Lush life

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

Walton is happy to recount stories he has no doubt told a thousand times to giddy acolytes who think of him as the hem of history; if you will never meet John Coltrane, well, you can always talk to a guy who played piano for him. Or who played with the great J.J. Johnson, who long ago retired from the bandstand and moved back to Indianapolis. Or Clifford Jordan, a member of Charles Mingus' Sextet during the 1960s. Or Ellington.

But there is no arrogance in his voice, no real tone of condescension in his answers. He is, after all, a man who insists that "I still don't have my own voice. People tell me they recognize me, but that's not something that I am aware of, to tell you the truth."

Walton, born in January 1934, learned his craft from playing along with the blues and big-band and R&B records his parents kept around the house. He was never concerned with sheet music, preferring instead to play by ear, finding the right notes on the keyboard like an explorer. Occasionally, his mother would give him lessons, but that was when she wasn't busy teaching school or offering private piano instruction to other neighborhood kids.

But, like so many other revered jazzers who came out of Dallas in the 1950s and '60s, Walton learned his craft from one of the most unheralded masters ever to live in this town, Lincoln High School band instructor J.K. Miller. It was Miller--a trumpet player who once led his own bands--who taught the likes of David Newman and James Clay and Walton how to play their instruments, how to read charts, how to imitate Duke Ellington or Count Basie or Dizzy Gillespie. Miller singled out the band students with talent, desire, and discipline and showed them the big-band arrangements he had received from New York. He got them off the football field and into the band room--Walton began on clarinet, because, as he points out, it's impossible to march with a piano in your hands--and taught them how to play, though taught may be too weak a word. Pushed may be more appropriate.

Miller's influence on a generation of Dallas jazzers has gone relatively unremarked upon; his name comes up only in stories about his former students. "He wasn't the kind of guy who makes headlines today," Walton says, "but he certainly did then." Still, his influence reached far beyond the South Dallas high school, as Walton would find out when he got to New York City in the late 1950s.

"He was a supporter of those of us who leaned toward jazz," Walton recalls. "He made sure you had stock arrangements from well-known bands, and we would practice those. I played clarinet mostly by ear, but I found him on many instances telling me, 'Hey, Walton, play that for these guys, will ya?' It was a phrase of something, because I had a knack, a natural ability, compared to guys just trying to read it.

"And when I came to New York, I met [pianist] Red Garland, and he introduced me to Miles Davis, and Miles asked me did I know J.K. Miller. That just blew my mind. I don't know where he got that from, man, and I didn't ask. That was the end of the conversation. I was too flabbergasted to ask. I got dizzy, I had to go out for air. I said, 'Wow, this is a really great city, when Miles Davis knows the name of my high school band director.' I still haven't gotten over that."

Walton's mother still lives in Dallas, but few of his friends remain here--they've either died or left town. James Clay, among the greatest and most unheralded Texas tenors, died in January 1995, his frail body finally succumbing to a stroke and years of drug abuse. David "Fathead" Newman long ago moved away from here, first during his stint with Ray Charles' band, and he has called New York City home for decades. And Walton was never friends with Dallas-born Red Garland, Miles Davis' pianist in the 1950s and, until his death in 1984, one of the most influential bop pianists--a man who, like Walton, performed with elegance and ferociousness. Walton knew Red's father and would share a few bills with Red in New York, but they were never what you would call close.

Walton comes home every now and then to see family, but hasn't performed here since July 1996, as part of the Dallas Museum of Art's "Jazz Under the Stars" series. He splits time between his residences in Santa Monica, California, and New York City. He insists he doesn't prefer one place over the other, that it makes no difference to him where he plays and performs. If L.A. has one advantage, he says, it's that it's where he keeps his piano. But Walton considers questions about his writing environment to be essentially "pointless"--he's not a writer, he says, so much as he's a player, someone who finds his compositions in his spare time.

"Mine is a capitalistic approach to composition," he says. "But anywhere you sit down and play, man, it's the same. Not too long ago I had an assignment where I was supposed to come up with as many original compositions as I could, and I was backstage in Barcelona, of all places, touring with Phil Woods, and the first tune came from there. I sat down, and it started coming to me there, and I jotted it down in a way I could remember it."

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