2004-12-13 15:22:28 UTC
Willie Metcalf Jr., 74, pianist, jazz mentor
Saturday, December 11, 2004
By Keith Spera
Willie Metcalf Jr., a pianist, educator and actor whose cultural
activism enriched the local jazz scene for nearly 30 years, died
Thursday of cancer. He was 74.
In the movie "Ray," Mr. Metcalf appears in several scenes as the young
Ray Charles' piano mentor. The role was not a stretch: In real life, Mr.
Metcalf tutored Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison Jr.
and other future jazz stars.
"He took me under his wing, like he did for many musicians and artists
in this city," jazz vocalist Samirah Evans said. "He taught me the birds
and bees of music. And with his community outreach, he used his talent
to touch the lives of many people, especially youth."
Mr. Metcalf was born in Detroit, where he began playing piano at age 3.
As a young man, he performed with the Motown Revue and jazz saxophonist
Sonny Stitt. A battle with drug addiction then sidelined Mr. Metcalf's
After breaking his addiction, he resolved to help others avoid the same
pitfalls. In 1972 he established the Academy of Black Arts, a program
designed to instill cultural values and provide positive role models for
Detroit's inner-city youth.
He administered the program while teaching at Michigan's Wayne State
University. He conducted free seminars in prisons, senior citizens
homes, hospitals, drug rehab centers and schools.
In 1975, Mr. Metcalf moved to New Orleans and brought the Academy of
Black Arts with him. He led youth camps and music, chess and dance
workshops, even as he maintained a busy performance schedule.
His brand of modern jazz piano drew on many sources. Like the New
Orleans pianist James Booker, he incorporated elements of blues,
classical and pop music.
Mr. Metcalf organized concerts honoring Duke Ellington and other
composers. He led jazz combos at Joe's Cozy Corner, the Funky Butt, Snug
Harbor and other clubs, and at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The New Orleans Jazz Historical Park Visitors Center often featured his
He was the subject of the documentary film "Getting It Together: The
Willie Metcalf Story." Named for one of his best-known compositions, it
screened at the 1999 New Orleans Film and Video Festival.
Mr. Metcalf also moonlighted as an actor. In 1999, he portrayed a piano
player named Toledo in a theatrical production of "Ma Rainey's Black
Bottom" at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre. More recently, he appeared
in "Ray" and in a Subway commercial alongside local twins Herman and
Sherman Smith, playing the character "Uncle Ernest."
Through his various endeavors, Mr. Metcalf maintained a focus on helping
the next generation become better musicians and citizens. A practicing
Buddhist, he believed in the concept of encouraging peace through
cultural diversity and education. At Jazzfest, he recruited young
musicians from various backgrounds to perform with his band.
"He called the performances his 'world peace organization,' " Evans
said. "He'd give them the opportunity to express themselves in front of
a large audience. It was a beautiful thing to see."
Survivors include a brother, Johnny Metcalf; a sister, Irma Metcalf;
three sons, Sharif and Stanley Metcalf and Willie Metcalf III; and a
daughter, Melvina Dotson.
A funeral will be held Dec. 18 at 10:30 a.m. at SGI Buddhist Community
Center, 1331 Prytania St., New Orleans.