The great American pianist Cedar Walton died last week at the age of 79 at his home in Brooklyn after a short illness. Like almost all jazz musicians, Walton made his living largely on the road, which seems unfair for a man of his towering talents. Given the grinding rigors of touring the span of his life most be counted as long. His art will long outlive him.
After joining in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1961 — on the same day as trumpeter Freddie Hubbard — Walton brewed his skills as both accompanist and soloist of swinging verve and eloquence in that cauldron of young talent, superheated by the fiery drumming leader.
The first LP I bought with Walton on it was Dexter Gordon’s 1981 Gotham City (hymned by me in these pages some years back). On that endlessly astonishing recording Walton’s gifts for turning from the bumptious and bubbling to stretches of poised beauty are ubiquitous. From my first hearing of Gotham City I marveled at his ability to infuse and elevate his sonic surroundings with the perfect chord, phrase, arcing melody, witty aside — adjusting effortlessly to the constantly-shifting scenario as if he were simply turning his head and cocking his ear to take in another aural vista of the passing jazz landscape and its sounds.
Never was there a better listener than Walton. His playing was the most natural and appealing mix of intense energy, graceful ease, intuition and erudition.
I heard him live just once, back in 1995 at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Los Angeles and wrote the following review of that memorable evening for the Anderson Valley Advertiser.
Saturday night and the corner of Santa Monica and Cahuenga Boulevard is deserted except for a woman in a short, black-sequined dress standing on the curb. The light changes and we begin the ascent toward the hills but she doesn’t cross the street. She leans against the light pole and watches the traffic go by. Two blocks up there is a plenty of free parking on the street, but it’s wiser to pay the three bucks and park in a lot with an attendant on duty until one in the morning. That’s Hollywood — as in the geographical reality rather than the celluloid cliché. Among the darkened and barred storefronts the only light comes from the Catalina Bar and Grill. Jazz: high art in the low-rent district.
Why journey to this shady spot in hell? Because Cedar Walton’s “Eastern Rebellion”— with Walton on piano, Ralph Moore on tenor and soprano saxophones, Tony Dumas on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums—has come to the penultimate night of a six night run. I’d parachute into downtown Mogadishu waving an American flag if that’s what it took to hear Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton. Walton, one of the great Art Blakey pianists of the 1960s, has lead the Eastern Rebellion, a straight ahead hard bop group, since the early 70s, with Higgins as his drummer and an array of tenor saxophone players, including George Coleman and Clifford Jordan. Born in Europe but mostly raised on a distant stretch of California’s Central Coast, Moore has big shoes to fill tonight.
We arrived at a quarter to nine and were taken to our table 20 feet from the bandstand. Some of the more than one hundred patrons finished up their dinner while a young woman milled among the tables selling long-stem roses to those couples out for a “romantic evening.” It’s a good crowd for the most part interested in the music, and unlike a lot of places in New York, we don’t have to suffer through the warning harangue about talking during the performance. There isn’t too much chatter during the music and minimal clanging of glasses from the bar. The ceiling of the Catalina is low and the raised bandstand makes the musicians, particularly those like tonight’s saxophonist Moore, seem to be playing from the rafters. It’s not great acoustically or visually, but all in all the Catalina is a pretty good place to listen to music. I’d prefer always to hear this stuff in a small concert hall, but I know that’s asking too much; next thing you know I’ll be demanding free-range egg in my beer.
At 9:00 the lights dimmed and an unseen voice introduced the band. First on the stand was Tony Dumas, whom I hadn’t heard before. He wouldn’t be in this kind of company if he couldn’t play. He regarded the crowd with unyielding eyes that said, “I’ll be playing, but not for you,” as in Beethoven’s famous formulation “true art is selfish and perverse and it will not submit to flattery.” None of the Italian-suited cool of Wynton Marsalis and his band, Dumas wore a black t-shirt and his face said it all: he was here to work. Then came Ralph Moore in his silk polo-shirt, followed by Higgins in his suit and tie, grinning and glad to be heading into a night of delight, and finally leader Walton in his black jacket and shirt.
The Rebellion started right off with a quirky tune of stop-start syncopations in a clever arrangement that did not hide the fact that this was a comfortably up-tempo 12-bar blues. After the jocular hesitations of the head it took off for open country. Moore galloped through a dozen choruses: he is a very fleet player—reminded me sometimes of Thelonius Monk’s longtime sideman Charlie Rouse — who keeps you listening not just for his technical flourishes but for the almost geometric rightness of one line following the next. Walton responded with a playing that was nimble, sure, and bluesy, so good it was great. The perpetual rightness of what Walton says — and occasionally shouts — with his fingers at the keyboard is vigorous, tasteful, ceaselessly imaginative, unbuttoned without being sloppy. The blues is Walton’s home turf and the starting point not just of the evening, but of everything.
Dumas did indeed prove that he could play with a long solo of great melodic and rhythmic invention. All this was energized by the nonpareil Higgins, who plays as if lost in his own world, grinning broadly, grunting against the beat, and looking out at the audience without seeming to see its members at all. He accompanied this blues as if it were the perfect thing for that moment. Who knows or cares how many countless blues each of these men had played before this one entitled Walton’s “Newest Blues,” but in the hands of these musicians Saturday night, this most basic of forms proved its capacity for infinite thrill.
The group then slowed things down with Thad Jones’ classic ballad “God Bless the Child,” sung by Moore on his soprano saxophone. After decorating the melody with restrained beauty, Moore made way for Walton’s long and heartfelt soliloquy of shifting colors and chord voicings sometimes tender sometimes brittle. Moore then returned for a harmonically adventurous cadenza shot through with jolting runs. He’s a young guy who can play the blues, can play fast, and can play ballads, and I’m looking forward to hearing a lot more from him.
Among the other highlights of the first set was one of the many Walton originals on offer, the beloved “Bolivia” that has long since ascended into the canon of jazz standards. The tune opened with a funky groove reminiscent of Dexter Gordon’s “Clubhouse,” the title track from the classic 1965 Blue Note recording, the place I discovered Billy Higgins’ genius: his magical control of that most ephemeral characteristic of jazz — “the time” — where the minutest tick of the drummer’s clock determines whether a piece swings or dies. The way Higgins does the simplest of things — in this case a click on the rim of his snare drum on the second beat and two quick hits on the adjacent floor tom on beat 4 — makes him Billy Higgins. In “Bolivia” this groove alternated with a buoyant Latin beat throughout Moore’s virtuosic solo, finally giving way to the driving swing of Walton’s most extroverted piano work of the evening.
The between-sets break seemed like an eternity as our tablemates insisted on informing us how “cool and relaxing jazz is,” and how one should just “let the beat carry you away.” I looked down at my drink, praying that Scottie would beam these people to a Barry Manilow concert in a galaxy far, far away.
After the intermission, a triple-time blues quieted conversation and once again provided ample room for Moore, Walton, and Dumas to stretch out. Dumas was particularly inspired, urged on by several listeners who called out his name, “Dumas, yeah, Dumas.” Then Higgins took for himself an extended solo much to the delight of the audience and the band. He devoted several choruses to only the cymbals and concluded with perhaps a dozen go-rounds using just his brushes. Unable to resist the temptation, Walton leaned in to his microphone and said in his soft baritone voice, “Swweeepp it.” At the conclusion of the tune the legendary drummer Al “Tootie” Heath rushed up behind the stage and hugged Higgins around the head, both laughing. Walton then dedicated the just-concluded piece to Heath, chiding him for being “Mr. FBI and CIA” and a “Friend of Bill” since he had played at last year’s White House jazz party.
The second set concluded with a medley of classic Thelonius Monk pieces, the first of which Walton introduced mischievously to his Los Angeles audience overloaded on the ongoing O.J. Simpson trial: “There is a situation which pervades the media and any verdict will come down to: ‘Evidence’.” It’s an angular, disjointed tune whose Monkish eccentricity evokes the gritty, corroded wheels of justice. Moore soared on this one and Walton showed the grittier facets of his pianism. He then offered an exquisite and tender reading of “Ruby My Dear” before segueing in ruminative, searching modulations from the West Coast back to the East and “Coming on the Hudson.” Just after 12:00 the quartet turned to “‘Round Midnight,” the magisterial Walton capping a bravura evening.
This Eastern Rebellion on the West Coast was no tea party.
David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.