Cedar Walton—a powerful hard-bop pianist who appeared on more than 400 recordings and combined a meaty, rhythmic-playing style with sensitive, delicate solos—died August 19. He was 79. [Photo above of Cedar Walton and Hank Mobley during Mobley’s Third Season session in 1967 by Francis Wolff]
During my interview with Cedar in 2011, he told me that his ability to switch stylistically from brawn to beauty in a single song came naturally to him—and was likely the result of listening extensively to Nat King Cole and Art Tatum as a child in Dallas. The contrast between Cedar's meaty rhythm section attack and gentle, lyrical solos was fascinating—like a muscle-bound steelworker letting a mouse run playfully over his cupped hands. One fine example of these gifts came on Clare Fischer's Pensativa, from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' Free for All (1964). [Photo of Cedar Walton above at the New Mexico Jazz Festival in 2006 by Paul Slaughter]
Cedar began his recording career on trumpeter Kenny Dorham's This is the Moment (1958). By the time he joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1961, Cedar had recorded behind a string of jazz greats—including Clifford Jordan, Wayne Shorter, Art Farmer, Jimmy Heath, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Golson and J.J. Johnson.
Cedar's recordings with Blakey included Mosaic, Buhaina's Delight, Three Blind Mice and Caravan. By 1962, Cedar was New York's go-to hard-bop pianist and was featured on dates with Blue Mitchell, Donald Byrd, Art Farmer, Hank Mobley and dozens of other leaders.
Cedar, of course, was more than a session pianist—he led 61 of his own recordings. One of my favorites is his last album as a leader—The Bouncer (2011). His last known recording as a sideman came on Houston Person's Naturally! in 2012.
But Cedar's most mystifying recording session occurred in April 1959, when he was John Coltrane's first choice for Giant Steps. Although he was recorded on two full takes of the title track and other tracks for the album during a rehearsal session at Atlantic, a series of events caused Atlantic producer Nesuhi Ertegün to use Tommy Flanagan instead—an event Cedar recalled in 2011 with some regret during our conversation.
Yesterday I went back to my tape and extracted our exchanges about those aborted takes...
JazzWax: You knew John Coltrane from his club appearances in Denver in the '50s while you were still in college there, yes?
Cedar Walton: Yes. When I came to New York in the late '50s, we lived about 10 blocks apart on the Upper West Side. He probably first heard me play at Birdland, at the jam sessions the club had on Monday nights.
JW: When did you first hear Giant Steps?
CW: When John stopped by my apartment one day in 1959 to show me things related to a new song he had written—Giant Steps. John was very friendly and seemed impressed with my playing.
JW: Where did you live?
CW: On West 91st St. between Central Park West and Columbus Ave. I had an upright piano and John played Giant Steps for me. I thought the song and John's playing were wonderful. I've always been amazed at the piano style of horn players.
JW: Did you ever record Giant Steps.
CW: What they achieve without being trained players. John's approach wasn't like that of a piano player, but it still made so much sense.
JW: What were you doing while he played Giant Steps for you?
CW: I was watching, listening and absorbing what he was doing. I also tried to write down what he was doing. I can't recall if he was standing at the piano or sitting but he said, "Here's how this tune goes." His playing style was so orchestral. It sounded like Blue Train—with trumpet, trombone and tenor sax. John would play a lot of things with three notes. It was amazing because the notes he chose would fit the voicings of three horns. Just being around him, period, was extremely instructive.
JW: What did you do when he finished?
CW: I sat down and played it.
JW: That was it?
CW: No, in the days ahead, I worked on the song and went over to John's apartment with drummer Lex Humphries, who would be the drummer on the first Giant Steps session. Lex and I would go over there unannounced, and each time we could hear him practicing before we rang the bell.
JW: What happened after you went in?
CW: It was bizarre—his piano was in better shape than mine. He really understood the instrument. When I sat down to play Giant Steps, he was sitting on his couch behind me with his saxophone. Hearing that sound emanate from right behind me was so moving and awe-inspiring. I felt like I was in the presence of God. That's without exaggeration. It was so perfect, and his sound went right to my heart.
JW: What was Coltrane's reaction to your playing?
CW: I don't remember. It was mostly him playing.
JW: When did he mention the recording session?
CW: Probably a month or so after our visit. One day he just called and said he was going to record Giant Steps and other songs for the album and that he wanted me and Lex on the session. We went into the studio [on April 1, 1959] and recorded a bunch of incomplete takes and two complete ones of Giant Steps. This was a rehearsal session.
JW: What happened next?
CW: I got called out of town with J.J. [Johnson], and Lex went with Dizzy [Gillespie]. When I got back from the tour after a month or so, I called John. He said, "Sorry Cedar, we couldn't wait for you. I had to do it with [Tommy] Flanagan." [The album was recorded on May 4, 1959, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums.] [Photo of Cedar Walton above by Gene Martin]
JW: What did you think?
CW: It broke my heart. When someone played me the alternate takes in the late 1990s, I couldn't believe it. I had no idea they were still around.
JW: What do you think happened?
CW: John told me on the telephone that that kind of thing was fairly normal. He was probably under pressure by Atlantic to record. But I never should have declined to solo.
JW: What do you mean?
CW: When it was time for me to solo during the session, I declined.
CW: The song was too hard for me. But you just didn't do that. I was young. I should have done what Flanagan did—take a solo on the break.
JW: Did you tell Coltrane it was too hard?
CW: No but they knew what I meant when I waved off the opportunity. I know now you just don't do that.
JW: You also recorded Naima and Countdown, which is taken at breakneck speed.
CW: Naima was a piece of cake compared to Giant Steps.
JW: What made Giant Steps so hard for a solo?
CW: The way John conceived of the harmonies. They were totally original. Those harmonies aren't easy to manipulate on any instrument, let alone the piano. I should have taken a solo. I was just too young.
JazzWax tracks: Here are my favorite Cedar Walton albums...
- Freddie Hubbard—Hub Cap (1961)
- Art Blakey—Mosaic (1961)
- Curtis Fuller—Soul Trombone (1961)
- Art Blakey—Three Blind Mice (1962)
- Freddie Hubbard—The Body and the Soul (1963)
- Art Blakey—Free for All (1964)
- Joe Henderson—Mode for Joe (1966)
- Lee Morgan—Charisma (1966)
- Blue Mitchell—Boss Horn (1966)
- Lee Morgan—The Rajah (1966)
- Sonny Criss—Up, Up and Away (1967)
- Cedar Walton—Cedar! (1967)
- Cedar Walton—Spectrum (1968)
- Cedar Walton—Soul Cycle (1969)
- Cedar Walton—Breakthrough (1972)
- Art Farmer—The Summer Knows (1976)
- Illinois Jacquet—Battle of the Horns (1980)
- Junior Cook—Something's Cooking (1981)
- Woody Shaw—Setting Standards (1983)
- Cedar Walton—Plays the Music of Billy Strayhorn (1988)
- Cedar Walton—Underground Memories (2005)
- Cedar Walton—The Bouncer (2011)
- Houston Person—Naturally! (2012)
JazzWax clips: The seven alternate versions of Giant Steps with Cedar Walton recorded in April 1959—a month before the album session—can be found on John Coltrane, Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings here (tracks #62-68).
Here's Cedar Walton on a complete take of Giant Steps during a rehearsal studio session at Atlantic a month before the album's recording date...
Here's Cedar with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on Pensativa...
And here's Cedar playing My Ship from Cedar!