Lest We Forget

Duke Pearson (1932-1980)
By Ken Waxman

Probably the only hard bopper better known for his compositions, band leading, arrangements and production work than his straightforward and orderly piano playing, Duke Pearson was a fixture on the New York scene throughout the ‘60s. His compositions such as “Sweet Honey Bee”, recorded by trumpeter Lee Morgan, “Jeannine,” which became a standard after alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley included it on his Them Dirty Blues LP and especially “Cristo Redentor”, recorded by trumpeter Donald Byrd on his A New Perspective record, were part of the transition from funky jazz numbers to lush, softer, South American and pop-oriented fare.

Born in Atlanta on August 17, 1932, Columbus Calvin Pearson, Jr. initially played piano and brass instruments and was nicknamed “Duke” by an uncle who was an Ellington admirer. Although dental problems forced him to give up the trumpet, he was soon working as a pianist throughout the South backing the likes of singer Little Willie John. Arriving in New York in 1959, his affinity for brass players quickly got him gigs with the Jazztett, co-lead by trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson, and the newly formed combo of baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and trumpeter Byrd. Pearson first recorded on Fuego with Byrd in 1959; his final jazz date, also with the trumpeter, was Electric Byrd in 1970.

Recording prolifically for Atlantic, Prestige and especially Blue Note, during those years, Pearson also developed composing, arranging and organizational skills almost mirroring the talents of his namesake Ellington. He firmly established himself in 1963 when his jazz-ensemble-and-vocal chorus composition and arrangement of “Cristo Redentor” became a jazz hit for Byrd. From that year until 1970, most of his time was spent as arranger, producer and session musician for many Blue Note dates featuring Byrd, Morgan, Stanley Turrentine, Grant Green and others. On these sessions and his own, which soon featured larger and larger ensembles, Pearson gradually introduced pop tunes, Brazilian and south-of-the border rhythms, Latin percussion, flutes, guitars, electric pianos, strings, lead vocalists and vocal choruses to standard hard bop or soul jazz dates. Ironically, during the same timeframe he also organized gigged and recorded original swinging arrangements for his own 16-piece big band, featuring soloists such as trumpeter Randy Brecker, flutist Jerry Dodgion and saxophonists Adams and Frank Foster as well as his consistent rhythm section partners of bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Mickey Roker.

With Blue Note’s sale to Liberty records and the death of its co-founders at the beginning of the ‘70s, Pearson opted to return to Atlanta to teach at Clark College. Although at first he also accompanied singers Carmen McRae and Joe Williams on their tours, his playing ability was soon impaired by gradually worsening multiple sclerosis. He died in Atlanta Veterans Hospital on August 4, 1980.

—For New York City Jazz Record August 2012