Tyler Bullock began taking classical piano lessons in his hometown of Nashville when he was four years old. Eight years later, he discovered jazz through an organization called the Nashville Jazz Workshop. “It’s kind of similar to Jazz House Kids,” he said. “They have classes and summer camps. It was a summer camp I went to, and that just opened up the world to me.”
Lori Mechem, Founder and Director of Education at NJW, remembered that Bullock “was so curious and eager to learn. No matter what song I would give him, he would come back with it memorized and playing it very well! He became our ‘house pianist’ — meaning that he went through all of the ensemble classes. Tyler was awarded with the Billy Strayhorn scholarship for our Jazz Camp his senior year in high school, and he was in our Scholarship Lesson program, which provided him private lessons during his entire high school years. Honestly, in all of my 40 years of teaching, Tyler was one of the most devoted, dedicated, hard-working piano students I ever had.”
In his senior year of high school, Bullock was one of 24 high school students, out of hundreds of applicants, accepted into Carnegie Hall’s 2021 NYO Jazz Orchestra. “Covid was still going on,” he recalled, “and we were on the SUNY Purchase campus. Normally, NYO tours somewhere. We didn’t get to tour, but we made an album. It was just such a beautiful experience with all the people I met. And, Sean Jones (trumpeter and Artistic Director) is an incredible mentor and teacher.”
On Sunday, February 4, Jones will be leading an NYO All-Star Quartet at a Carnegie Hall ‘Well Being’ concert featuring Bullock on piano, Ryoma Takenaga on bass, and Domo Branch on drums. Takenaga, a previous Jersey Jazz Rising Star, from New Providence, NJ, was also in the 2021 NYO Orchestra. Branch was a member of the inaugural orchestra in 2018. Jones described Bullock as “a fantastic young musician. Tyler is a natural born leader. I’m very thankful for being a part of his earlier career at NYO.” The February 4th concert, he added, “is going to be largely around healing — overall well-being through connectiveness spiritually. There will be moments where the crowd will be asked to participate.”
An important mentor to Bullock in his freshman year at Juilliard was alto saxophonist Bruce Williams who has installed him in the piano seat of the Roy Hargrove Big Band, which played at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on January 18 (Jersey Jazz January 2024 cover story). During the summer of 2022, Williams invited Bullock to join him on some New Jersey gigs, “and then other players started hiring him.” Among them were drummers Willie Jones III, Alvester Garnett, and Joe Farnsworth. “He was so receptive to suggestions from my sidemen — Willie Jones and (guitarist) Saul Rubin.” Williams also took Bullock with him to play at a memorial concert for the late pianist Stanley Cowell, held in Maryland by Cowell’s widow, Sylvia.
Currently, the 20-year-old Bullock is in his third year at Juilliard. “When I was in my junior year of high school,” he recalled, “we came up to New York to look at some schools. I took a lesson with the late Frank Kimbrough. He was really great and kind. I really wanted to go to school in New York, and I felt Juilliard had the most of what I was looking for.”
Bullock plans to stay in New York after he graduates from Juilliard in 2025 and has already played four times at Mezzrow in Greenwich Village. When he first started playing piano the artists who inspired him were Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. “As I got deeper into it,” he added, “I still loved them, but Herbie Hancock became a massive influence, along with Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and Phineas Newborn.” — SANFORD JOSEPHSON