Pianist-Composer Cedar Walton Dies at Age 79
Cedar Walton died Aug. 19 in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to a statement released by the National Endowment for the Arts. He was 79.
A pianist and composer who was a major contributor to the hard-bop jazz movement that came to prominence in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Walton was admired for his keyboard skills, tasteful solo chops, first-rate writing and utter command of harmony. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2010.
In addition to his work as a leader, Walton played and recorded with Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s Jazztet, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and such jazz giants as J.J. Johnson, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Ornette Coleman, Clifford Jordan, Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.
As a composer, Walton wrote the jazz classics “Mosaic,” “Bolivia,” “Ugetsu,” “Clockwise,” “The Maestro,” “Iron Clad,” “Ojos de Rojos,” “Firm Roots,” “Midnight Waltz” and “Hand In Glove,” many of which are routinely covered by jazz artists.
Born Jan. 17, 1934, in Dallas, Walton took piano lessons as a child from his mother, Ruth. He attended Dillard University in New Orleans for a short time before going to college at the University of Denver. He performed steadily in Denver-area jazz clubs, where high-profile musicians such as Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie would sit in with Walton’s group when they passed through town.
Walton moved to New York in 1955 before completing college. He worked various odd jobs—including a stint as an usher for Jazz at the Philharmonic—before being drafted in 1956 into the U.S. Army, where he performed in a military jazz ensemble. Upon his return to New York two years later, he began playing and recording with trombonist Johnson, trumpeter Dorham and saxophonist Gigi Gryce. In 1959, he recorded with Coltrane on sessions for the saxophonist’s landmark album Giant Steps, but the takes with Walton weren’t included on the initial issue of the album, which featured pianists Tommy Flanagan and Wynton Kelly; some of Walton’s contributions to the sessions were later issued as alternate tracks on CD.
“We were all part of a community of New York players at the time,” Walton said of his experience with Coltrane, in the February 2008 issue of DownBeat. “We knew each other, had similar tastes in music. John would assemble a bunch of guys at Birdland on Monday nights, so I played with him some. I also played with John at his house. I lived on West 91st and he was on 103rd. I remember us preparing for Giant Steps there. I loved to see how he played the piano. It was such a simple approach, with a three-note chord and an unusual root that would give his tunes an orchestral feel. I like seeing how horn players approach the piano.”
Walton worked with trumpeter Farmer and saxophonist Golson’s Jazztet from 1960–’61 and with drummer Blakey from ’61–’64. He left Blakey to lead his own small groups in New York clubs and work as a sideman with vocalist Abbey Lincoln (’65–’66) and trumpeter Morgan (’66–’68). Walton released his first album as a leader, Cedar! (Prestige), in 1967, and went on to record dozens more on various labels.
Of his years spent under Blakey’s leadership, Walton told DownBeat in January 1981: “The pianist, at least when I was with [Blakey], really had to be strong; you had to time your playing to be heard over his powerful style. It was when I joined Blakey that I started gaining power and strength. … It was really a great time for us [Walton and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and trombonist Curtis Fuller]. We were encouraged to learn how to be leaders, and Art was a good model for us. He was good at programming the pieces we played, and he was good with audiences. And I think we all inherited that.”
In 1974, Walton teamed up with bassist Sam Jones, drummer Billy Higgins and saxophonist Jordan to form the group Eastern Rebellion, which performed and recorded sporadically over the subsequent two decades. In 1981 he formed a trio with Higgins and bassist Ron Carter. During that period Walton became part of the Timeless All-Stars, a sextet that featured Higgins, Fuller, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, saxophonist Harold Land and bassist Buster Williams. He also led the backup trio for the Trumpet Summit Band, which started as a project for the 1995 Jazz in Marciac festival in France.
Walton continued to play and record on the world stage until this year; he performed with his trio in France at the end of July. Recent Walton CDs on the HighNote label include The Bouncer (2011), Cedar Chest (2010), Voices Deep Within (2009), Seasoned Wood (2008), One Flight Down (2006) and Underground Memoirs (2005). He also appeared with bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Javon Jackson and drummer Jimmy Cobb on the quartet album New York Time (Chesky, 2006).
Walton’s last DownBeat interview took place backstage at New York’s Village Vanguard on Dec. 16, 2008. His remarks appeared in the magazine’s March 2009 issue. “Jazz today is a risk,” he said. “That’s jazz, period, all the way through history.”