Connie Crothers, Jazz Pianist, Composer and Instructor, Dies at 75
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLOAUG. 21, 2016
Connie Crothers in June at the Vision Festival at Judson Hall.
Byron Smith for The New York Times
Connie Crothers, a jazz pianist who carried the mantle of her famous mentor, Lennie Tristano, but built her own identity as an inventive composer, improviser and instructor, died on Aug. 13 in Manhattan. She was 75.
The cause was lung cancer, said Carol Tristano, Lennie Tristano’s daughter and a drummer who often performed with Ms. Crothers.
From Tristano, Ms. Crothers adopted a densely layered pianism and a faith in free improvisation. Like him, she refused to align fully with either jazz’s avant-garde or its traditionalists, insisting that structure and spontaneity could go hand in hand.
In all her work, from billowy solo piano to sharp ensemble playing, melody was her main concern.
“My approach is not based on putting melodic material into chord changes. I feel that’s false,” she said in an interview with Chris Becker for his book “Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz” (2015).
“The melody gives the whole thing to you,” she added. “And when you release your improvisation after that point, you can bring in anything.”
By the time she first heard a recording of Tristano’s music, Ms. Crothers had already grown frustrated with her music education at the University of California, Berkeley, finding it limiting. She later wrote that hearing his piece “Requiem” caused “an instantaneous personal revolution.”
She left school and moved to New York in 1962, seeking his guidance. An influential but reclusive pianist and theorist, Tristano by this time had a stable of acolytes; Ms. Crothers would become his closest confidante.
She took lessons from Tristano for 10 years before beginning to perform private concerts at his home. In 1973 he presented her in a solo show at Carnegie Hall. It was her first public concert.
The next year she recorded “Perception” for the Danish label SteepleChase, the first of more than two dozen albums under her name. Tristano offered an effusive endorsement in the record’s liner notes: “Connie Crothers is the most original musician it has ever been my privilege to work with.”
Constance Rhea Crothers was born on May 2, 1941, in Palo Alto, Calif. She studied classical piano from age 9, and started composing almost immediately.
“Even as a child, I realized that I did not want to spend my life performing other people’s music,” she told Mr. Becker.
After moving to New York, she eventually settled in Jamaica, Queens, where she set up a home studio and began hosting jam sessions. She developed a wide network of students and collaborators, and later became a regular performer at venues like the Stone in the East Village and at the Vision Festival, an annual celebration of experimental improvised music.
“She supported so many people by going to their gigs, encouraging them, connecting musicians to other musicians, advocating for musicians,” the vocalist Andrea Wolper said in an email.
No immediate family members survive.
When Tristano died in 1978, Ms. Crothers helped organize a tribute concert, then was one of the founders of the nonprofit Lennie Tristano Jazz Foundation, which has released a series of his recordings.
In 1982 Ms. Crothers and the drummer Max Roach recorded a duo album, “Swish.” To release it, they founded New Artists Records, which is still active today and continues to be run by the artists who record for it.