Cedar 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 fidelityor spiritthan this one. Bob Cranshaw is on bass and Grady Tate on drums with Walton in Japan in 1995.