Monday, August 19, 2013
South Dallas-born pianist Cedar Walton, who recorded with John Coltrane, died
He hadn't lived in Dallas in many years, but he still left his mark.
Cedar Walton left Dallas a long time ago — in the mid-1950s, when he was in his early 20s. He headed first to New Orleans and Dillard University, where, he told The Dallas Morning News a decade ago, he studied alongside Ellis Marsalis. He then transferred to the University of Denver, then ended up in the Army, then swung a hard right for New York City, where he was one more hungry musician lured to Bebop Mecca. Walton seldom looked back, returning to his hometown only occasionally to visit the family left behind or record with an old friend.
When he died Monday morning at the age of 79, it was at his Brooklyn home. He hasn’t been “Dallas’ own” in decades.
Walton, who released an album just last year, made many on his own, beginning with 1967′s Cedar! on the prestigious Prestige label. As player and composer, his influences were myriad, obvious: Monk, Gershwin, Ellington, Powell — melancholy played with force. He guested on so many records over the decades that his resume reads like a post-bop history-of, from Art Blakey to Dexter Gordon to Ornette Coleman to Clifford Jordan. When we met, years ago, he told me of the time in 1956 he played with Duke Ellington, not a bad piano player himself.
Walton was a soldier in the Army at the time, stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Ellington and the band were in town. A dare and nothing to lose proved inspiration enough.
“Me and a singer friend of mine asked him to sit in,” Walton told me. “He sang ‘What is This Thing Called Love?’ We were going to be shipped to Germany the next day or so, so we had our nerve. The last thing we expected him to say was yes. So he said, ‘Go easy on those keys, young man.’ Then, when we finished, and the whole band joined in at the end, he said, ‘I thought I told you to go easy,’ which was a very Ellingtonian way of complimenting someone. It was exhilarating. But it wasn’t very crowded — it was in a huge place, like a gym. That’s probably why he did it.”
NEA Jazz Masters: Interview with Cedar Walton
Three years later, Walton was in a studio with another titan, this one in ascension: John Coltrane, then in the midst of recording Giant Steps, Trane’s fifth album and amongst the best-known jazz recordings of all time. At the tenor saxman’s invite Walton played piano on two tracks: “Naima” and the title cut. But those sessions wouldn’t be released for 40 years: Walton left to go on tour with trombonist J.J. Johnson, and Coltrane finished the record without him, using Wynton Kelly and Tommy Flanagan instead. Walton’s versions only appeared as the bonus takes on an anniversary edition.
No one knew he’d played on the original “Giant Steps” for decades. And he didn’t mind, he insisted: “It’s just logic,” he said when we spoke in 1999. “The person who appears in outtakes of a movie isn’t heralded.”
And his death has passed with strangely little notice today — just that tweet, a few short pieces here and there, and a National Public Radio obit, its copy cut-and-pasted from a brief National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master bio. But Walton, whose mother Ruth taught him to play before she handed him off to Lincoln High School band instructor J.K. Miller, was more than just a legendary footnote.
Below you will find one of my favorite Walton offerings, as he backs the late Marchel Ivery on “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” recorded in the winter of 1994 for Marchel’s Mode — the first release on Thomas Jefferson High School grad Mark Elliott’s Leaning House Records label. Elliott was just a kid when he released the record, and he was terrified by just the idea of Cedar Walton. But in the end, he needn’t have worried.
“Cedar was the first person that gave me a crash course in the business side of running a label,” said Elliott in 1999. “At the time, we didn’t have much money at all, and I thought we were going to have to record him on an upright piano. He offered to take less money to play on a better piano — I was so embarrassed. I mean, Cedar’s got this really big, booming voice, and he was already a mythical figure to me, so it was really intimidating talking to him the first few times from his home in Los Angeles, but he was very nice. When he got here, he was a total gentleman. I mean, the man played on ‘Giant Steps.’”