One of the most influential and revered pianists in modern jazz, Cedar Walton began his professional career at the tail end of the 1950s, playing with Art Farmer and J.J. Johnson’ and their nascent groups.
The Texas native’s big break came early in the new decade when, as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, he wrote, arranged and recorded a number of sides that raised the bar for melodic and swinging bop including “Mosaic,” “Ugetsu,” “The Promised Land” and “Bolivia.”
In the years since, Walton has embarked on numerous projects as pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and/or recording artist, and in 2010 the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master.
The 78–year–old ivory legend will start the day March 26 with a 70–minute solo recital at the Charles H. Morris Center. Later, in two performances, he’ll trade off with old pal Kenny Barron for the Savannah Music Festival’s traditional “Piano Showdown.”
From Art Tatum to Horace Silver to Bill Evans to Chick Corea, there have been a lot of piano players in jazz over the years. To your mind, what makes a guy great?
Cedar Walton: Oh man, there’s taste, and harmonic prowess, you could say. Chops, which is a slang word for technique. Simplicity. Nat Cole was a great pianist. I can remember hearing him so much as a child, and some of the things just wouldn’t leave my head. It’s very hard to explain if you’re not a musician. In a general sense, taste, and a total blending with your peers.
You began making you reputation as a pretty young man ... while you were still a student at Denver University.
Cedar Walton: I was working at an after–hours place where all the guys who came through town ... such as John Coltrane, Bud Powell’s little brother ... I can’t remember his name, but I got to meet you name it, after their gig they’d come by this place where I was playing – including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coltrane and a bunch of people. It was just wonderful just to meet these guys, let alone hear ‘em.
When you got out of college, you headed straight for New York. Is that where musicians had to go to make something of themselves?
Cedar Walton: Yeah, me and a buddy drove out to New York in 1955. With gas prices today, we couldn’t have got out of the State of Colorado. And in ’56, when I was 22, the military draft caught me. I was glad to get caught at that age; usually guys had a gig with an orchestra, Count Basie or B.B. King or maybe Ray Charles. I just drove here, nobody invited me. So it wasn’t such a big predicament, so to speak, that I wrangled myself into.
But I was, you know, young and foolish. I worked at the big department stores like Macy’s, and stayed at the YMCA, where they had a piano I could practice on. That lasted about a year, and then I went on into the military. I was in Fort Dix, New Jersey, for six months, and then a year and a half in Germany.
Didn’t you learn how to arrange music during those two years in the Army?
Cedar Walton: Yeah, we had a Big Band. It was just a wonderful piece of luck. A wonderful sequence of lucky events. I would never have been able to do that if I’d just stayed in Dallas. I’d meet guys over the years who were full of talent, but didn’t leave their hometown. Back in New York I just sat in all over the place, and people were so gracious. People like Phil Woods. I could even visit record sessions and rehearsals. I had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
In ’63, you joined up with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.That’s when things got serious.
Cedar Walton: That’s when I was given free rein to compose. The first album we put out when I was with the group, the title song was “Mosaic,” one of my tunes. I remember how wonderful it felt to hear the DJ on the radio, riding around New York at night, saying “There’s a new one by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, ‘Mosaic,’ composed by See–Dar Walton.”
There are so many genres, sub–genres and grey areas in music, especially jazz. They call you a pioneer in “hard bop.” What exactly is “hard bop”?
Cedar Walton: Nothing personal, but I think the press sorta developed it. Be–bop, of course, was a term that was developed from a drum sound, b–BOP, so “hard bop” was just something created from the term be–bop ... but how “hard” got into it is a mystery to me. I didn’t have anything personally to do with it. I was just an innocent bystander trying to make hay while the sun shines, Nelly, I suppose you could say. I was hungry, and my hunger paid off.
At 12:30 p.m. March 26/Morris Center
Piano Showdown: Cedar Walton & Kenny Barron
At 5:30 & 8 p.m. March 26/Morris Center