Lush life

Pianist Cedar Walton has played with and known -- and been -- the best

Cedar Walton was 25 years old when he made history, then faded into it. He was a kid from South Dallas beginning to find his way around New York City, a piano player at the start of what would become one of the most estimable, if most unheralded, careers in modern jazz. The moment is preserved in permanent ink inside the most recent pressing of John Coltrane's landmark Giant Steps: March 26, 1959. It was on that day Walton went into a studio with the man who reinvented the saxophone--who reinvented music, cast it in his own towering shadow--and laid down two tracks with Coltrane, drummer Lex Humphries, and bassist Paul Chambers. One was called "Naima," a stirring precursor to Coltrane's mid-1960s experiments; the other was "Giant Steps," among the most recognizable pieces written during the last half of the 20th century.

The way Walton recalls it, he and Coltrane first met, most likely, during a jam session at Birdland in Manhattan. Coltrane liked to go downtown and check out the younger musicians, though he was no more than seven years older than Walton at the time. They met and became friends, which was all the easier since the two men lived near each other in Manhattan. Walton recalls that one night, Coltrane came over to his pad with the changes to a new tune he was working on. The tenor player asked Walton whether he'd record it with him and Humphries, who was touring with Dizzy Gillespie's band at the time; Walton said sure, that'd be fine. But nothing came of the initial sessions. Walton left to go on tour with trombonist J.J. Johnson--who was something of a mentor, a man who defined "impeccable"--and Coltrane went back to the studio to finish without him; Atlantic Records needed the album yesterday.

That is how Cedar Walton ended up playing on--then not playing on--Giant Steps. That is why, in the handful of articles written about the man since the mid-1980s, there is not a single mention of his participation on the album; it's as though it never happened. Yet the irony is, the only copy of Giant Steps anyone can purchase these days is one that does indeed feature Walton: Last year, Rhino Records commemorated Atlantic Records' 50th anniversary by reissuing some of the label's most important albums, each with a handful of unreleased tracks and outtakes. Walton's original sides, made two months before Tommy Flanagan replaced him on piano, appear on the disc, which is now the only version available for purchase.

When asked why no one ever mentions his participation on Giant Steps, Walton says--in a deep, matter-of-fact boom--that "the record Giant Steps doesn't have me on it. Why would anyone mention it?" He says this as though the interviewer is out of his mind for suggesting otherwise. "It's just logic. The person who appears in outtakes of a movie isn't heralded."

Yes, he is told, but you do appear on the CD version.
"I find that slightly hard to believe, but if you say so, I'll believe it," he says, clearly not believing it. "This is a CD? Unbelievable." He pauses, then harrumphs. "Well, that's great." For a second, his bewilderment seems to give way to genuine delight. Maybe it's just nice to be remembered.

And so it goes for one of jazz's great piano players: a man always just slightly out of the picture, a composer-bandleader never quite as heralded as his peers and never quite as forgotten as many others. He has forever been the man in the middle, releasing dozens of records on labels big (CBS Records) and small (Astor Place Recordings, which just issued his brand-new Roots) and playing with historic icons (Coltrane, drummer Art Blakey) and Young Turks on their way up with pockets full of coin (among them Dallas' Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, Terence Blanchard).

It's enough to make a would-be legend a bit grumpy, which is perhaps why Walton feels the need to critique almost every question asked of him during this hourlong interview, rating them as "good" or "pointless." As such, it would be easy to dismiss his manner as gruff or impolite.

But the man can be the very essence of charm, especially when you understand that he has lived the most extraordinary life and is kind to share even the most fleeting snapshots from it. Walton's not rude, but almost gracious and humble about a life spent sharing stages and studios with Blakey's Jazz Messengers, J.J. Johnson, trumpet heroes Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Dorham, Clifford Jordan (who played in Walton's band)...and, yes, John Coltrane. There was even that one special afternoon in 1956 when Army soldier Walton, while stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, jumped on a bandstand to play with Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington.

"Me and a singer friend of mine asked him to sit in," Walton recalls of the day he took a solo on Duke Ellington's piano. "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."

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