Ronnie Mathews, a jazz pianist whose recorded output as a leader was sparse but whose résumé as a sideman with stars of jazz was substantial, died on Saturday in Brooklyn. He was 72 and lived in the Prospect Heights neighborhood.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, his daughter, Salima Millott, said.
Mr. Matthews spent most of his career out of the spotlight. But he was highly valued by many noted fellow musicians for his harmonic acuity, his imagination as an improviser and his sensitivity as an accompanist.
Two of Mr. Mathews’s longest-lasting associations were with the saxophonist Johnny Griffin, from 1978 to 1982, and the drummer T. S. Monk — son of the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, one of Mr. Mathews’s acknowledged influences — for most of the 1990s.
He was also a member of the orchestra for the Broadway musical “Black and Blue” in 1989 and contributed to the soundtrack of “Mo’ Better Blues,” Spike Lee’s film about jazz musicians, the following year.
He led his first recording session in 1963, the same year he began his first high-profile sideman job, with the drummer Max Roach’s group. Over the next two decades he worked regularly with a succession of well-known bandleaders but rarely led a band himself. And even after forming his own group in 1981, he continued to be heard most often, on record and in person, in a supporting role.
Born in Brooklyn on Dec. 2, 1935, Mr. Mathews began his career while still a student at the Manhattan School of Music in the late 1950s, accompanying the singer Gloria Lynne. During his four years with Roach he also worked frequently with the drummer Roy Haynes and the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Among his employers after he left Roach in 1967 were the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, the saxophonist Dexter Gordon and the drummer Art Blakey.
His most recent album was “Once I Love,” released in 2002 on the Sound Hills label.
Just five days before Mr. Mathews died, a benefit concert was held at the New York nightclub Sweet Rhythm to help pay his medical expenses. The lineup included some of the best-known musicians in jazz; among them were Mr. Mathews’s fellow pianists Ray Bryant, Cedar Walton and Randy Weston.
Mr. Mathews’s marriage to Jean Marie McGeary ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, of Manhattan, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Leslie Conte of Brooklyn; a stepson, Brently Conte of Winston-Salem, N.C.; and two granddaughters.
The New York Times
Published: July 2, 2008