I only caught McCoy Tyner once in real life. It was sweet, then awkward, then startling in a way that made me wonder if life ever really ends.

This was back in the autumn of 2008 and the heroic jazz pianist — who died Friday at 81 — was giving an evening talk presented by the New York Public Library followed by a casual mini-recital. Tyner opened the chat telling cute stories about how he used to stalk his childhood hero, pianist Bud Powell, up and down the sidewalks of his native West Philadelphia. After that, the line between adolescence and jazz eminence went blurry. At 21, Tyner had joined saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones in the hardest-questing group jazz would ever know. “I didn’t have time to be intimidated,” Tyner said.

After the Q&A, the maestro was invited to play a song or two. The piano was on the opposite side of the stage, and once Tyner raised himself from his seat, the request seemed inconsiderate. Tyner was only 69 years old at the time, but he moved like someone two decades older. As he limped the length of the stage, the audience grimaced in silence.

Then came the music. It was too loud to hear the collective gasp, but the moment Tyner’s fingertips slammed down on those keys, I swear I felt half the room’s oxygen vanish. Suddenly, this seemingly frail man was generating a brazen, beautiful, colossal sound, the heels of his shoes kicking a beat into the floor like he might dent the hardwood. Tyner’s body had grown old, but his music had no age.

Striking rich, forceful chords on the first beat of a bar had long been one of Tyner’s musical signatures, and in this cozy auditorium, those bashing chords still managed to carry their intensity and their mystery: How can something so hard still feel so bright? At his best, Tyner sounded like he was punching through dirty panes of window glass, trying to let the light in.

As declarative as his gestures could be, they ultimately cleared room for others in Coltrane’s band — especially Coltrane. “He used to tell me, ‘Keep moving,’ ” Tyner told NPR in 2008. “He was hearing a lot of different things. And I would listen to him. And where he would go to, another key, or he would just go somewhere else. And I would try to build something harmonically under what he was doing.”

That generosity continued to chime through Tyner’s music once he left Coltrane in 1965 and began to lead his own groups, which grew from traditional quartets to broader ensembles. Year after year, you can hear the pianist making more and more space.

That’s one way to hear it, anyway. Another is to zero in on how Tyner kept crashing hard on that first beat, over and over again, enough so that the “one” in each measure creates another fresh start. Keep listening and it feels like a self-replicating life force, an eternal music that says: “Begin! Begin! Begin! Begin!”