Cedar Walton, 1934-2013

Cedar WaltonCedar Walton died this morning at his home in Brooklyn at the age of 79. Family members confirmed his passing but have not announced the cause of death. A pianist admired for his adaptability and thorough musicianship, Walton wrote tunes that became jazz standards, among them “Firm Roots,” “Bolivia,” “Ugetsu,” “Midnight Waltz” and “Something in Common.” My notes for his 2009 CD Voices Deep Within summarize Walton’s career from the time he was a high school music student in Dallas, Texas.

It must have been a remarkable school; his band mates included the budding tenor saxophonists David “Fathead” Newman and James Clay, and trumpeter Bobby Bradford. Bradford told Kirk Silsbee (in the notes for Cedar’s Seasoned Wood, High Note HCD 7185) “—Cedar was way ahead of us—he could already play the bop changes that we were learning. He’d correct us when we weren’t sure of what we were doing.” By the time he got out of Army in 1958, Cedar was ready for advanced work in New York. Before the decade ended, he had played with J.J. Johnson, Gigi Gryce and the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet. In the early sixties he became a regular on the recording scene and a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the edition that included Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard. His work with Blakey established him as a pianist and composer of dependability, inventiveness and versatility. He has occupied the top ranks of both categories ever since.

From my notes for Breakthrough, one of his major mid-career albums by a group that he led with tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley:

His playing matured with Blakey, and his composing skills found a ready outlet. The Messengers recorded several of Cedar’s tunes. Walton’s style is rooted squarely in the bop tradition but, as is eloquently evident on this record, he has grown dramatically since the early days when he was essentially a Bud Powell disciple. The Powell base is an inseparable foundation; but at 37, Cedar has built on it one of the most logical and original personal styles of the major pianists influenced by Powell.

For more on Cedar’s career, see a story by Robert Wilonsky in today’s Dallas Morning News. A YouTube search turns up dozens of videos involving Walton, none with better audio and video fidelity—or spirit—than this one. Bob Cranshaw is on bass and Grady Tate on drums with Walton in Japan in 1995.

Rest In Peace, old friend
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  1. dick vartanian says

    The first time I heard Cedar he was playing for Carmen McRae in SF, I think at the El Matador. I was VERY impressed. This guy was an outstanding accompianist. Absolutely brilliant playing but never in the way. Not very many like him around anymore.

  2. says

    R.I.P. Cedar Walton, the pianist of Trane’s trust who was forerunning with eight takes of “Giant Steps” until the boots were big enough for Tommy Flanagan sitting in. Cedar was the very first pianist who had the honor to serenade “Naima”. Those were not only “alternates” or just some “rehearsals”. This was a labor of love and passion. Thanks for the beautiful music.

  3. jeffsultanof says

    When I was at Hal Leonard, I supervised a book of transcriptions of his. I saw him at a club and talked to him later. The evening was filled with incredible music, and we had a great conversation. The nice thing about speaking one-on-one with someone is that it becomes a memory that never goes away, and I will always carry that memory in my heart whenever I hear a recording of his. Rest in peace, Cedar.

  4. says

    I saw Cedar once in a duo with Ron Carter at the Knickerbocker, not always the best room for music. That night there was much noise from the diners, and at one point, maybe during a bass solo, a table in the back of the room sang “Happy Birthday.” Loudly. Cedar and Ron just looked at each other and shook their heads.

  5. Rich Juliano says

    While giants like Peterson, Shearing and Brubeck are among the many great pianists who have passed in recent years, Cedar’s loss is particularly difficult for me personally. These were all marvelous stylists, but inevitably our individual tastes draw us to particular players. Cedar was a touchstone for me for over thirty years, someone who could play the blues and ballads convincingly, accompany masterfully and of course was one of the greatest composers in the history of jazz. Over the years, I was fortunate enough to hear him in many settings and contexts, including (like Mr. Livingston above) a duo with Ron Carter, the Timeless All-Stars sextet, musical director for J.J. Johnson’s comeback quintet tour in 1987, his own groups (Eastern Rebellion and otherwise), and – most memorably to me – the quartet with Milt Jackson, Ray Brown and Mickey Roker that was the tightest and hardest-swinging small group I have ever heard in person. Moreover, as a 20-year-old aspiring pianist, I even had a lesson with him one afternoon in Chicago. Undoubtedly this ranks among my life’s musical highlights, as Cedar showed me the details of many of his compositions, gave me insight into aspects of his style, and answered a number of questions raised by my studies of his recordings. I consider him to have been severely underrated over most of his career, with the exception of the past decade or so when he took his well-earned place as an elder statesman. Cedar was active until the end and was on the Kennedy Center’s upcoming schedule, so I am further saddened by being deprived of another chance to hear him. Once again, we must honor and treasure these giants while they are with us! RIP Cedar and condolences to your family and friends.

    • Terence Smith says

      Only once was I lucky enough to hear Cedar Walton live. At the Bass Concert Hall in Austin, Texas, with a trio, (in the 90’s ?) and I remember thinking “this is the swingingest trio in the universe.” I still remember the sequence and effect of the last 3 numbers: “Round Midnight,” “My Heart Stood Still,” encore of “Blue Monk” ( he had done ” Cedar’s Blues ” earlier).

      I just listened to the “Satin Doll” provided above. It made me think of a fairly recent interview with Ethan Iverson in which Iverson asked Cedar Walton about his early musical influences; Walton named many. But he remembered specifically the moment he first heard a 78 RPM of Ellington Orchestra’s “Satin Doll.” About that moment, he said he was floored to hear “Such Clarity.” That’s what we hear in Cedar Walton: such clarity.

      I remember my excitement when I first saw the Dec. 1990 copy of The Piano Stylist & Jazz Workshop Magazine, which contained a transcription Cedar’s “Midnight Waltz” and excerpts from one of his workshops for students. In that workshop, Cedar Walton is quoted as saying:

      “I play a decent solo, a chorus or two, but after that have to rely on arrangements…things that I know what’s coming…in a trio context, we have all kinds if arrangements besides our solo things because we feel we’re not heavy enough…say Charlie Parker, who could play a very short theme and then his solo was quite enough..he didn’t need much of an arrangement…but those kind of guys are only born…once a generation..”

      In all due respect to Cedar Walton, and I as an amateur but longterm listener, I beg to differ. Cedar Walton seemed from the beginning of his career to be able to tap into an endless stream of invention, and his beautiful arranged portions seem to be designed for us, so we can better absorb those endless lines, part of which he has just confided. And with flashes of Gospel which seem to be his alone.

  6. Adolphus Williams says

    I have seen Cedar Walton perform at various times throughout his career. I first caught him several times during the 1960s with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers,the edition of the Messengers which included Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Reggie Workman and Curtis Fuller. In recent years I have seen him at The Village Vanguard and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Lincoln Center. I also attended a gig that he made at Montgomery County Community College(PA) with Bobby Hutcherson a few years ago.

    Cedar could be considered a journeyman musician in that he was not flashy or a “grandstander,” but always a very skillful and creative soloist who was always a delight to hear in person or on a recording.