Paul Motian dies at 80; jazz drummer and composer

Paul Motian, an influential and much-admired jazz drummer who first gained renown in the late 1950s as part of the Bill Evans Trio and later became a composer and the leader of his own groups, has died. He was 80.

Motian died Tuesday at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City of complications from myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow disorder, said Tina Pelikan, a spokeswoman for ECM Records.

During his nearly six-decade career, Motian (pronounced like “motion”) spent a substantial amount of time with two of the finest jazz pianists: Evans and Keith Jarrett.

“Paul was one of a kind: a musicians’ drummer who thought about the music, not just the rhythm, and cast his own sound on everything he played,” Jarrett said in an emailed statement.


Motian was still new to the New York City jazz scene when he first met Evans in 1955. Four years later, they teamed with bassist Scott LaFaro to form the Bill Evans Trio.

The trio’s live 1961 album “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” is considered a jazz classic.

“In terms of influence, the trio had a powerful effect on the styles of virtually every jazz piano trio that followed for the next few decades,” said jazz critic Don Heckman. “The balance between all three elements was something that at the time was unique and required almost virtuosic skill on the part of each of the players.”

As a drummer, Heckman said, Motian “was not a guy who tried to dominate what was happening. He was completely participatory in what happened between the players.”


Observed jazz critic Nat Hentoff: “Anybody who was the drummer for pianist Bill Evans was absolutely someone who did more than keep the jazz time, which means keeping the pulse of the music.

“Bill Evans was a master melodist and Paul Motian was a very inventive, subtle, lyrical melodist — and both were masters at harmonic inventiveness.”

In a 1990 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Motian said of the Bill Evans Trio: “We were the best and we knew it.

“We knew we had something different and original that no one had done before. It was a different way of playing in the context of a trio. It wasn’t piano, bass and drums; it was music made by three people.”


In a 2006 interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Motian said he was “not a showpiece drummer.”

“I’m an accompanist,” he said. “It’s my sort of thing to make the other people sound good, as good as they can be.”

After leaving Evans in 1964, Motian played for a time with pianist Paul Bley. In 1967, he joined Jarrett’s group and remained with him for about a decade. During that time, Motian began to compose music and release albums under his own name.

The son of Armenian parents who emigrated from Turkey, Stephen Paul Motian was born March 25, 1931, in Philadelphia and grew up in Providence, R.I. He began playing drums at 12 and toured with a big band in the late ‘40s.


After a stint in the Navy from 1950 to ’54, Motian moved to Manhattan’s East Village and began playing in jam sessions.

Over the years, he played with acclaimed jazz musicians such as Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz and Gil Evans.

“There was a long period from the mid-'50s to the late ‘60s when I played every single day, man,” he said in a 2003 interview with the New York Times. “Three months at the Half Note, nine weeks at the Vanguard. Two weeks at Birdland, back down to the Vanguard. Every day!”

Motian, who gave up touring in 2004, continued to play regularly at the Village Vanguard.


He is survived by his sister, Sarah McGuirl.