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Born Columbus Calvin Pearson, Jr. in Atlanta, Georgia, Pearson first studied brass instruments at the early age of five, but dental issues forced him to pursue another instrument and he started to learn the piano. His budding talent moved his uncle to give him the nickname Duke, a reference to jazz legend Duke Ellington. He attended Clark College while also playing trumpet in groups in the Atlanta area before joining the United States Army in the early 1950s. Pearson continued to perform with different ensembles in Georgia and Florida, including with Tab Smith and Little Willie John, before he moved to New York, New York in January of 1959. After moving to New York, Pearson gained the attention of Donald Byrd who saw Pearson performing with the the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Sextet (also known as Jazztet). Shortly afterwards, Byrd asked him to join his newly formed band, the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet. Pearson was also the accompanist for Nancy Wilson on tour in 1961. During that same year, Pearson became ill before a Byrd-Adams show when and a newcomer named Herbie Hancock took over for him. This eventually led to Hancock taking over the position permanently.Read More...
On the 1963 Byrd album A New Perspective, Pearson arranged four tracks, including "Cristo Redentor", which became a big hit. The song, Pearson later commented, was inspired by a trip he took to Brazil while touring with Wilson. Also that year, after the death of Ike Quebec, Pearson took over his position as A&R man of Blue Note. From that year until 1970, Pearson was a frequent session musician and producer for numerous Blue Note albums while also recording his own albums as band leader. This was odd, since Pearson also recorded with his co-led big band with Byrd for Atlantic Records, a stipulation he made sure was in his Atlantic contract. The Byrd-Pearson band consisted of musicians such as Chick Corea, Pepper Adams, Randy Brecker, and Garrnet Brown; the latter three were members also of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band that played the same night club, The Vanguard, but on different nights. Between the two ensembles, the musicians performed at their own discretion.
Pearson eventually retired from his position with Blue Note in 1971 after personnel changes were made; co-founder Alfred Lion retired in 1967 after the label was sold to Liberty Records the previous year and co-founder Frank Wolff died in 1971. Pearson opted to teach at Clark College in ’71, toured with Carmen McRae and Joe Williams through 1973, and eventually reformed his big band during that time.