Jim Beard, keyboardist who made his mark in jazz-rock, is dead at 63: Photos

Jim Beard, a keyboardist and composer who toured with Steely Dan and played with jazz greats including Wayne Shorter and Pat Metheny, died on March 2 in a New York City hospital. He was 63.

Steely Dan shared the news on its official website, without stating a cause. Reports in Billboard, Variety and elsewhere, citing an unnamed representative, mentioned complications from a sudden illness.

Beard’s tenure with Steely Dan began in 2008 and lasted until this January, when he played with the band at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, AZ., opening for The Eagles on their Long Goodbye Tour. His role with the jazz-influenced rock band mirrored his fusion-inspired work, which included collaborations with The Mahavishnu Orchestra and The Brecker Brothers and work with members of Weather Report, among many others.

Jim Beard, Steely Dan Keyboardist, Dead at 63 | Entertainment Tonight

Born in Ridley Park, PA on Aug. 26, 1960, James Arthur Beard studied piano for 12 years with local teacher Maryanne Rietz. At age 16, he also took private lessons with the legendary British pianist and composer George Shearing. He attended Indiana University, playing around the Indianapolis area with the likes of Slide Hampton, Red Rodney, Eddie Harris and Tim Hagans. As a sideline he played pop and R&B covers in a bar band whose membership included future John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff and a young Chris Botti on trumpet.

Beard moved to New York in 1985, and quickly struck up relationships with key figures on the fusion scene. He toured with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra during the band’s final year, and struck up lasting relationships with Michael and Randy Brecker, later taking home a Grammy Award for his work on the brothers’ 2005 live album Some Skunk Funk.

In 1986 he was enlisted by Shorter shortly after the sax icon had departed Weather Report, sparking a sporadic relationship that would endure until 2000, when Shorter formed his acclaimed final quartet. Beard’s synthesizers can be heard on two tracks of Shorter’s 1987 album Phantom Navigator. Over the years Beard also worked with Shorter’s ex-bandmates Victor Bailey and Peter Erskine.

Jim Beard dead: Steely Dan keyboardist was 63 - Los Angeles Times

“Jim always struck me as a musician who could see right into the heart of a tune at first glance,” Erskine tells WRTI, in an email. “He understood, both instinctually and intellectually, what balances need be brought to bear for a song’s realization. This can often be as much about what is NOT played as well as what IS played.”

His ability to traverse genres and bridge the acoustic-electric divide made Beard an ideal partner for electric guitarists whose tastes ran from jazz virtuosity to rock shredding. He recorded on and produced albums for Mike Stern beginning in the late 1980s and continuing through a new album slated for this fall, toured with John Scofield, and reunited with McLaughlin for several post-Mahavishnu recordings. He joined Pat Metheny on tour in 1992, documented on the video Secret Story Live.

“Jim was such a good friend of mine, and one of the best musicians I’ve ever known,” says Mike Stern in a text message. “Incredibly underrated, even though a lot of people that got a chance to hear his work knew how beautiful [it] was. He was a wonderful composer and amazing player, and I had the honor of having him produce most of my records… His passing was such a shock. And such a loss! I’ll miss Jim Beard forever.”

Steely Dan keyboardist Jim Beard dead at 63 | Fox News

Beard made his debut as a leader in 1991 with Song of the Sun, an all-star affair including appearances by Shorter, Michael Brecker and Toots Thielemans. His output under his own name was wide-ranging, from the expansive Revolutions, with vibrant arrangements of his compositions by Vince Mendoza for the Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest, to the reflective solo acoustic effort Show of Hands. His final release, in 2019, was Chunks & Chairknobs, an eclectic duo project with guitarist Jon Herington.

In a 2011 interview with pianist George Colligan, Beard compared writing his albums to populating “little cites.” He continued: “Sometimes when I’m writing a song, the song will take on the characteristics of a person… it starts to become a character. Then I say, ‘How does this character walk, how does he talk, is he sad, is he happy?’ He’s like a person in a town. And then you want to have other people in the town. But how boring would the town be if everyone in it was the same!”

Beard also enjoyed a prolific career behind the scenes as an arranger, composer and producer who worked with esperanza spalding, Al Jarreau, Bill Frisell, Richard Bona, Dennis Chambers and the saxophonist Bill Evans, even while backing a staggering roster of artists — from Dizzy Gillespie to Dianne Reeves to Meshell Ndegeocello.

“Jim was the best of all of us as a player, composer, conceptualist, and producer,” attests Randy Brecker via email. “He sadly never got enough ‘press’ or whatever it takes to get to the front of the so-called pack; maybe it was that his music wasn’t for everyone, and he refused to compromise his music, or for that matter anything in his life, in any way. But I know one thing: he will be missed in so many ways by his friends and family, both as a wonderful musician and man.”

Steely Dan keyboardist Jim Beard dies aged 63 due to complications from a  sudden illness

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