Born Dec. 12, 1942 (some sources also say 1941) in Atlanta, Georgia and later relocating to St. Louis, Missouri, pianist John Hicks was gifted with a pliable keyboard style. His admirers have often used two adjectives to describe him: versatile and underrated. Both are quite true. He has also been considered to be the consummate “New York pianist,” possessing the kind of adaptability and technical facility demanded of a first-call pianist in the Apple, where he moved in the early '60s.
After attending Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri and Berklee School fo Music in Boston, Hicks moved to New York City in 1963, having been encouraged by his early mentors Clark Terry, Miles Davis and Oliver Nelson. He performed with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the mid-‘60s before joining Betty Carter’s band in 1966, staying until ’68 (he would rejoin her for the latter half of the ‘70s). He found a spot in Woody Herman’s band in the late ‘70s as well. His sidemen credentials run the gamut from bebop to hardbop to more adventurous sounds: Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Frank Foster, Roy Haynes, Arthur Blythe, David “Fathead” Newman, Pharoah Sanders, Charles Tolliver, Roy Hargrove, Oliver Lake, Peter Leitch, and the Mingus Big Band.
Dark voicings, bright right-hand runs, a percussive attack or a gentler touch -- Hicks could be called upon for any of his pianistic attributes. He could swing straight-ahead or treat the time more flexibly. He was a very attentive “inside-outside” player. This kind of malleability as a performer is a surefire indication of his musical mastery. His most recent releases on HighNote paid tribute to several other piano greats: Mary Lou Williams, Sonny Clark and Earl “Fatha” Hines. All are worth acquiring for a sampling of the blues, bop and rhapsody he was capable of. And he has over thirty other albums to his name. His ubiquity as a performer is a testament to his talent, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t have a signature. Betty Carter once told Downbeat, “Nobody sounds like John Hicks. When you hear a piano player, you know it's John Hicks, no doubt about it. You hear his way of phrasing, his way of attacking the piano. The energy is always there, no matter what kind of condition the piano is in. He's gonna [...] let you know ‘This is John Hicks here.’”
He passed away yesterday morning. They say you can’t please everybody, but it seems those who truly love jazz have nothing but praise for John Hicks.
Listen to the intro of "Infant Eyes" from Single Petal of a Rose.