Born Marilyn Braune on March 30, 1947, in Philadelphia, PA; divorced. Education: Degree in music composition, New England Conservatory of Music, 1969. Addresses: Record company--Egger Innovations- und Handels-GmbH, Abt. ECM Export, Pasinger Str. 94, Gräfelfing D-82166, Germany, website: Website--Marilyn Crispell Official Website:

One of the finest modern jazz pianists, Marilyn Crispell has recorded some of the "most beautiful piano trio records in recent memory," said Adam Shatz in the New York Times. Crispell came to prominence as a free jazz player and composer early in the 1980s, and over the next 20 years honed her reputation with the Anthony Braxton Quartet and as a leader of her own ensembles. Influenced strongly by the work of jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, Crispell first charted her own course in jazz piano with her up-tempo, percussive improvisations; in the late 1990s she once again broke new ground with a lyrical, introspective improvisational style.

Crispell took up the piano at the age of seven when she studied at Baltimore's Peabody Institute. After high school she continued her classical piano studies at Boston's New England Conservatory, where she added courses in music composition to the mix. She earned a degree in composition from the New England Conservatory in 1969.

Shortly after graduation, however, Crispell put music aside and focused instead on her marriage and work in the medical field. She took jobs in various hospitals, and even seriously contemplated a career as a physician. This dry spell ended, however, with her divorce in 1974 and a move to Cape Cod. Starting a new life on her own, she took a job in a bookstore, and shortly thereafter met jazz pianist George Kahn, who introduced her to the music of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, whose 1964 release A Love Supreme affected her profoundly. From then on jazz became the all-consuming focus of her life. She found the improvisational nature of jazz the perfect antidote to the regimented, highly rehearsed classical music in which she had been trained.

Recommitted to music--and to jazz in particular--she returned to Boston to study jazz for two more years. In 1979, she moved to Woodstock, New York, where she began teaching at the Creative Music Studios, a collective of free jazz musicians run by pianist and vibraphone player Karl Berger. She never again considered a career in any other field. "I know now," she later told Doug Fischer in the Ottawa Citizen, "that music is something I was born to do. I will never not play again."

The Creative Music Studio proved fertile ground for Crispell. It was there that she met reed player and composer Anthony Braxton, leader of the Creative Music Orchestra. Crispell joined the group for a European concert tour and stayed on as a member, contributing to their Composition 98 album in 1981. She earned a reputation as an innovator in improvisational music, strongly influenced by the work of Coltrane and another of her heroes, Cecil Taylor; her style, however, was entirely her own; Fischer called it excitingly "volcanic."

In the 1980s, Crispell began to come into her own as a soloist, ensemble player, and group leader, both in the studio and in live performances. A member of both the Anthony Braxton Quartet and the Reggie Workman Ensemble for more than ten years, she also played with violinist Billy Bang and drummer John Betsch, bassist Reggie Workman, percussionist Andrew Cyrille, saxophonist Tim Berne, and many others.

Crispell continued to record through the 1990s and into the 2000s, working with fellow Braxton Quartet members Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway, as well as drummer Paul Motian, pianist Irène Schweizer, and bassist Gary Peacock, among others. In addition to contributing to the albums of other jazz musicians, Crispell made a number of solo albums, including Live at Mills College 1995, and continued to play in jazz and avant-garde music festivals and as a soloist.

During this time Crispell radically changed the direction of her music, adopting a more melodic, and, according to Fischer, more "lyrical [and] meditative" style. New York Times jazz critic Adam Shatz likened the change to that of an abstract expressionist painter suddenly deciding to paint like a Dutch master. Crispell herself was content to let her music take its own direction, without much forethought; she was pleased with her new direction, which she has described as her classical training shining through the jazz.

Crispell first displayed her new direction in the studio with her album Nothing Ever Was, Anyway. Released in 1997, it was her first effort for the Germany ECM label, and a tribute to composer, poet, and fellow Woodstocker Annie Peacock. The album featured, in addition to Crispell, Gary Peacock (Annie's ex-husband), and Paul Motian. The album was well received, and it led to another Crispell-led release featuring the same musicians in 2001, Amaryllis. Named for an African flower that blooms in winter, this continued Crispell's work in her new direction, and showcased a quartet of ballads that were improvised in the studio as the album was recorded.

Crispell finds composing on the spot a liberating experience, and has said that the resulting music has a freer quality than that composed more traditionally. This "spontaneous composing," she told Fischer, has found its way into her live performances as well. She particularly enjoys performing with a musician with whom she has not previously played. Apart from a brief conversation or two beforehand, Crispell and her cohorts do very little planning about what will actually be played in concert. "It's like we're getting on a train that's running, and it takes you where it's going," she explained to Andrew Gilbert in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In the 2000s Crispell became a member of the Barry Guy New Orchestra, and also played frequently with Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra. Crispell's work has also been featured on film; she composed music for Soul Suitcase, an independent film directed by Paul DiStefano, and appeared in documentaries about jazz, including Women in Jazz, by Gilles Corre. Along with live performances and recordings, Crispell conducts workshops in improvisational music throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe, and New Zealand. She has resolved to do more teaching, telling Fischer in late 2003, "I'm a bit burned out from years of travel." Then 56 years old, she wanted to play fewer road shows and find a semipermanent teaching spot at a college or university.

by Michael Belfiore

Marilyn Crispell's Career

Studied classical piano at New England Conservatory of Music, 1960s; became a jazz pianist, late 1970s; joined Creative Music Studios as a teacher, 1979; joined Creative Music Orchestra led by Anthony Braxton; 1979; played on Creative Music Orchestra's Composition 98, 1981; played with numerous groups, 1980s through 2000s; worked as a group leader, recorded numerous albums, including Live at Mills College, 1990s; signed to ECM label, released Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, 1997; released Amaryllis, 2001; joined Barry Guy New Orchestra, 2000s.

Marilyn Crispell's Awards

New York Foundation for the Arts grant recipient, 1988-89 and 1994-95; composition commission from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, 1988-89.

Famous Works

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