b. Walter Howard O’Brien, 19 January 1936, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Although his family, on his mother’s side, was musical, O’Brien was adopted when only six-weeks old. Fortunately, however, his adoptive parents were also musically inclined and he began playing piano as a child, listening to records by the stride and boogie pianists popular in the early 40s. Interviewed in 2001 by Jazz Journal International’s Gordon Jack, O’Brien declared that by the time he was 14 he was ‘hooked on bebop through listening to JATP records’. Influenced by, among others, Billy Taylor and Hank Jones, he studied both privately and at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. Later influences included Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Claude Williamson, through whom he began to fully appreciate the work of Bud Powell. O’Brien began playing professionally at the start of the 50s, mostly in the north-eastern states where he also led his own band. Hired to sub for Randy Weston, he met drummer Willie Jones who encouraged him to go to New York. There, he met Charles Mingus and others and was introduced by Jones to the city’s loft scene. Towards the end of the decade he played in New York as a member of Oscar Pettiford’s band, replacing Bill Evans, whose playing did not appeal to the leader. O’Brien then played with the group led in Albany by J.R. Monterose. He also recorded with Teddy Charles, appearing on Prestige Records’ Three Trumpets, with Donald Byrd, Art Farmer and Idrees Sulieman.
At the end of the 50s and in the early 60s, O’Brien played in the house band at a Staten Island club, backing visiting noted jazzmen, but then changed careers. After attending Columbia University, New York, studying psychology and computer programming, he worked in the computer industry and as a research assistant at New York University. He continued with his musical interests, however, studying composition with Hal Overton. In the mid-70s, O’Brien renewed his jazz links when he was briefly owner, with Roswell Rudd, of a New York jazz club. O’Brien had first met Rudd when they were students although in the intervening years their musical paths had diverged. At the club, named St. James Infirmary, O’Brien played in the regular rhythm section backing a wide range of artists including Pepper Adams, Chet Baker, Marshall Brown, Al Cohn, Sheila Jordan, Joe Puma, Archie Shepp and Zoot Sims. Also in the 70s, he was a member of a trio co-led by ex-Ellingtonians Russell Procope and Sonny Greer. Among other musicians with whom he has worked and sometimes recorded are Ray Drummond, Gene Quill, Belgian guitarist René Thomas, Kenny Washington and Phil Woods. In the early 80s he toured as accompanist to singer Stephanie Nakasian, whom he later married. In 1984 he recorded in Holland with Baker and Warne Marsh. Also in the 80s, O’Brien composed songs, the lyrics of which were poems by Fran Landesman. He taught through the 70s and subsequent decades, including being a faculty member at the University of Virginia. In 2000, O’Brien toured with his wife and was also again active in the recording studio.
Rooted in bop, O’Brien’s work as a sideman is exemplary and he invariably brings polish to the sessions on which he plays. His work as a soloist and leader has sometimes been damned with faint praise, but none that hear him can question his consummate skill and professionalism.