Born December 25, 1941, in Roanoke, VA; died of lymphoma, April 22, 1995, in East Orange, NJ; children: Andre, Don, Keith, Tracey. Education: Attended John C. Smith University, Charlotte, NC.

Hailed as "one of the major jazz pianists of his generation" by Peter Watrous in his 1995 New York Times obituary, Don Pullen was known for his innovative free jazz that synthesized influences ranging from modern European classical compositions to American gospel to Brazilian jazz.

An accomplished organist as well as pianist, Pullen's trademark was a highly aggressive attacking of the keyboard. He often used his knuckles, backs of hands, and even elbows to generate his distinctive sound. As Watrous noted, "Pullen was one of the most percussive pianists in jazz. His improvisations brimmed with splashed clusters, hammered notes and large two-handed chords." Also incredibly versatile, Pullen was able to evoke both instantly likable songs as well as more dissonant ones. "He plays some of the most accessible melodies and tenderest ballads of any pianist around," noted Kevin Whitehead in Down Beat. "But at other times, he'll give the piano the back of his hand--literally--rolling his wrist 180 degrees or so and running lightning-stroke glisses up the treble register with his knuckles."

Pullen began his playing career as a church pianist, an experience that would factor heavily into his later jazz style. During this period he studied classical music to help with his gospel training, while also playing in small bands in his hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. Later, as a college student in North Carolina, he immersed himself in the recordings of Art Tatum, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and pianist Clyde "Fats" Wright, who was also his cousin. The young Pullen was especially impressed with Coleman's This Is Our Music and Dolphy's Live at The Five Spot.

While on his way to New York City in 1964, Pullen made a stop in Chicago and studied with Muhal Richard Abrams, an experience that had a major impact on his developing talent. "It was only two weeks," said Pullen of that stopover in Down Beat, "but it was a very important two weeks, because at that time I was still struggling with questions like, 'Do I sound right, do I sound okay?' I had no one, no criteria to go by." By that time Pullen was already poised to venture beyond the standard range of his instrument. "I remember having ambitions to make the piano be able to bend notes, like horns can bend," he added in Down Beat.

In the early Sixties began Pullen playing with Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. His first recordings were with a quartet that featured reed player Giuseppe Logan, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Milford Graves. He also did musical arrangements for the King Records label in New York City. Although he frequently played organ as well as piano for R&B singers such as Ruth Brown, Big Maybelle, and Arthur Prysock, his chief interest by mid-decade was free jazz, and he became closely associated with the jazz avant-garde. Sometimes he fused his experimental piano work into his R&B organ playing. By the end of the Sixties Pullen was playing an extremely percussive, freewheeling piano with Logan, Graves, and others, while also working steadily as an organist for lounge singers. "People who knew me as an organ player did not know me as a piano player, and vice versa," he told Whitehead in Down Beat.

Pullen led his own combo from 1965 to 1970, and did some recording work with soul singer Nina Simone in the early Seventies. When he began playing with noted bluesman Charles Mingus in 1973 after being recommended by Mingus's drummer, Roy Brooks, his talent became recognized by a much larger audience. Pullen was invited into the Mingus ensemble because of his "knack for negotiating the brawny side of the blues and the protracted expressionism of the avant-garde," according to Jim Macnie in Billboard. In the New York Times, Watrous added that "Mingus prized what Mr. Pullen had to offer: a church-driven power, a blues sensibility and a harmonic sophistication." In his initial recording with Mingus, 1974's Mingus Moves, Pullen clearly displayed the musical voice that would define him in the years to come. The two-year musical association between Mingus and Pullen also resulted in two seminal jazz albums, Changes 1 and Changes 2.

After a collaborative stint with Art Blakey in 1974, Pullen began his solo career in 1975 with a series of recordings on the Canadian Sackville label that dramatically showcased his unique percussive piano style. His solos would begin in a traditional manner, then seem to expand and almost explode in new directions as they progressed. Pullen developed his innovative technique of rolling his wrists across the keyboard as a result of slashing at the keys with his knuckles one day because he wanted to get a fuller and faster sound. "That just sort of happened," Pullen told Billboard. "It was the only method by which I could play what I was hearing." During this decade Pullen also expanded the horizons of jazz organ. Macnie called his 1978 LP Milano Strut "one of the key documents of the organ entering the progressive jazz realm."

His extremely physical style made Pullen appear to be dancing at the piano. He would sometimes wear an ankle bell on one cuff of his pants, so he could stamp his foot and create a tambourine-like sound. Pullen's music was often used in conjunction with dance performances, including in collaboration with Eva Anderson's Baltimore Dance Theater, Diane McIntyre's Sounds in Motion, and performance artist Jana Haimsohn, also Pullen's companion at the time of his death.

When Mingus died in 1979, Pullen formed a combo with saxophonist George Adams, drummer Dannie Richmond, and bass player Cameron Brown, all of whom had played with Mingus. He and Adams were the mainstays of a quartet that recorded ten highly praised albums over the next decade, first on various foreign labels and then with Blue Note starting in 1986. Later, Pullen and drummer Beaver Harris led a group called 360 Degree Music Experience in the late 1970s and early 1980s that featured steel drums and saxophonist Ricky Ford.

Pullen performed steadily on the club scene during the Eighties. By this time his sound had become refined, and he began showing a preference for solo and trio combos. Jazz critics praised his solo work, especially 1983's Evidence of Things Unseen, and The Sixth Sense, released two years later, both done for Italy's Black Saint label. He also came out with a series of albums for Blue Note Records that showcased his diverse talents in R&B, pop, and jazz as well as his unique improvisational talent.

Despite his tremendous ability at improvisation, Pullen eventually retreated back somewhat from his freewheeling ways. "It's always fascinating to sit down and play without any written music," he told Macnie in Billboard, "but it also has limitations. One of them is that it all begins to sound alike. I found constantly playing free did lead to a bit of a dead end. Good writing gives you direction." As a composer, Pullen said that he got some of his best ideas from his dreams. His performance style was often trance-like, with his eyes frequently closed as he played.

Music of different cultures attracted Pullen during the Nineties. He worked frequently with a group of African and Brazilian musicians known as the African-Brazilian Connection, performing and recording songs that sometimes featured traditional African instruments and themes. In a 1992 review of Pullen's performance with this group, New York Times critic Jon Pareles noted that "in the quintet's music, melody and rhythm, passion and propulsion are inseparable." A 1993 Vibe review of the pianist's Ode to Life album--a collaboration with the African-Brazilian Connection--the critic Watrous described Pullen as "a master at writing simple, bright melodies."

Just weeks before he died in 1995, Pullen had been in the studio working on an album with the Chief Cliff Singers, a drum and voice ensemble from the Salish and Kootenai Native American tribes of Montana. This emerged as Sacred Common Ground, about which Chip Deffaa of Entertainment Weekly stated, Pullen "makes music that can dance with life or invite awareness." He left behind a diversified legacy of both ensemble and solo playing, with an exceptional ability to synthesize many different elements into his keyboard virtuosity. Pullen described it best in the 1989 Down Beat when he said, "I can just play whatever I want to."

by Ed Decker

Don Pullen's Career

Played piano in a church and local bands; studied with Muhal Richard Abrams in Chicago; made first recordings, early 1960s; led first band, 1965-70; played piano and organ for Ruth Brown, Big Maybelle, Arthur Prysock, and other R&B singers, 1960s; worked with Nina Simone, 1970-1971; collaborated on recordings with Charles Mingus, 1973-1975; played with Art Blakey, 1974; appeared in festivals at Umbria, Italy, 1974-1975, and Montreux, Switzerland, 1975; began recording as solo artist, 1975; led 360 Degree Music Experience with Beaver Harris, late 1970s; formed quartet with Charles Adams, 1979; worked with Brazilian, African, and Native American musicians, 1990s.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 16 years ago

Hi my name is Michelle Kenmille, and my dad is the lead singer of this wonderful drum group, Chief Cliff singers and they still drum today. But with a different group of people, their are no longer women in this drum group so it is my dad, his son (my older brother) and a bunch of his nephews they have very beautiful voices and I would just like to say my dad was very proud to have worked with Mr. Don Pullen and Carlos Ward, and the rest of them and I love to listen to the CD it's something different!!