Willie Pickens

Willie Pickens, with dancing light orbs in the background


Willie Pickens at Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, July 2011 (Viewminder, CC BY-NC-ND)

Nicholas Bussey

Willie Pickens was an incredible educator, jazz pianist, and mentor, who dedicated his life to teaching and sharing his love of jazz. He embraced simplicity, and implemented a very practical approach to teaching. “He was able to reach anyone aspiring to grow musically,” and used his abilities to “demonstrate complex ideas in ways that could be easily grasped,” says Tyler Thenstedt ‘19. Especially when we struggled with improvisation over complex chord progressions, he would always reiterate that there’s nothing wrong with playing arpeggios or roots through the form of the tune, and that you can create a great solo based off of rhythm. No matter what, he made sure everything worked out, and that we were prepared whenever a performance came up.

He founded the Ravinia Jazz Scholars program in 1995, among other mentors, who, through his example, “were inspired to give back and teach as well,” notes Ravinia Jazz Scholar Sarah Craft ‘21. The program that he inspired has since gained more than enough momentum, and continues now in full swing, even after his passing. In his teaching, “He inspired many students…” such as Chicago trumpeter and former Ravinia Jazz Scholar Marquis Hill “…to pursue music as a career, and his spirit and passion for this music continues to live on” with anyone who knew him or heard him play.

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