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Ellis Larkins, 79; Pianist Played With Leading Jazz Musicians

October 03, 2002|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ellis Larkins, a pianist whose elegant touch made him one of the most sought-after accompanists for the leading figures in jazz, including singers Mildred Bailey, Joe Williams and Ella Fitzgerald, has died. He was 79.

Larkins died Sunday of pneumonia at a hospital in his hometown of Baltimore after a long illness.

"When I think of Larkins, the word that comes to mind is 'taste,' " jazz critic Nat Hentoff said Wednesday.

"Few jazz pianists have the ability to be as unobtrusive as Larkins was, not only when he was accompanying singers or instrumentalists but even when he was soloing."

Indeed, Larkins' sophisticated playing may be best remembered on two recording sessions with Fitzgerald for Decca in the 1950s. Those sessions produced albums that are considered to be classics in her vast catalog: "Ella Sings Gershwin" and "Songs in a Mellow Mood."

The oldest of six children, Larkins was born into a musical family. His father played violin in the City Colored Orchestra in Baltimore and his mother played piano. His sisters and brothers played instruments or sang in local choirs.

Larkins was considered a prodigy. He started learning the violin at age 2 and the piano at 4. At 11, he made his debut with the City Colored Orchestra and continued to play classical works at schools and churches throughout the city.

When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the city in 1935 to mark the National Urban League's 25th anniversary, Larkins was selected to perform. He played Moszkowski's Waltz in E major and an encore. He would later recall that Roosevelt called him back on stage.

"She told me that I'd be a great musician, and she shook my hand," Larkins recalled in an interview with the Baltimore Sun some years ago. "It meant a lot to me. After all, she was the first lady of the land."

During high school, Larkins continued his classical music studies at the Peabody Conservatory but was becoming interested in jazz, especially the piano work of Fats Waller, Count Basie, Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson.

He left Baltimore after graduating from high school in 1940 and moved to New York City to attend Juilliard on scholarship, still intent on becoming a classical pianist.

But needing money to live on, he found work in a jazz trio led by the guitarist Billy Moore. Through the 1940s and '50s, Larkins worked steadily in New York clubs and cabarets, generally in groups led by others. The self-effacing Larkins seemed content just to have the steady work.

He also became a much-in-demand vocal coach and session player, recording with singers Helen Humes, Bailey and, later, Fitzgerald.

Larkins would say that the session work and vocal coaching kept him alive when rock 'n' roll became increasingly popular in the 1960s.

In a biography of Fitzgerald, author Stuart Nicholson wrote of Larkins, "He creates a setting in which her voice sounds profound; through allusion and elision he fragments the song and reassembles it, thus assuming a greater logic as a backdrop to Ella's voice."

"He wanted to let the music speak," Hentoff said Wednesday. "He knew how to use silence between notes to add to the elegance of what he was playing. He was unobtrusive, but his work stayed with you."

Larkins moved to Southern California in the late 1960s and became Williams' accompanist, leading a trio backing the singer for much of the next two decades.

He returned to Baltimore in the late 1980s.

He made solid duo recordings with Williams and the cornetist Ruby Braff and also accompanied poet Rod McKuen on a number of albums in the 1970s.

Larkins is survived by his wife, Crystal, and a sister, Clara Larkins Bailey, both of Baltimore.

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