Burton “Burt” Eckoff

The great pianist Burt Eckoff died of liver cancer on January 21, 2021. Humble and conscientious, he was respected among his peers for his artistry and wisdom.

Eckoff was born on August 4, 1940 in Providence, Rhode Island. He began playing piano at age 5, but first turned professional as a guitarist, in his teenage years at the Celebrity Club, where he played in an R&B band. In 1959 he moved to Boston to study Psychology at Boston University, and established himself locally as a pianist, becoming busy enough that he left BU in 1961 to focus on music. In 1963, summertime engagements with two important musicians of the day–Sam Rivers and Ted Curson–led Eckoff to move to New York City.

Between the mid 1960s and the early 1980s, Eckoff played with an impressive range of prominent jazz artists, including Howard McGhee, Art Blakey, Roy Eldridge, Sonny Stitt, Archie Shepp, and Maynard Ferguson. He would frequently sub for the legendary pianists Al Haig and Jaki Byard, when they were too busy to make all their engagements. During one stint in Bermuda, he would be drafted into a backing band that supported Dionne Warwick and the Drifters. In 1974 he had a gig with famed vocalist Dakota Staton. Though it was a one-time concert, Staton would later call on him in the 90s, which lead to a long association, including performances at the Apollo, that cemented Eckoff’s reputation as a formidable accompanist to singers.

In 1978 Eckoff joined a community service-oriented big band at Jazzmobile, under the auspices of President Carter’s CETA program. Under the direction of Frank Wess, Eckoff enjoyed an active two years playing in schools, nursing homes, and other community venues, but when it came to an end, other work was harder to come by–in his words, “everything fell out of the bucket”. He attended Hunter College from 1980 to 1983, attaining a BA in music, with a minor in psychology.

Eckoff then joined the education field with aplomb. He was a substitute teacher, and then a music teacher, in the New York City public schools for several years, before finding his niche teaching adult literacy for those studying to get a GED, primarily in Jamaica, Queens. He enjoyed this work and it remained his main occupation from 1991 until his retirement in 2005. Meanwhile, he remained an active musician, releasing his first album as a leader in 1994, and appearing frequently as a soloist and as leader of his own trio in the New York area and in the West Indies.

Eckoff remained musically and intellectually active in his later years, though physically slowed by eye and knee problems. He continued to teach, to share his unique ear for vocal arrangement with singers, and to perform, including at Mezzrow and at different branches of the New York Public Library, in partnership with the Jazz Foundation of America. He lived alone in an East Village ground-level railroad apartment for 42 years, heading out by ambulance in late December after not feeling right. He was found to have stage IV liver cancer, and was soon transferred to hospice care in the Bronx, where he passed on January 21.

4 Comments

  1. Bebee
    Feb 14, 2021

    Burt, was a wonderful human being, he was very kind and humble person who willing to let the world into his small haven of wisdom. Burt will surely missed by everyone that knows him. May you rest in heaven and you will be missed by your good friends.

  2. Bobby Kapp
    Mar 6, 2021

    Rest in Peace my dear friend
    you gave me so many years of wisdom
    and music…Blessings…..Bobby

  3. Martin Johnson
    Apr 8, 2021

    Burt was a regular shopper at the store where I worked. He was a wonderful conversationalist, full of great firsthand stories about jazz greats.
    He’ll be sorely missed.

  4. Stephanie Londono
    May 9, 2021

    I met Burt by St. Marks a couple of years ago, he was a gentlemen charismatic patient and always happy to talk about music. He played a couple of old records and played for me at his home, bringing me to tears at a transitional time in my life. I cherish those moments. Thank you Burt. We miss you hope you’r having a good time with all the legends up there. We’ll keep the music alive for you.

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