I have thought a lot about Lyle Mays since his passing in February. While much was said and written about Lyle after his death, so much has happened since then, he has again become something of a lost figure. Jazz piano titan McCoy Tyner died only a few weeks later. By then, the world was consumed with the Covid-19 pandemic, and little other news could rise to the surface. Although one of the victims of the pandemic was another great jazz pianist, Ellis Marsalis.
Lyle’s music was a vital part of my life in the days that I was a performing musician in the 1970s, and far beyond that. First seeing Lyle at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire jazz festival, when he was just a “punk kid” in 1972 or ’73 is still a vivid memory. In the spring of ’73 I heard him with a “jazz-rock” band at an old ballroom in Neenah, Wisconsin. Later, I heard him with Woody Herman’s band, and numerous times, with the Pat Metheny Group.
When I was researching and writing Wisconsin Riffs, trying to chase down Lyle seemed like searching for the Holy Grail. I ran into so many dead ends that I almost gave up, deciding to write about him without speaking with him. But in a strange series of events that I will not recount here, I finally was able to connect with Lyle. We had a wonderful phone conversation that led to much of what you’ll see below. He was wonderfully generous with his recollections and greatly appreciated those who helped him along the way.
This is not quite what is in Wisconsin Riffs, but it’s close to it.
Lyle’s music lives on.
Lyle Mays (1953-2020) was a native of Wausaukee, Wisconsin (population 575 in the 2010 census), a village in Marinette County, about 65 miles north of Green Bay.
Lyle did not grow up in anything approaching privileged circumstances (his father had dropped out of high school to drive a milk route), but his parents were musical.[i] His mother was a pianist, and “my father had taught himself to play guitar, couldn’t read music at all, but he encouraged me to play along with him from when I was a very young kid.” They played old tunes like “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Bye Bye Blues.” Lyle started improvising early on, without really knowing what he was doing. “[W]hen I got bored kind of picking out melodies . . . I’d start embellishing melodies. And eventually those embellishments didn’t even resemble the melodies any more. So effectively, I was improvising, but I just didn’t know what that was called [and] . . . before I even knew there was such a thing as jazz music.” He took piano lessons from a local teacher, Rose Barron. While she taught him in a fairly standard way, using the method books that were prevalent during that era, things changed at the end of the lessons. “[M]y dad would wait in Rose’s living room; Rose would invite him in to the music room, I’d get on the organ, Rose would be on the piano, and my dad would be on guitar, and we’d just jam . . . [I]t wasn’t called jazz, but it was playing music with some improvisational element with other people.” Rose had to treat Lyle differently than her other students. “[S]he discovered she couldn’t play the piece of music that I was to practice for the next week in front of me at the end of the lesson, because I would kind of memorize it, instead of actually learning to play it myself.”
Lyle’s high school band director, Dean Wheelock, was the first person Lyle met who knew what jazz was. Wheelock “loved jazz, had albums, and he loaned things from his collection out.” For Lyle, hearing this music was “like a scene from a movie, you know, where the heavens open up and the light shines down.” Furthermore, Wheelock told Lyle about Darrell Aderman’s Shell Lake jazz camps in northwest Wisconsin.
Lyle went to Shell Lake the summer after eighth grade and auditioned for the “stage bands” on trumpet, which he played in his school band, and on which he was more comfortable reading music than on piano.
And I sat in the last chair of the lowest band . . . sputtering my way through these charts as best I could. And on one of the breaks, I started fooling around on piano, and I was playing “Take Five,” [improvising]. One of the instructors came over and said, “What in the world are you doing playing trumpet here?” And he grabbed me and put me in the top band playing piano.
At this point in his life, Lyle did not think of jazz as “legitimate” music. At Shell Lake he discovered that perhaps jazz had some legitimacy – which it did not in Wausaukee, because “you can’t dance to it in a bar . . . [and] nobody requests it.”
Another thing happened at Shell Lake. Realizing that big band charts had parts for each player,
I kind of figured out that if I could write out the score and copy out the parts I could hear my big band chart get played . . . I think I wrote my first chart that summer . . .
Lyle could not write for his own high school jazz band, because the school had
no swing band or combo of any sort . . . [We] barely had enough to have a concert band. And our marching band was just tiny. And I used to tell people this joke that when we went out on the [football] field to spell Wausaukee, we’d lay down and move our arms and legs in shapes.
I would live the whole year for those two weeks I could go to Shell Lake and be around other kids that were into jazz. There was nobody I could even talk music with in high school.
So these heroes, like Darrell Aderman, Rose Barron, represent much more to me than [the] normal kind of person [who] had an influence when you were young. I mean these people were my only source of inspiration, about this music I loved. So they were huge; they were essential.
Several years later, while at Shell Lake again, clinician Dan Haerle told Lyle about a hot young guitarist “who was also improvising at quite a high level . . . and suggested that the two of us get together some time. And gave me Pat’s [Metheny] phone number.”
Lyle also met Rich Matteson, a prominent jazz educator, at Shell Lake, and Matteson encouraged Lyle to consider going to North Texas State University, the most prominent jazz school in the country in the early ‘70s. But Lyle didn’t think he was ready.
Not only was I from a backwards area of the country, I was also young for my age, and a little bit slow on the uptake, for social things . . . And I think one of the reasons I ended up going to [UW-] Eau Claire is that I was terrified of making the plunge to a big school like North Texas, so many miles from home, at the maturity level I had.
However, NTSU’s (temporary) loss was UW-Eau Claire’s gain. Eau Claire had a strong program at the time, at its height in the Dominic Spera “era,” with a number of other future jazz musicians there. Lyle spent two years at UW-EC, treating it almost like junior college, while honing his skills as a player and writer. He could be seen in local taverns, including the jazz club The Joynt, sitting in a corner booth, writing out big band charts. He joined area rock bands, and I witnessed him in one of these bands playing trumpet and keyboard simultaneously.
During this time he made a stab at connecting with Pat Metheny.
I was just pulled inevitably towards hooking up with Pat, I guess. It took years . . . We had talked on the phone once, but that was when I was in a rock band in Wisconsin. The guitar player had quit, and we had a gig out in California. On a whim, I called Pat up, to see if he wanted to do the gig, and he said, “Well, maybe it might be interesting, except I just got hired by [jazz star] Gary Burton.” I felt like an idiot.
Lyle dropped out of UW-EC after two years – to play in rock bands, largely to make money. Among the bands he played in were Community and The Vacant Lot. Of the latter, he says,
The [name] kind of gives you an indication of where [the band was] going . . . and what [its] prospects were . . . I could see that I could keep doing that, maybe make connections . . . get a reputation in bars in Wisconsin . . . I kind of saw that that wasn’t the way I wanted my life to go.
So he thought about his next step.
My plan was to go to North Texas and make a big splash. And, I kind of figured I had to up my game a bit. The level of competition was going to be greater. So I spent about six months really trying to write some music that was more sophisticated than anything I’d ever done.
By this time Rich Matteson was at North Texas and was able to pull strings so that Lyle could attend the institution on full scholarship. Upon arriving at North Texas, Mays made that big splash. It didn’t take him long to get into the school’s top band, the internationally famous One O’Clock Lab. Moreover, the several progressive original compositions that he had started work on in Wisconsin ended up on the One O’Clock band’s annual record release, Lab ’74. In his second year, he wrote all of the compositions that appeared on that year’s Lab ’75. Reportedly, this album was the first time a college big band had been nominated for a Grammy award.
Two huge events in Lyle’s life took place when he appeared at the Wichita Jazz Festival with a quartet from NTSU. One, legendary Wisconsin-born big band leader Woody Herman heard the group and told his manager to hire the pianist, bassist and drummer for his band. The drummer was Wisconsin native Steve Houghton (Chapter 8). The bassist was Marc Johnson, who went on to play in the great pianist Bill Evans’s last trio, as well as many other groups, and lived in Madison for some years in the 1990s. Lyle went on the road with Woody, but remained with the Thundering Herd for only about nine months. “I could see how I could make a life being a big band piano player. Although I kind of saw that that scene was dying.” And, “I purposefully didn’t want to record with Woody. In my young, naïve or superstitious way, I thought there was a chance I could be typecast as a big band piano player. And, that wasn’t the future I imagined for myself.”
The other thing that happened at Wichita was that Lyle finally met Pat Metheny, who was performing there with Gary Burton’s group. “And we just kind of sought each other out. I think we even found an empty practice room somewhere and tried writing something together.” Lyle believes that on that day they came up with the beginning of the piece “It’s For You,” which appeared later on their 1981 album, As Wichita Falls, So Falls Wichita Falls.
After nine months on the road with the Herman band, Lyle went back to Wisconsin, but didn’t know what he would do next. He got a call from Betty Buckley, a singer who would soon be the lead in the Broadway hit Cats. She wanted Lyle to do a couple of gigs with her. At about the same time, Metheny called Lyle for a few more gigs in New York. “And I thought, ‘Well, that’s it, I’m buying a car, and driving to New York, and I’m going to live there.’ So, on the basis of two gigs that didn’t pay much at all, I moved to New York City.” When doing the occasional jobs with Metheny, they “kind of had in the back of our mind, that we’d end up doing our own band, at some point.”
His existence in New York was “kind of week-to-week. I didn’t have any money, I was really not getting anywhere on my own. Every once in a while I would sub for a society gig.” Mays started jamming with Randy and Michael Brecker, drummer Steve Jordan, “and that crowd.” He played some big band gigs with the Young Artists Program, which took music to children in underprivileged parts of the city. His first “good money gig” was with singer Marlena Shaw. Metheny also did some work with Shaw, and “he told me later, he did it to be there and constantly try and talk me into quitting and [putting] a band together.”
Pat’s a very persuasive guy . . . after a couple weeks, he talked me into quitting, and moving to Boston, and putting together this band. We rented a house a house in Cambridge; rented a piano; Danny’s [Gottlieb] drums were set up all the time, and Pat and I started writing music, right off the bat. We were going to craft a new sound, and a new kind of band. The first thing we wrote, I think, was “San Lorenzo.”
“San Lorenzo” was the opening track on their very successful first album, 1978’s Pat Metheny Group, which eventually reached number 5 on Billboard’s jazz album charts.
After that, “a lot of this is a bit of a blur, because, soon after we started doing gigs, word got out, and there was kind of a buzz, and we started working, almost constantly.” It was the beginning of one of the most successful and long-running groups in jazz. The collaboration between Mays and Metheny was remarkable. Three of the six tunes on the first album were co-written by the two, and on the next two albums, American Garage (1980) and Offramp (1982), Lyle was listed as co-composer on every track. The two also put out a co-led album, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, in 1981. American Garage went to the top of the Billboard jazz charts, and other Metheny Group albums were to follow. Offramp was the first Metheny Group album to win a Grammy, in 1983. The band went on to win Grammys in 1984-85, 1988-89, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2006. In 1999, Imaginary Day won the Best Contemporary Jazz Performance, but one of its tracks, “The Roots of Coincidence,” won Best Rock Instrumental Performance. All of the band’s commercial success, and the fact that it was not playing traditional jazz, led to the expected critical backlash. But, as Lyle put it, “We were never that concerned with commercial success anyway. I mean, we never did anything . . . that was pandering. We tried to make it sophisticated, whatever we did.” And the music lives on, not just with those who grew up with it, but with younger (and older) listeners as well. Pat Metheny’s election to the Down Beat Hall of Fame in 2013 also suggests the quality and long-term viability of the work that Metheny and Mays created.
Lyle has not produced many albums as a leader, but there are four significant entries in his recorded legacy. (See discography)
Lyle also has written music for films. He collaborated with Metheny on the music for the 1985 feature The Falcon and the Snowman. For productions in the Public Broadcasting System/Rabbit Ears Productions children’s series, Mays wrote the music for several classic children’s tales, including Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Jeremy Fisher, both narrated by Meryl Streep.
In The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Patrick Will summed up some of Lyle’s contribution to jazz this way. “Mays was among the first keyboard players to employ polyphonic synthesizers in concert, which enabled him to provide a rich, complex backing to Metheny’s playing; as a soloist, he prefers to play acoustic piano.”[ii] Lyle’s ability to create lush textures with multiple keyboards brought him acclaim, although, not surprisingly, there was bashing from those opposed to electronics in jazz. He consistently placed high in polls in Down Beat and Keyboard magazine for many years. The Alesis keyboard company even put sounds onto a couple of its synthesizer models called “Maze Lead” and “Lyle.”
Mays has not been prominently visible since the tour that backed up Metheny’s 2005 album The Way Up. Down Beat reported his August 2010 performance at the Western Michigan University jazz club (and two theaters), as part of the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. He appeared with a quintet that included Lyle’s niece Aubrey Johnson (a Wisconsin native), a vocalist and alumna of the university. A little known project that he took part in during 2011 reaffirmed the “mad scientist” or “genius” labels that some have applied to Lyle for years. Mays collaborated with scientists from one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, Cal Tech, to create a new piece of music “combining music composition, jazz improvisation, physics equations, algorithmic composition, speech patterns, live video mixing and a custom laptop linked network.”[iii]
It was gratifying to see Mays return to the live jazz scene in 2014, appearing at the Montreal Jazz Festival with a quartet including old colleague Marc Johnson on bass.
[i] Information and quotes in this segment come largely from my interviews with Lyle Mays, March 18, 2014.
[ii] The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited Barry Kernfeld, Oxford University Press, 2001, 764.
[iii] One can read about this work and see a performance of it at: http://jazzonline.com/blogs/the-most-intriguing-performance-in-jazz-2011.html