Friday, December 30, 2011

The Life and Music of McCoy Tyner

In the fall of 2008, I began a PhD program in jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. On December 8, 2011,  I was advanced to PhD candidacy. Yeah!!!!!!!!  For those that don't know what this means, I completed all of my course work, wrote and defended my MA Thesis, passed comprehensive exams, and my dissertation proposal was accepted by my dissertation committee. Sounds like a lot huh? Well it was!!!! lol  For those that are interested, here is a summary of my dissertation proposal.  As I acquire the necessary research to write my dissertation, I'll share the interesting information with you.  Here is the summary of my dissertation proposal, and those of you that have any information or resources that can help me complete this project, please share them with me. Thanks!


My dissertation delineates the social and cultural forces that shaped jazz pianist McCoy Tyner’s famed improvisational style.  Additionally, core components of Tyner’s improvisational techniques will be identified and insight into how his right hand works in conjunction with his left hand while improvising will be rendered.  The final part of my dissertation will examine some of Tyner’s improvisations to see if evidence of the social and cultural forces that shaped his musical paradigm can be found in his improvisations.
     McCoy Tyner is a preeminent voice in the history of modern jazz piano performance.  With the advent of modal jazz at the end of the 1950s, Bud Powell’s bebop framework of jazz piano improvisation, utilized and expanded upon by a host of pianists in the 1950s, was no longer viable.  During his tenure with the John Coltrane Quartet between 1960 and 1965, Tyner brilliantly developed an influential approach to jazz piano improvisation that assimilated the developing modal innovations of the 1960s.  As Bud Powell pianistically assimilated the innovative bebop style of the 1940s led by saxophonist Charlie Parker, McCoy Tyner pianistically assimilated the innovative modal style of the 1960s led by John Coltrane.  Tyner’s style of improvisation has influenced a host of extraordinary musicians in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Specifically, his harmonic, melodic and rhythmic contributions to jazz improvisation have been assimilated into the musical vocabulary of notable musicians like Chick Corea, Larry Young, Kenny Kirkland, Geri Allen, Dave Kikoski, Joey Calderazzo and a host of other pianists.
     My dissertation is divided into a historical and analytical section. Historical research will be rendered first and will consist of a biography and discourse delineating the social and cultural stimuli that shaped Tyner’s musical paradigm.  The findings of this data will be presented on micro and macroscopic levels.  The microscopic level will render information on Tyner’s family (great grandparents, grandparents, parents, siblings etc.), economic status, early musical training, musical influences, friends, teachers and mentors.  The macroscopic level will address the sociocultural level possibly rendering discourse on topics like Black Nationalism, the Muslim faith, tensions between Muslims and the black church, black Indian practices passed on to Tyner by John Coltrane and internal civil wars among blacks.  If applicable, my research findings will also state ways in which my historical and sociocultural data did not affect Tyner’s music.
     The historical section of my dissertation demands a lot of primary research.  This will be facilitated by personal interviews with McCoy Tyner and musicians that played with him such as Tootie and Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, Curtis Fuller and Odean Pope. A trip to Philadelphia, Tyner’s birth place, is also planned to look at birth records and other relevant documents and places that lend insight into the social and cultural environment in which Tyner grew up.  E-mail, Skype and other forms of electronic communication will be utilized to continue discussions with informants in Philadelphia and other relevant areas.  Secondary sources like taped and written interviews of Tyner, along with books, periodicals, newspaper articles and album liner notes will also be consulted to gather the social and cultural data integral in my study.
     The analytical part of my dissertation consists of selecting, transcribing and analyzing several of Tyner’s improvisations.  My purpose in doing this is to unveil some of Tyner’s key improvisational techniques, particularly how Tyner utilizes his left hand in conjunction with his right hand while improvising.  The selected improvisations will also differ from one another to assess how Tyner improvises in different musical environments.  Some of these contrasting musical environments include the blues, modal improvisations, tonal improvisations and open and structured solo forms.  In addition to the contrasting attributes of the improvisations, an attempt will be made to select improvisations that have an interesting connection to the way Tyner thinks as revealed in the first part of my dissertation.  These improvisations will be transcribed and analyzed utilizing Dr. David Baker’s analytical approach as evidenced in his “The Jazz Style of…series” as a starting point, but I will ultimately develop my own analytical system for analyzing Tyner’s improvisational techniques.
     Scholarly studies on Tyner have solely focused on isolated components of his improvisational techniques. My research looks to significantly add too the scant body of knowledge by providing discourse on how Tyner uses his left hand in conjunction with his right hand while improvising. Moreover, I will delineate the social and cultural forces that shaped Tyner’s musical paradigm during his formative years to produce the improvisational style many have and continue to champion.


  1. hello Alton... just reading through your thesis proposal, sparks excitement in me in a way that i know that your findings as you study mcCoy will be invaluable to people like me.. soldier on bro and it would be a pleasure to read your thesis just to get an insight into what goes on in 'the' creative minds of musicians

  2. Ok Joel. I'll be sure to let you know when I'm finished so that you can read it. Take care.

  3. Have you already finished your thesis proposal, Alton? From the looks of it, the dissertation was certainly written great! And it certainly sounds a lot of things had happened in your life. Anyway, it is good that you posted some of your dissertation research work online for other to see it, but I think it would be much better to publish the whole paper. That way, we can see the whole thing, which can maybe help a lot of people that is on the same field as you.