Priester attended Chicago's DuSable High School, where he studied under Walter Dyett. In his teens he played with blues and R&B artists such as Muddy Waters, Dinah Washington, and Bo Diddley, and had the opportunity to jam with jazz players like Max Roach, trumpeter Clifford Brown, and saxophonist Sonny Stitt.
In the early 1950s Priester was a member of Sun Ra's big band, recording several albums with the group before leaving Chicago in 1956 to tour with Lionel Hampton. In 1958 he settled in New York and joined the band of drummer Max Roach. While playing in Roach's group Priester also recorded two albums as a leader, Keep Swingin' and Spiritsville for Riverside, both of which came out in 1960.
In 1961 Priester left the Max Roach band, and between 1961 and 1969 appeared as a sideman on albums by Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Blue Mitchell, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Johnny Griffin, and Sam Rivers. During that period he also took part in John Coltrane's Africa/Brass ensemble, which played with Coltrane's quartet on the album by the same name recorded in 1961. In 1969 he accepted an offer to play with Duke Ellington's big band, and he stayed with that ensemble for six months before leaving in 1970 to join pianist Herbie Hancock's fusion sextet.
After leaving the Hancock group in 1973, Priester moved to San Francisco, where he recorded two more albums as a leader: Love, Love in 1974 and 1977's Polarization. In 1979 he joined the faculty of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where he teaches jazz composition, performance, and history. In the 1980s he became a member of the Dave Holland quintet and also returned to Sun Ra's band; the 1990s saw the addition of Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra to his schedule. Priester was recently co-leader with drummer Jimmy Bennington on 'Portraits and Silhouettes' which received an Honorable Mention in All About Jazz New York's 'Best Recordings of 2007', which culminated with the two appearing at the 30th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival.
Julian also performs on the album Monoliths & Dimensions by the drone metal band Sunn 0))), released in May 2009. His major contributions were to the final track of the album, "Alice," a tribute to Alice Coltrane.
In addition to teaching and touring, Priester continues to record albums under his own name. He released Hints on Light and Shadow (with Sam Rivers and Tucker Martine) in 1997 and followed it up in 2003 with In Deep End Dance.
Because most of his career was spent touring and recording with artists of greater renown than himself Priester has not received the attention he perhaps deserves. His musical experience spans to the borders of jazz and beyond, encompassing R&B, bebop, hard bop, and progressive and free jazz.
- 1960: Keep Swingin' (Riverside)
- 1960: Spiritsville (Jazzland)
- 1973: Love, Love (ECM)
- 1977: Polarization (ECM)
- 1997: Hints on Light and Shadow (Postcards Records, with Sam Rivers)
- 2002: In Deep End Dance (Conduit)
- 2012: Blue Stride
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With Donald Byrd
- Fancy Free, (Blue Note, 1970)
With John Coltrane
- Africa/Brass, (Impulse!, 1961)
- Remembering the Moment (Soul Note, 1987)
With George Gruntz
- Theatre (ECM, 1983)
With Eddie Henderson
With Andrew Hill
- Passing Ships (Blue Note, 1969)
With Dave Holland
With Wayne Horvitz
With Bobbi Humphrey
- Fancy Dancer (Blue Note, 1975)
With Philly Joe Jones
With Abbey Lincoln
With Booker Little
With Blue Mitchell
With Freddie Hubbard
- Hub Cap (Blue Note, 1961)
With Duke Pearson
With Sam Rivers
- Dimensions & Extensions (1967)
With Max Roach
- The Many Sides of Max (Mercury, 1959 )
- Quiet as It's Kept (Mercury, 1959)
- Moon Faced and Starry Eyed (Mercury, 1959)
- Long as You're Living (Enja, 1960 )
- Parisian Sketches (Mercury, 1960)
- We Insist!, (Candid, 1960)
With Lonnie Smith
- Turning Point, (1969)
With Sun Ra
- Super-Sonic Jazz (Saturn)
- Jazz by Sun Ra (Saturn)
- Angels and Demons at Play (Saturn)
- Somewhere Else (Rounder 1988-89)
With Stanley Turrentine
- Official Website of Julian Priester
- Biography from mp3.com
- All About Jazz article
- Biography from Postcard Records
- Cornish College for the Arts
- Jimmy Bennington/Julian Priester "Portraits and Silhouettes" ThatSwan! Records 1005
- Julian Priester & Aaron Alexander "Conversational Music"