Ron Perrillo: A Fitting Welcome for a Jazz Visionary


Ron Perrillo photo by Daniel Sheehan


Pianist Ron Perrillo’s arrival in the Seattle area from Chicago coincided with the arrival of a worldwide pandemic that would set the live music industry on its ear for more than two years. After three decades in the Windy City, he and his wife settled into their new digs two thousand miles west in Tacoma. Perrillo had moved to be closer to his elderly mother who now resided in Olympia, with Tacoma serving as a midway point between her and the jazz scene in Seattle.

For those familiar with Perrillo’s career, his arrival brought excitement, as a scene more accustomed to high-level players leaving the city, now had an ace in its pocket in this piano phenom that iconic saxophonist Charles McPherson had referred to as a “harmonic genius.” The circumstances of his arrival have not led to many opportunities for the public to see him play. A trio performance at Vermillion as part of the Seattle Jazz Fellowship’s Wednesday night series shed light on his brilliance. His performance with drummer Xavier Lecouturier and bassist Michael Glynn displayed his rhythmic drive, sheer speed of thought, and profusion of ideas at all tempos. His new city had gained one of the most compelling and adventurous pianists of his generation. 

Perrillo was born in the Bronx but moved to South Florida in 1973 with his family, at the age of eleven. After initially playing trumpet and baritone horn in school bands, he turned to the piano and never looked back. He is largely self-taught, something very different from the current state of affairs in jazz incubated in conservatories. Beginning in his early twenties, he performed frequently with multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan and other South Florida musicians that included iconic bassist Jaco Pastorius. “Jaco was a constant presence. Unfortunately, when I was finally able to do some gigs with him, he was already in terrible psychological shape,” he recalls. 

South Florida was fertile ground for the young pianist to develop his craft, giving him the opportunity to play with visiting artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton, and Michael Brecker. In 1989, Perrillo was one of five finalists in the Great American Jazz Piano Competition, which predated the current Thelonious Monk competition.

On the advice of Sullivan, Perrillo left for Chicago at age twenty-eight, carrying with him a strong desire to further his knowledge of the “mother tongue,” the language of bebop. “In Chicago, I had a friend offer a couch. I had four hundred bucks in my pocket,” he remembers. “Being in my late twenties was kind of late to finally be immersed in a rich culture and living my life for my art.”

From 1990 forward, Perrillo gained a public reputation as one of the finest pianists in Chicago, earning the respect of the best musicians there. As a sideman, he performed frequently with Chicago-based notables Pharez Whitted, Bobby Broom, Von Freeman, Brad Goode, Geof Bradfield, Caroline Davis, and Victor Goines, among others. His trio with bassist Dennis Carroll and drummers that included George Fludas and a young Makaya McCraven, found a home at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase. 

Like most modern jazz musicians, Perrillo began testing the waters of jazz education, at first teaching in the successful Gallery 37 program, After School Matters in downtown Chicago. Administered by the Thelonious Monk Institute, he taught combo and individual lessons, a challenge for a self-taught musician. He then took a part-time position teaching at DePaul University’s School of Music. Perrillo had met bass trombonist Tom Matta, a tenured DePaul professor, at his weekly trio gig at Pete Miller’s steakhouse in Evanston. His ten years there enabled him to learn how to traverse music education more efficiently. His experience as a sideman with Chicago saxophonist Victor Goines led to teaching at Northwestern University, a program directed by Goines. There he subbed frequently for piano instructor Peter Martin, teaching piano to non-piano majors. For nearly three decades, Perrillo was busy in the Windy City, between his high profile as a performer and side work teaching. His move west brought that frenetic pace to a grinding halt. Settling in Tacoma further provided a degree of separation between the pianist and jazz activity in Seattle. Tula’s, Seattle’s mainstage for the local scene, shuttered on Halloween day in 2019, casting doubt on the future of Seattle jazz not only for Perrillo but the entirety of the scene. All of these factors disallowed local musicians and jazz fans from getting to know this new arrival in the community. His trio gig at the Seattle Jazz Fellowship and occasional appearances with trumpeter Nathan Breedlove elsewhere were the only clues as to his arrival outside of the jam session at the Owl.

Perrillo’s artistry is unrelenting, whether playing ballads, blues, bebop, or other musical idioms, never wasting an idea. His genius for extended harmonies provides the means for his bandmates to push the music forward. With his move to Seattle, and the pandemic that followed, that artistry has resided mostly in his home in Tacoma, where he spends his time providing care for rescue animals, some of whom are terminally ill.

While Perrillo’s perceived perfectionism can be challenging to some, those who know him best can speak to his kindness and empathy that is often expressed within his love and reverence for the natural world. Nature is clearly his gateway to the spiritual aspect of his life. In Chicago, he marveled at the wildlife along the Chicago River surviving despite the onslaught of humanity, just two blocks from his apartment. “I’m very moved by the tension of that world trying to exist in an urban setting, with the hand of man closing in on it at practically every corner,” he notes. He wrote a commissioned suite of music dedicated to that setting titled, “The River,” which was performed just once in Chicago. It expresses in music an awareness of being grounded in the understanding of the individual being part of the natural lineage of all living things. “I’ve been an avid, borderline fanatic, nature lover my whole life, and I’ve always fantasized, dreamed, wished there was a way I could combine what I do in music with my love of animals and the perfection of the natural world,” he says. Perrillo volunteered for the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, helping migratory birds injured by colliding with building windows and other hazards. His photographs of coyote and fox populations along the Chicago River contributed to the Urban Coyote Project. It would seem that aspect of his being would fit seamlessly into his new lifestyle in the Pacific Northwest. 

Perrillo’s musical voice reflects his inner being in a whole sense. It is when he is seated at the piano that we truly come to know him. His harmonic intuition and musical invention are expressed wholly within his keyboard virtuosity. His presence is one more factor leading to the Seattle jazz scene returning to its historic, vibrant self. In a true sense, he is an artist not to be missed, and worth seeking out in any musical setting.


Posted on

June 26, 2023