' and other songs from their previous albums, in somewhat extended versions. Don achieved more popular and commercial success with this group than with any other. In 1993 'Ode To Life' was fifth on the U.S. Billboard top jazz album chart.
During the last few years of his too short life, Don toured with his trio, with his African Brazilian Connection, as a solo artist, and with groups led by others, making much fine music, but sadly not enough records. The greatest loss to his admirers was that although his solo playing seemed to grow in power, he was never invited to record another solo album. Meanwhile he made important contributions to concerts and recordings of groups led by others, such as (alphabetically) Jane Bunnett (notably their fine Duo album 'New York Duets); Bill Cosby(!); Kip Hanrahan; David Murray (on organ, the best recorded example of his organ style being on Murray's 1991 'Shakill's Warrior'); Maceo Parker (on organ); Ivo Perelman; Jack Walrath (again on organ). He also toured and recorded with the group 'Roots' from its inception.
Don's final project was a work combining the music of his African Brazilian Connection (extended by Joseph Bowie on trombone) with a choir and drums of Native Americans. In 1994 Don was diagnosed with the lymphoma which eventually ended his life but, despite this, he put great physical effort into completing the this important and deeply felt composition. In early March 1995 he played on the recording 'Sacred Common Ground', displaying all his usual power although being but a few weeks away from his untimely death, returning as always to his heritage of the blues and the church. Unable himself to play at the live premiere, his place at the piano was taken by D D Jackson, with whom Don discussed the music from his hospital bed shortly before his death. He died on 22nd April 1995.
Don composed many pieces with melodies and rhythms which linger in the mind, often they were portraits or memories of people he knew. All were published by his own company Andredon but because he himself for a long time suffered from neglect musically so did many of his compositions. His most well known are the humorous 'Big Alice' (for an imaginary fan), the incredible 'Double Arc Jake' (for his son and Rahsaan Roland Kirk), the passionate 'Ode To Life' (for a friend), and the aforementioned lament 'Ah George We Hardly Knew Ya'. Occasionally he wrote pieces with a religious feeling, such as 'Gratitude' and 'Healing Force', or to highlight the plight of Afro-Americans such as 'Warriors', 'Silence = Death, and 'Endangered Species: African American Youth'. Following the assassination of Afro-American activist Malcolm X, Don had written a suite dedicated to Malcolm's memory but this required more instrumental resources than a normal jazz group provides, and only the piano parts of this were ever recorded. Except for the 'Plays Monk' album, Don almost exclusively featured his own compositions on his own recordings, until his time with the African Brazilian Connection. His compositions are well represented on the George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet recordings, but such compositions by Don which were recorded by others, were usually performed by those who had known and worked with him.
Although Don was able to play the piano in almost any style, (the attribute that had made him so important to the wide-ranging music of Mingus) and sometimes gave the impression that there were two pianists at the keyboard, he caused most astonishment by his ability to place extremely precise singing runs or glissandi over heavy chords, reminiscent of traditional blues, while never losing contact with the melodic line. His technique for creating these runs, where he seemed to roll his right hand over and over along the keys, received much comment from critics, was studied by pianists, and heavily filmed and investigated, but could never be totally explained, even by Don who had developed it. His piano technique can be seen on the DVDs 'Mingus At Montreux 1975' and on 'Roots Salutes The Saxophones'. But it is better not to concentrate too much on his technique, especially now that he is gone from among us, and to pay attention to his depth of feeling and the intensity of improvisations, whether these were suggested by the song itself or engendered by the moment. It is easy to forget that those who come to love his music from his records may be totally unaware of his playing method. Even at his concerts, only a minority of the audience would be fully able to see his hands moving along the keyboard and be aware of exactly how he revealed the emotional outpourings of his soul.
Don Pullen, like many other of greatest jazz musicians, had given his life to the music and was greatly missed after his death. Several musicians wrote songs as personal tributes to his memory, including Jane Bunnett, Cameron Brown, D D Jackson, and David Murray.
David Murray and D D Jackson made a whole album 'The Long Goodbye' dedicated to Don.
In 2005 Mosaic issued a set of four long unavailable Blue Note recordings, 'Breakthrough' and 'Song Everlasting' by the 'The Don Pullen/George Adams Quartet, and 'New Beginning' and 'Random Thoughts' by Don's own trio.