Growing up in the midwest, Willie Pickens earned a teacher’s certificate from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee and went on to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, in 1958, to receive his B.S. in Music Education, before beginning his remarkable career as a jazz pianist. Over the years, his sterling academic credentials have enabled him to share his gifts with many young players, both as a performer and teacher.
Upon graduating from school, he moved to Chicago and began his career on a national hitrecord -- Eddie Harris' 1961 Exodus. After that big hit, Willie’s live appearances were almost all limited to the midwest for the next two decades, while his career as an educator flourished. From 1966 to 1986, he appeared on recordings headlined by Bunky Green, E. Parker McDougal, Vernel Fournier, He also performed with Sammy Davis Jr., at Orchestra Hall, and with Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack, and Minnie Ripperton at the Mill Run Theatre In 1990, Willie was invited to join the mighty Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. His first appearance with this legendary band took place later that year at the Bottom Line in New York and also featured Wynton Marsalis. Willie’s commitment to the Jazz Machine over the next several years meant retirement from full-time teaching in the public schools, but enabled him to serve as a linchpin for the group, appearing in Japan, Europe, and Canada, as well as in many U.S. cities.
At 77, Willie continues to be one of Chicago’s most in-demand pianists for visiting artists.He has performed several times at the famed Chicago Jazz Festival, to rave reviews, and hasbeen the featured pianist on impresario Joe Segal’s Jazz Cruises, where he has shared the stage with Clark Terry, Louie Bellson, and Red Holloway, among others. He has also performed with fellow pianist Marian McPartland, both in concert and on her well-loved NPR show, Piano Jazz. 2001 saw the release of their album of duets Ain’t Misbehavin’ on the Concord label. His performance is straight-ahead, and utterly stable -- with dense chords, percussive attack, and flying solos -- echoing the artistry of McCoy Tyner. Lately, he's matured as both a soloist and bandleader, letting the space between the notes speak. While he's not as showy as many of the younger folks, he always puts on a great show. ”With his large & complex chords, his great splashes of color and dissonance in the right hand and his barrelhouse octaves in the left, Pickens never lets the dramatic intensity flag.” Howard Reich - Chicago Tribune “Pickens' most exuberant solos all but take flight from the keyboard's runway.” Neil Tesser - Chicago Reader