Samuel "Sam" Dockery, a pianist whose performances and recordings with prominent musicians made him an icon of Philadelphia's jazz scene, died Dec. 23 at the Burlington Woods health-care facility in Burlington, N.J., from Alzheimer's disease. He was 86.
Mr. Dockery, who spent most of his life in and around Philadelphia, worked steadily from the 1950s through the 1990s, playing on dozens of albums and touring with such nationally recognized artists as Buddy Rich and Betty Carter. He played hard bop, a subgenre of jazz that incorporates influences from rhythm and blues as well as gospel music.
Born in Camden, Mr. Dockery was the oldest of eight siblings raised by a single mother who taught her children how to play piano, said his sister Dolly Roth, of Mount Laurel. Two of his brothers also became musicians: Lemuel, a drummer, who died in 2008; and Wayne, a jazz bassist.
Mr. Dockery's passion for the piano started early, Roth said.
"I never knew him not to play," she said. "He played from the time he was born, almost."
Mr. Dockery's skills drew attention from teachers, and he started working as a full-time musician shortly after graduating from Camden High School, Roth said.
In 1953, Mr. Dockery became the regular pianist at Music City, a store on Chestnut Street where local musicians played with visiting jazz celebrities. After members of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers played there, they recommended Mr. Dockery to Blakey, who hired him to go on tour. Over about two years, he recorded 11 albums with the group.
In addition to touring with Rich and Carter, Mr. Dockery went on the road with the Roy Haynes Band and free-lanced with visiting musicians who played the Showboat jazz club in Philadelphia.
His songs had a joyful sound, his sister said.
"Whether you knew jazz or you didn't know jazz, when he played it, you loved it," she said.
Mr. Dockery's last tour was a five-country European stint with Archie Shepp in 1991. In later years he was a mentor for local musicians and became a fixture at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus in Northern Liberties.
He fell ill in recent years, said Barbara Lester, a jazz vocalist who was Mr. Dockery's longtime companion and who lived with him until he moved into Burlington Woods.
In addition to Roth, he is survived by two other sisters and a brother.
A viewing will be held Wednesday from 9 to 10 a.m. at the Holy Temple Church of God in Christ at 60th and Callowhill Streets in Philadelphia. A service will follow at 10:30 a.m.