Vann “Piano Man” Walls was born at the dawn of the jazz age, grew up with Rhythm & Blues, and went on to become one of its greatest pioneers, innovators and exponents. He faded from view as R&B itself fell prey to changes in musical fashion — but in the years before he died, Vann enjoyed a comeback and a resurgence in his creativity.

He lived in Montréal, played the piano like a fallen angel and had more than 65 years of music at his fingertips. With a few deft chords and well-chosen words he shows how the music that shaped his life emerged, developed, evolved, influenced, was influenced — and established itself as a genre of its own. Walls is the microcosm, R&B the macrocosm, and one illuminates the other.

Rise and fall and rise: this is the story in a nutshell. But guests including singer Ruth Brown, Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun and producer Jerry Wexler, as well as Dr. John (a former piano student of Vann’s), Ry Cooder, and others, drop by to help tell his tale. And in a rare occurrence, Vann allows a crew to film the making of his final album, In the Evening. It went on to be nominated for a Juno, Canada’s most prestigious music award, for blues album of the year.

Born in Kentucky, Vann begins his career in 1945, playing  with the father of R&B, Louis Jordan, at a time when the form is just beginning to develop. He joins Atlantic Records in New York City in 1949, is their house piano player until 1955 and records some of their biggest hits. Throughout the heyday of R&B he is one of its shining lights. At the end of the 1950s he meets his future wife, a Canadian, and settles in Montréal.

Meanwhile, rock and roll and soul music begin to erode the popularity of R&B. With the emergence of disco in the ’70s, it seems relegated to the wastebasket of musical history. By this time, Vann Walls is reduced to playing in taverns and Legion halls.

In the early ’90s the tide begins to turn. Ironically, rap and hip-hop have emerged as rhythm-based forms, frequently sampling R&B beats and syncopation. A popular Atlantic Records box set is released (featuring Vann Walls in the liner notes) and Vann opens for Dr. John at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Vann records one last album and is recognized as a pioneer by his peers at the R&B Foundation Awards in the months before he dies.

Vann was one of the few R&B musicians who were on the stage and in the studio right from the start. He lived to experience (and profit from) the R&B revival, and in no small part contributed to it. The last few years of his life he was riding a big wave — re-energized and, as always, in love with the music. He played piano in the cancer ward every day, almost up until the moment he passed away.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R&B is the portrait of a man who embodied the history of rhythm & blues music — the sound that became rock and roll.