Varner grew up in Millburn New Jersey, and studied piano in his youth with Capitola Dickerson of Summit, New Jersey. He holds a B.M. degree (1979) from the New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied jazz improvisation and composition with Ran Blake, George Russell, and Jaki Byard, and horn with Thomas Newell. He also studied briefly in 1976 with jazz horn pioneer Julius Watkins. Varner also holds an M.A. (2005) from the City College of New York, where he studied with Jim McNeely, Scott Reeves, and John Patitucci.
He has performed and recorded with Steve Lacy, Dave Liebman, George Gruntz, John Zorn, Bobby Watson, La Monte Young, Miles Davis with Quincy Jones, Bobby Previte, Jim McNeely, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, the Mingus Orchestra, Franz Koglmann, and appears on more than 70 albums. He also has 13 albums out as a composer/leader, with sidemen such as Steve Wilson, Tony Malaby, Ed Jackson, Ellery Eskelin, Tom Rainey, Cameron Brown, Drew Gress, Matt Wilson, Kenny Barron, Victor Lewis, Fred Hopkins, and Billy Hart. Varner has been in the Down Beat Critics Poll Top Ten annually since the mid-1990s. He has been awarded grants from the Jack Straw Foundation, Seattle's 4Culture, National Endowment for the Arts, the Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation, and has been a resident at the MacDowell, Blue Mountain Center, and Centrum arts colonies.
Varner's first two recordings as a leader were influenced by Ornette Coleman, Steve Lacy, Charles Mingus, Anthony Braxton, and minimalists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and featured Varner's horn with alto sax (Ed Jackson), bass (Fred Hopkins or Ed Schuller) and drums (Billy Hart), with no chordal instrument. His third recording was a more "straight-ahead" jazz project, with Kenny Barron, Jim Snidero, Mike Richmond, and Victor Lewis. The fourth project was a Sonny Rollins-influenced trio of horn, bass (Mike Richmond) and drums (Bobby Previte). From that point (1987) on, most of Varner's work as a leader was for a quintet of horn and two saxes, bass, and drums, with frequent guest artists augmenting the ensembles. Varner has combined contemporary chamber music with jazz and free improvisation in almost all of his subsequent projects. His recent work (finished in 2008, released 2009), Heaven and Hell, is for a tentet of three brass, five reeds, and bass and drums. His newest CD, Nine Surprises, is for a nonet of three brass, four reeds, and bass and drums, and was released in Fall 2014. It features Seattle players Mark Taylor, Steve Treseler, Eric Barber, Jim DeJoie, Thomas Marriott, David Marriott, Phil Sparks, and Byron Vannoy.
Varner appears on over 70 recordings including:
I saw Duke Ellington with my Mom and my piano teacher, Ms. Capitola Dickerson, in 1970... Later, at my Mom's funeral, Ms. Dickerson sang "There Is A Balm In Gilead."
We all (I have two older sisters and one younger brother) took piano lessons also, starting around 8 years old. I loved my teacher Ms. Capitola Dickerson (she would play 78s of Art Tatum for me), but I was a terrible pianist!