UPDATE, fall 2013: In the wake of Cedar’s passing, I have interviewed Cedar’s long-time bassist, interviewed a significant pianist who loves Cedar, and written an essay with more transcriptions. The four pages (including this one) are now collected as For Cedar Walton.
For Cedar Walton:
4) Cedar’s Blues (essay)
(Reprinted from old DTM, originally posted March 2010.)
For those looking for more of Cedar’s wisdom, he is quoted at length in Gary Giddins’s liners to Naima (the record with “I’ll Remember April” above) and Ted Panken’s liners to Underground Memoirs.
Thanks to Jacob Wunsch for transcribing the interview.
Ethan Iverson: You were the first great jazz pianist I saw live, at the Artists’ Quarter in Minneapolis in ’86 or ’87. Kenny Horst was on drums and Billy Peterson was on bass. The first tune was “Cedar’s Blues,” and I thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
Cedar Walton: No kidding. How old were you?
EI: I was in junior high.
CW: If the bug’s gonna bite you, it’d be then.
EI: I’ve always kept up with your playing since. I don’t know if you realize the awe and terror that you strike into the hearts of so many of us younger jazz musicians.
CW: I keep hearing that. I’m in awe of that! Because I’m extremely fortunate to have been here early enough to meet the likes of Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, and Erroll Garner. Even Miles Davis came around to hear us when we were with the Messengers.
They would hand out little bits of wisdom. The strongest in my memory is Thelonious Monk, who talked through his teeth a lot. He’d say, “Play your own shit.”
And that’s what I’m doing. I mean, I think it’s unconscious from his suggestion. Possibly. I’m not a psychologist, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize the power of suggestion is strong sometimes.
EI: Especially if it’s Thelonious Monk doing the suggesting! What was it like to see Monk live?
CW: A remarkable love of music was exhibited by him. When I came out of the army in ’58, he was still in residence at the Five Spot. He’d had Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but by the time I got back he had Johnny Griffin. I was amazed how well he rose to the task. Some of the Monk compositions, as you know, are simple, but some of them aren’t. (“Trinkle Tinkle” is an example.) But Mr. Griffin surpassed all my expectations.
You probably know the legend of Thelonious and the Baroness – they were great, platonic friends. Nelly Monk, his wife, was glad to get this man out of the house. And they would go around in the Baroness’s Bentley. I used to play in a place named Boomer’s on a upright. When the Monk and the Baroness wanted to they could sit right in front of me. I would say “Oh my God,” to myself.
And that’s how life was for a person who was aspiring to move up in the jazz world. You’d be confronted with the top people – they would be just normal people coming out to hear you. I met drummers who said they were in a similar position. The would look over at a table and see Max Roach, Roy Haynes, and Art Blakey. And they’d say, “Oh my God.” So I guess it just furthers the story that New York has the best cultural capital. You can see these people up close and personal.
EI: How did you learn the language of jazz? You must have started to listen to records while still in Texas.
CW: I was so hungry. There were many Nat King Cole records… Before I left Dallas, I remember the first recording of “Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington on Capitol. I couldn’t believe it. I played that 78 record over and over. I can remember that as an outstanding experience – the clarity.
EI: You told me a story once about Duke letting you sit in with the band.
CW: Yeah, that was when I was stationed at Fort Dix. The band was playing in the afternoon in what looked like a big armory, but they had what could pass for a dance floor. It was a huge place but there weren’t many people: it was afternoon at an army base – the army’s having duties, of course.
I was about to ship out to Germany, and my buddy was shipping out somewhere, too. And we were there in our uniforms. And we dared ask him to sit in. And he said, “Yes.” He had a spinet; I have a feeling he wanted to escape that for at least a few minutes.
It was a high bandstand and on the way up he said, “Now go easy on those keys, young man.” Such an elegant person…”Duke Elegant.” So we played “What Is This Thing Called Love?” My friend sang. I can remember, the bass was here, the band was straight ahead of me from saxophones out. And down there was my man singing at the mic. And they made up an ending. When we got close to the ending it sounded sort of like what we used to call the “clambake ending.” And on the way back down, Duke, in his Duke-ish way, said, “I thought I told you to go easy!” That’s an experience that just stays alive in your system.
EI: What about your exposure to Bud Powell?
CW: By the time I heard Bud, I think he’d been sick. He wasn’t the Bud that I heard on record in Texas, like “Somebody Loves Me,” “Parisian Thoroughfare” – all his great records. I heard his “Over the Rainbow,” which I still sort of play like him. “Petty larceny” you might call it.
Walter Davis Jr. told me about watching Bud. Bud could play endlessly. They’d have to say, “Okay, Bud, that’s enough.” Bird and Dizzy, they had to use their lungs. But Bud was endless in this magical thing he had come upon. As far as the records, the history of piano goes, he succeeded people like Teddy Wilson and Earl “Fatha” Hines in that style – even Ellington. And he played horn-like, as you know, figures up here [mimes treble clef] but unusually structured. And his chordal knowledge, as it turned out, was very influential – to say the least! He was absolutely innovative.
EI: Did you try to learn Bud’s lines in Texas?
CW: Mmm-hmm. I was trying to learn everybody’s lines. I was very impressionable. Also, I was fascinated with Bud’s accompaniment on the records with Miles and Bird. I heard those chords – they’re so rich. And as much as he could do with lines, he was doing that as well as he did this.
I was a fanatic, trying to absorb all the material off the records, but you could only get to a certain degree. You had to see someone playing this.
EI: So who showed you stuff at the piano?
CW: A guy named Gil Coggins.
EI: Oh, right, he’s on some of the Miles records.
CW: On one at least. He wasn’t a great soloist; he was a great accompanist. He had played with Lester Young, too. I met him over here in Bed Stuy in a brownstone on Washington Avenue. His mother rented out rooms to those of us who had just got to town. Even before I moved in we became friends: I would go over and he would show me stuff he had learned while he was with Miles. He was very respectful of Miles. Miles knew a lot of harmony; Miles was a student of harmony. He came up with a new version of George Shearing’s “Conception” – you remember that piece? I forgot what Miles called it.
EI: I think he called it “Deception.”
CW: Yeah. Oh man, I had a great time seeing what those “Conception” changes were from Gil. He was one guy who showed me a lot.
I got a chance to watch Wynton Kelly for a few minutes and I think I absorbed two or three voicings from him.
EI: What about any of the Detroit cats – did they hook you up?
CW: In 1959, I got in with J.J. Johnson, and when that band went to Detroit, I met Barry Harris. I went to his house. He had names for some of the things I already knew. He was a born teacher.
EI: That’s interesting. Did he talk about diminished chords?
CW: Yeah, stuff like that. I just knew them as voicings. (I didn’t tell him that!) I had a great time sharing ideas at his house: that’s one day I’ll always remember.
I met Flanagan when he came here. The first thing he asked me after we talked a few minutes was did I know anywhere he could practice on a piano. So I took him to a friend named Kenneth Carp who lived in a brownstone right on Gramercy Park. He would have sessions every Friday or Saturday night after the gigs. That’s where I met hundreds of people including Oscar Pettiford; the Jones Brothers – Elvin and Thad, not Hank. Oh, man, so many people – Hank Mobley, Art Farmer. So that was a great experience. I used to go over there all the time because I didn’t have a piano yet. And so that was a nice way for me and Flanagan to meet. Flanagan made a gig with Oscar Pettiford because of that brownstone. Pettiford needed a piano player. When he was walking through and leaving, he stopped and said, “Can you read?” I said, “A little bit, sir.” I was terrified.
EI: I imagine you were a good reader, though, weren’t you? Didn’t you practice classical music when you were a kid?
CW: Yeah, my favorites were “Moonlight Sonata,” “Claire de Lune,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” and a few Bach bourrées and Inventions, I suppose. Scales, mostly, were my favorite things to do. Because you just had to figure out the fingerings. They were different. The one in C is not like the one in D-flat, etc.
EI: You do them with both hands?
CW: Oh, yeah! Can you imagine practicing scales with one hand?
EI: I guess not really! Arpeggios, too?
CW: Yeah. My teacher had major 7 arpeggios – C, E, G, B. And then she had the one with the B-flat – the dominant, and C, D, F, A-flat, too. By the time you get through all them, man, two-three hours had gone by, if you do them in every key.
Still, I wasn’t sure of myself, though. I wouldn’t dare tell Pettiford, “Oh, sure, I can read!” I wouldn’t do that. I was still a little nervous. I was enjoying where I was – absorbing this great culture, this great art form. You know what I’m talking about. I didn’t want to jump in and see if I was capable of doing something I wasn’t sure about. I just said, “A little bit, sir.” That was my honest answer. Flanagan got in there instead and made a great record, too.
EI: I always heard Dizzy Gillespie showed cats stuff.
CW: Yeah, he knew stuff. He just loved some of the things he had picked up from Tatum. He’d say, “Look how Tatum did this.”
EI: He got some things from Monk, too, right?
CW: Probably. I wouldn’t get things from Monk through Dizzy, though. I would go watch Monk himself.
And in fact one night, the Baroness called and said, “Cedar, Monk is ill. Could you go down there?” Boy, you talk about somebody excited! Not about to say “no” to that one! Roy Haynes was there. And I was just sort of terrified. In between tunes I would sit like this [slumps] and Roy Haynes from over here would poke me with a stick – “Wake up!” Abdul-Malik was on bass. Monk had him way down at the end of the piano, off the stage. And, of course, Johnny Griffin… We played standards, not Monk tunes. It was great – maybe two nights. I have some great memories of when I was still in my twenties.
EI: Both you and Monk have a deep relationship to the drummer on the bandstand. There are some piano players who seem to want to back away from the drums. But you’re someone that embraces the drums.
CW: I do, I guess.
EI: I read in Dizzy’s book about the “minor sixth chord” or “minor seven flat-five” controversy.
CW: [Laughs] Oh, I didn’t know it was a controversy.
EI: I don’t mean controversy, exactly. But Monk and Dizzy knew what that sound was, but they weren’t sure what to call it yet.
CW: Right. [Sings love theme from Romeo and Juliet] Who wrote that – Tchaikovsky? That’s the best example I can think of that chord.
But you’re not talking about hymns, you’re talking about jazz.
EI: You play “Woody’n You,” for example. It’s Dizzy’s classic tune on his first record date with Coleman Hawkins at the dawn of be-bop. I just think that sonority always sticks out in a certain way in the music. It’s a very special sonority.
CW: I can’t disagree with you. It’s certainly used and used and used.
EI: But I notice when you play “Woody’n You” you sometimes just play straight dominants through it.
CW: Yeah, I have a weakness for dominants if I can put them in without disturbing anybody. I think I’ve gotten over that now, but I used to be terrible with that. I told Bobby Hutcherson once, “Bobby, I just love dominants.” I couldn’t resist – now I can. I guess I’ve matured and made myself like the regular minor 7. It’s the first chord of the last four of the blues. I used to always make that a dominant with the raised 9. I’d touch it, and then I just couldn’t resist. But now I’m finally mature enough to just play a regular minor 7.
So that’s just my particular disease.
EI: One of the things that makes your sound so distinctive is that you live in each chord. Your harmonies are very specific.
CW: Really? Thank you.
EI: When you play a standard, it sounds like you’ve thought about the right way to harmonize the melody.
CW: Well, yeah, that’s logical. I hope that everyone would do that. In the 50 odd years that I’ve been playing actively and on recordings, I’ve had so many opportunities to record with people or on my own, and I really lean toward trying to have my version of that piece, especially standards: the impossible devotion to either re-harmonizing or putting something in a piece that makes it my version.
EI: Does some of that perspective come from Ahmad Jamal?
CW: Oh, sure. I can’t imagine a piano player in their right mind not checking him out. Yeah, of course. Jamal had a mystique. You weren’t around when he had these really tremendous, successful recordings like Live at the Pershing.
Speaking of “Woody’n You,” Dizzy Gillespie said he got a check for $80,000 because of the tremendous success of Jamal’s record.
EI: Wow! Dizzy told you that himself?
CW: I did at least one tour with Dizzy. Dizzy selected me, Bobby Hutcherson, Phil Woods, Rufus Reid, and Mickey Roker. I’m getting mixed up – one time it was Richard Davis. But anyway, I was around Dizzy enough to get to know him. On a tour you get to know a person. And that’s when he told me that.
EI: Did Dizzy request certain things from you when you were comping for him?
CW: Dizzy would only need to have verbal rehearsals because everywhere he went they knew his music – “Night in Tunisia,” “Woody’n You?,” “Con Alma,” and so forth. Sometimes he would get us all in a room and remind us of what we should do in certain pieces – verbal rehearsals, not anything too specific. “Con Alma” we would do as a duet.
EI: Did you play the last A a half-step down? [The last A then begins in the key of E-flat – very hip, considering the last chord of the bridge.]
CW: No, he told me about that later.
EI: Did you learn that from him or did you show him that?
CW: No, Hank Jones showed him that. He told me he got that from Hank. Not me. He said, “Why didn’t I think of that?” You heard me do that with him?
EI: No, I just heard you do it and I thought it sounded like you.
CW: No, I got that from Dizzy telling me that Hank said, “Hey, listen, you’re in a position to go right into E-flat.” And typical Dizzy, he said, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?” I’m not sure whether Dizzy kept it. I don’t know whether Hank still does it. I do it sometimes – it’s a matter of choice.
EI: It reminded me of some of your original pieces where there’s a section that’s a half-step off, like in “The Maestro.”
CW: Yeah, right. Well maybe I got that from that!
EI: What did you do to get jazz rhythm?
CW: To get jazz rhythm? Now that’s a hell of a question. I don’t mean difficult, but just hell of a question to think about a civilized answer. Well, I played glockenspiel in high school band. I was at the head of the band. You could hear this damn thing even in a big football stadium.
EI: Elvin Jones said something, too, that he learned something from playing in a marching band, from playing bass drum in a marching band.
CW: Yeah, I would think so. David “Fathead” Newman was in that same band over there. The band director was a good trumpet player, but he decided to teach. I think in one of our formations – you know, during halftime – we were supposed to go straight and Fathead went out. From that moment on, that band director nicknamed him “Fathead.”
I was over there trying to play clarinet. I was playing by ear; I couldn’t read all those ledger lines on the clarinet marching-band parts. Sousa – they’re all above the staff, or a lot of them. But I could play them by ear down an octave. So I was an ear guy. I’ll always remember J.K. Miller, who was very tolerant of something like that. He’d also bring in charts arranged by Gil Fuller for the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra for us to try off-season, when it wasn’t football season. J.K. Miller had played in bands. In fact, he told me that he played in those bands – they used to call them territory bands – back in the 40’s or even the 30’s.
When I first got here, I met Red Garland: I introduced myself to him because he was from Dallas. His father lived two blocks from me. So I said, “Hi, Red, I’m Cedar from Dallas. I know your father.” And Red was an instant buddy. He was standing next to Miles Davis at the bar of the Cafe Bohemia. He said, “Oh man, Miles, this is my man – what’s your name – Cedar? – from Dallas.” And Miles said, “You know J.K. Miller?” Now that just floored me – that Miles Davis knew my band director. I almost fainted. I had to count to ten. So I said, “Wow, I must’ve come to the right city. They know my band director here.” Then Fathead explained to me that he probably passed through East Saint Louis – or wherever Miles lived – with one of these bands. And Miles was hungry like I was, I guess, to hear trumpet sections and things like that.
EI: Did Red show you anything at the piano?
CW: No, he was not that type. His chords were totally…non-institutional, if I might coin a phrase. Like “Billy Boy.” You know how rich those chords are. That’s him – that’s just unanalyzable. To me, anyway.
EI: Well, it’s true they have a lot of non-normal notes in them.
CW: Yeah, they sounded right to me. They started sounding normal to me.
EI: Those beautiful fifths – stuff like bell tones in there to give them an extra ring.
CW: Oh, I see, well I never looked at it like that. Philly Joe told me when they played one week at a place here, the first night or two he was figuring out how to play the tunes – maybe with some really wrong notes in the chords – and by the end it was all together.
EI: Interesting – because on the records he always sounds perfect.
CW: Oh yeah – he’s not gonna let himself sound less than perfect on a record. I just meant in a live situation.
He wasn’t that intrigued with New York after he left Miles, and went back to Texas. You would have to send for him. If the gig started on Tuesday, though, he would come in on a Monday, because he would always go down to the Vanguard and listen to that orchestra. He knew all those arrangements. He could sing them all, which gives you insight into his style of musicality. Miles used to love to give him at least one feature on the set, you know, as a trio.
EI: Yeah, on Milestones there’s a trio feature.
CW: That was a great record, I think.
EI: I feel like the cats of your generation treat the Prestige and Columbia records of Miles with John Coltrane as a sort of Bible.
CW: Yeah, me and Higgins shared that love for that period – and prior to that period, too. For instance, there was a song based on “Beyond the Blue Horizon” named “She Rote.” And Miles…you could tell he was sort of a fledgling compared to what he became, but it was still great.
I saw Bird when he passed through Denver because I played at a so-called “after hours” place. When there was a concert, after the concert, the musicians were obliged to come there because that was a place they could get maybe a little drink disguised in a cup of coffee. There was food, too. So Bird actually sat in. That was an exciting moment. (A saxophone player with us had a wire recorder and he taped it, but then he erased it. I was furious.)
That’s the kind of guy Charlie Parker was. I was flabbergasted. Wherever he went, he’d say “Can I sit in with you fellas?” He had a rather deep voice. I can’t imagine anyone saying no to him. He played about three pieces, all in C. One was “Dancing on the Ceiling” – I can’t remember the other two. And he asked for a chair. The bandstand was rather high. I’m here and he’s sitting right here when he asked for the chair. And pretty soon I heard a mild snoring. He fell asleep after three songs. But still, it’s a great memory.
That was a tour that I’ll always remember. Every time I see Lee Konitz we discuss that. Because it was a tour that featured Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, Erroll Garner, Lee Konitz, Frank Rosolino, Charlie Parker, Dizzy… In the intermission, in this rather big place where they played, I saw Charlie Parker and Dizzy in a booth playing chess. I was impressed. I was still a student. “Wow, look at that.”
EI: Speaking of Konitz, did you hear the Tristano records at all?
CW: Yeah, sure, I was telling you – I was a fanatic.
EI: Because someone told me there was some Tristano in that “I’ll Remember April” solo I brought. I didn’t think so, though.
CW: It could be, man. Everyone’s sound rubs off on you some way. I didn’t hear him live, but the records – I used to listen to everything I could get a hold of, including George Shearing and Lennie Tristano.
EI: Erroll Garner?
CW: Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Hank Jones. When I met Ray Brown and started to play with Ray and Milt Jackson, I could tell that some of those arrangements were Ray’s. Ray was a master of head arrangements. I mean, they were quick. If you could play, he’d say, “You do this.” Boom – there was an arrangement.
EI: Do you think he did some of the arrangements for Oscar Peterson?
CW: Oh yeah. Probably “Tenderly” – he might’ve put that interlude in there. After you got to know Ray, you could see the earmarks of his contributions. I wouldn’t have known unless I’d had an extensive relationship with Ray.
EI: I think a lot of us know that trio record with you and Elvin and Ray Brown, Something for Lester.
CW: Yeah, I enjoyed that very much except I was under the impression that it was going to be Elvin’s record. So I prepared the few little pieces I had in there thinking of drums. When I found it was Ray’s record, I said “Oh….” So I made as much of an adjustment as I could. A lot of people like that record. My friend Javon Jackson always tells me, “Oh, man. Ray and Elvin were not so together, but you brought it together.” I said, “Oh, I did? Thank you.”
EI: Yeah, it’s one of the widest beats on record. Ray is about two bars ahead of Elvin Jones the whole time.
CW: Oh, man, what an event.
EI: Well, it’s still a great record for sure. Although you can hear that Ray overdubs one of his solos. You can hear the phantom track of the first solo.
CW: No kidding – I never noticed that.
EI: You can only hear it on headphones. It’s on “Love Walked In,” I believe.
CW: Oh, I see. That’s very…insightful. I’ll have to go back and dig that with headphones.
EI: You, Elvin, and Ray are masters of jazz rhythm, but play the beat in different places. Is there anything else you want to say to someone who wants to learn more about the jazz beat?
CW: Jazz beat? I can remember one occasion where J.J. Johnson said…just one occasion… I played with him a long time – a year and a half maybe, two years. I learned a lot from hearing him, he was a real wizard. I can remember one time he said, “Cedar, you’re rushing.” Just once. But that’s not what you’re referring to really, is it?
EI: Well, I don’t know. But it’s interesting to hear that happened.
CW: I was probably nervous or something or didn’t have my beer yet. I could think of many scenarios that would’ve caused me…Because he had in his mind a certain slowness probably. Sometimes when you don’t like a song, you try to rush through it. Unconsciously you’re doing it because you want to get it over with. So there’s lots of possibilities why he would say that. But the jazz beat? You’ve stumped me now, Ethan.
EI: Well, maybe we should listen to it instead of talking about it. You already mentioned Higgins a couple times. Many people think that Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins together is a definitive statement about swing.
CW: Wow, that’s very complimentary.
[We listen together to five pieces. I’ve put up the transcribed solo; the other tracks are easy to find on either internet radio or music-sharing blogs.]
“Theme from Love Story” with Sam Jones and Billy Higgins. 1972.
CW: Oh, yeah, I know what this is. Is that Sam Jones?
CW: That brings back pleasant memories. “Love Story” – there was a movie…
EI: For a minute there, you were playing pop hits of the day. You played some Burt Bacharach and this one. I think this is from ’72.
As far as I know, this is the first trio recording of you and Sam and Billy together.
CW: You could be right about the recording, but we certainly had played together before. We met during that period when I first got to town. He rose through Cannonball and Oscar Peterson but always remembered this man “Cedar.” When I found out he’d left Oscar Peterson, I said, “Come on, Sam.”
Oh, man, we just had so much fun. He always had a magnificent car. When we would roll up to these gigs, it would either be a Cadillac or another impressive car. Amusingly, they always figured that they would be obliged to give us our wages since we had this vehicle.
EI: You can’t dig any deeper into that beat than Sam Jones and Billy Higgins.
CW: It’s true. It’s a good recording, too, I think.
EI: I hear the Ahmad Jamal influence here.
CW: Of course. It’s impossible to avoid Ahmad, but I wouldn’t want to avoid somebody like that.
EI: One of your signature sounds is extended tunes in minor with a nice feel. I just saw you play “Little Sunflower” at the Vanguard. Or “My Funny Valentine” with Ron Carter. These little moody, great groove, minor-key pieces.
CW: Well, great. I’m glad to hear that, I need to know more about myself.
[Listening] You couldn’t beat that beat. I’m glad you’re reminding me now.
EI: So swinging. That rhythm the three of you are playing right now doesn’t exist on any music paper in the world. It’s jazz folklore.
CW: That’s a very civilized way of evaluating it!
“I’ll Remember April” with Clifford Jordan, Sam Jones, and Louis Hayes. 1973.
CW: Is this from Boomers?
EI: Yes, with Louis Hayes on drums.
CW: That I remember. That’s a hell of a transcription. It must’ve taken you a year.
EI: Well, you know these days there are these computer programs that slow it down. It makes it really easy. My ears aren’t that good; I’m not a natural transcriber. I did this in the dead of winter in Two Harbors, Minnesota, when I had nothing else to do over Christmas.
CW: Right. Minnesota is place to do something like that.
EI: It’s just so killing, Cedar. It’s not a great sounding piano, but you were saying it’s a spinet?
CW: No, it was an upright, a little bigger than a spinet.
EI: You played at Boomers a lot?
CW: Yeah, man, that was my savior. I lived right across town, almost directly east of there. Down a little below Houston, on Columbia Street, as I recall.
EI: Where was Boomers?
CW: Boomers was on Bleecker Street. That’s why I composed a piece named “Bleecker Street Theme.” The space is still there, but it’s just gone. It’s right near Christopher on Bleecker. Two more blocks you’d be in the back of the Sweet Basil – that region. Then you run into Seventh Avenue.
EI: So did you play there in the 60’s, too, then, or just the 70’s?
CW: No, not the 60’s. The 60’s I was just barely with J.J. No, that was the 70’s or 80’s.
EI: You were with the Jazztet also for a minute, right?
CW: Yeah, that followed J.J. for a little period.
EI: You’re on that Jazztet Plays John Lewis record.
CW: That was interesting.
EI: How was working with John Lewis?
CW: Well, fine. He had everything perfectly scripted. That was a great chance for him to make a few bucks. It wasn’t that memorable for me. I remember being on the elevator with him and Gunther Schuller. They kept talking. They never did say anything to me. Nothing against them personally – they probably had something to talk about and not to me. Yeah, that was fine.
EI: We were talking about piano players. John Lewis, did he mean something to you on the 50’s records?
CW: Yeah, his intros, man: “Whispering.” I don’t know if you’ve heard that, by Miles Davis.
Percy Heath told me that everybody used to gather at the curtain when they were playing at the theater to listen to John Lewis’s solo when he was playing with Dizzy. He played just wonderfully. He had to make some changes when he organized the MJQ or whatever they called it. At first it was the Milt Jackson Quartet. Luckily the initials still fit. That was the rhythm section just lifted out of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. Ray Brown stayed a few minutes, but then he went off with Ella Fitzgerald. That’s when they got Percy. I was a big fan of “Django” and those early records with Kenny Clarke. And then of course he migrated to France and then they got Connie Kay.
EI: This next record is a real clinic in playing jazz time, especially since there’s no drums.
“Frankie and Johnny” with Ron Carter. 1981.
Your left hand’s going like the rhythm guitar here for a minute.
CW: Yeah, like Erroll Garner.
EI: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a duo swing this hard, man.
CW: Wow, you’re bringing back some good memories of some nice musical moments.
EI: You say in the liner notes you and Ron were playing quite a lot duo at this moment.
CW: During this period? Yeah, right. Rather than stay home and watch TV, we would go out and play.
Cedar’s sardonic comment about the difficulty of getting work playing straight-ahead jazz in 1981 is amplified by his liner notes to this record:
The Ron Carter-Cedar Walton duets came about when we started a series of performances in some of New York City’s music saloons. At first the “missing” drummer caused some discomfort, but it was soon discovered that the listeners didn’t miss him at all! As a matter of fact, the response was so very encouraging that the duets began to relax: gaining momentum without sounding hurried. Contrasts became a permanent part of the interplay, and in a city where music is so plentiful, we were attracting the attention of musicians and music lovers alike. So, after about a year or so of these special bookings (both Ron and me lead our own group), Timeless decided to preserve the sound as you hear it in this recording. So, this music, after being experienced by a mixture of connoisseurs, heavy listeners, indifferent thrill seekers, hungry diners, etc. holds its own well here on the duo’s first album.
CW: But I have a feeling this might’ve been done in the studio.
EI: It was. It’s a nice sounding record. It’s a good piano sound, and Ron’s bass sounds wonderful.
CW: That’s Ron. Ron’s alive.
EI: Tell me about Ron Carter.
CW: Great bassist. Loves to accompany. He had great aspirations. I think he’s finally achieved good status as a soloist, but his forte was accompaniment, in my opinion.
EI: Well, a couple nights of seeing you and Ron and Billy Higgins – that was a highlight for me.
CW: Oh, you saw us?
EI: Sweet Basil when I first came to New York. It was Valentine’s Day, 1992.
This is a real old blues – “Frankie and Johnny.” Why play this type of tune?
CW: Wow, that’s a good question, man, but just – it’s a good tune.
EI: Here you got your little hip arrangement shit in here.
CW: Well, I had to do something with it. It sort of explains itself in a way. Just to play the song without these little things in it would be…I don’t want to say meaningless, but uh, yeah.
EI: Well, what about the blues. You have anything to say about the blues?
CW: [Laughs] Yeah, the blues is one of the most important set of changes. W.C. Handy, I guess he originated that twelve bar sequence. And it’s lasted through the years.
EI: Even on the “I’ll Remember April” solo we just listened to, there’s a few moments when you play the blues in a non-blues context. You play all the advanced jazz language and then you’ll play a blues moment.
CW: Well, that’s analytical. It’s something that I attribute to my love of the blues, I guess. I don’t how else to answer it.
EI: I’m sorry to be…
CW: No, you don’t have to apologize. I’m apologizing for not having an intelligent answer.
EI: The way you’re talking about it is more intelligent than the way I’m talking about it! But this is my chance to ask these questions of you, and I don’t mind looking green.
CW: I don’t have really a repeatable answer except that it was in the moment. Not being totally aware of what’s coming, just striving to stay in the right place.
EI: “Frankie and Johnny”: this is beautiful because it’s a very old tune with modern elements and a strong beat. The package is very convincing.
CW: That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.
EI: The last two things I’ve got here are your own pieces. You’re considered one of the significant jazz composers. Did you start writing at a young age?
CW: Yeah, when I look back, I wasn’t writing, but I was trying to. My mother used to call out, “Are you making up pieces again?” She was a pianist. She couldn’t play a note without music, but she could play with the sheet music and sing along with the lyrics. That was very helpful to me to see someone to do that.
EI: I suppose you learned a lot of standards from sheet music, right?
CW: Yeah, sure, I’d grab up everything possible.
EI: Because there weren’t fake books yet, were there?
CW: No, but they had simplified versions of pieces by people like George Shearing. I’d get those books…
EI: Oh, I’ve seen those: Interpretations by George Shearing. Those are very helpful.
CW: Oh yeah, especially when they’re simplified. They’re not advanced. You can handle them at an early age. I ended up recording one from the period of me trying to learn something from George, “That Old Feeling” – that’s with Art Blakey on Three Blind Mice.
I always tried to compose – just something I would try to do. They had some of the strangest titles, you know, “Trash Can.” They weren’t that memorable, but I was trying. I was just determined to come up with something original. I just never stopped trying. By the time I got to the Messengers – when I was just leaving the Jazztet with Art Farmer and Benny Golson – I composed a piece named “Mosaic.” In just a few minutes it came to me. I was having a beer up on Central Park West at Max Roach’s apartment and this thing came to me. And I said, “Wow, there’s a whole piece here.” I recorded it with Clifford Jordan on Riverside first, and then tried to record it with Art Farmer and Benny Golson. It must’ve taken about 30 takes – they didn’t like it. We kept trying it over and over and over and we just discarded it. So I came in fresh to the Messengers with that and they ate it as if it was Rice Krispies – Wayne, Freddie and Curtis. And the first thing we did for Blue Note was named Mosaic. So all of a sudden I’m riding around New York City at night listening to the jazz station and they said, “That was ‘Mosaic’ composed by ‘Cee-dar’ Walton.” The DJ pronounced my name like “radar” – “Cee-dar Walton.” So I felt very good. That was sort of a turning point.
EI: Blakey was lucky to have two major composers there for a minute – you and Wayne.
CW: Yeah, Freddie wasn’t a bum either.
EI: Right, he wrote some great stuff, too.
CW: I was lucky: Blakey insisted on us writing. He loved for us to write. When we would get enough, we would go into the studio and record it.
EI: Stanley Crouch told me about being in L.A. when you guys came through and just turned the town out.
CW: We had a lot of fun in L.A. during that time. That’s when we actually recorded Three Blind Mice. It was on Sunset Boulevard, as I recall – a place that’s not there anymore. A couple of lots over was the Playboy Club. On intermission, I went over there and peeked in. Nancy Wilson was very young then, too, and she was appearing there. Those are good memories.
“Iron Clad” with Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. 1983.
CW: [Laughing] This must be the one with Ron and Jack. I haven’t heard this in a long time.
EI: I love how you’re digging into the time with your right hand. It’s madness in the rhythm section and you’re just laying it in there.
CW: Well, I did the write the piece. I knew it a little better than them.
EI: I think they sound great, too. But it’s very aggressive, very busy.
CW: Oh yeah, with those two guys – they’re fearless. I’d forgotten about this version.
EI: This is a rare example of you being captured on record with this different sound. It’s a certain direction the music went in the 70’s and 80’s. Higgins never went that way, but Tony Williams and DeJohnette went in that direction: bigger drum kits, all that stuff. You sound pretty comfortable playing with it, I must say.
CW: We met Jack before he left Chicago.
EI: There’s some early gig you had with Reggie Workman and Jack, right?
CW: Backing Abbey Lincoln. As soon as he came to town, it just so happened the drummer was leaving so he walked right into it. It wasn’t like I didn’t know Jack.
[Listening] That was rather a short solo outing, Mr. Carter.
EI: The time got turned around there for a minute between Ron and Jack. I think that’s why Ron wanted to take it out!
I love the dark sonorities – a minor chord with a ninth on top.
CW: We use this piece now, especially at the end of a set. If we need, say, 12 minutes to end the set, we can decide to go the bridge on a nod, and toy around until then.
EI: That’s an Ahmad tradition, too, where you can decide where the sections happen.
Yeah, I’d forgotten about that. That was very nice. I was no stranger to Jack’s style. We used to have so much fun. I would encourage him to end the piece very haphazardly. An awkward drum roll, it didn’t have to be “da-doom.” We’d have a lot of fun laughing about stuff like that. We were in Harlem. We would slip out almost every night and see Grady Tate looking at this mysterious new drummer.
EI: Grady Tate was there watching Jack, you mean?
CW: Yeah, he would pass through from some gig he had. He was on Broadway a lot. I just remember seeing him – among others – but especially him. We used to have a lot of fun on that gig. Then we got back together on this date. I can’t think of the name of that record, but I can see the picture. I hate my hair in that picture.
EI: It’s simply called Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette.
CW: I’m not sure they made it into a CD.
EI: Somewhere it is, but it’s a deep track, for sure. Not everyone knows this record.
CW: Right, I bet not. There’s one of Jack’s pieces on there, as I recall. It changed meters a lot and I had trouble: 5/4, 7/4. Being a victim of Thelonious’s decree “Play your own shit,” I didn’t train myself as I should have to change meters – you know, first seven, then back to four. A lot of people did. I’m lucky to have raised myself over into my own path.
EI: This last piece is pretty recent, from your last solo record. I want to talk about the harmony of this because I feel like it’s very much your sound, very much your shit.
“Underground Memoirs.” 2005.
CW: This reminds me of a dirge, funeral music. And then it attempts to get happy, but the song won’t let it get happy. “No, no – stay sad!”
EI: I like the way it’s played here. I’ve heard you play it with a band, sort of up-tempo.
CW: Yeah, we changed it, tried to make it into a semi-bossa.
EI: I like the dirge better.
CW: I don’t mind the dirge either, especially solo. I’m glad you played this. You’re playing something that I’m rather proud of in the sense that I don’t know where it came from, except out of my brain. It’s pretty original, it doesn’t remind me of anything else. You know what these chords are?
EI: Yeah, it’s a C triad over D-flat. What do you call those yourself?
CW: I don’t have a name for them – just what you called them.
EI: I think you’re one of the people who put those in the music.
CW: You think so? I can’t believe that.
EI: In the sixties? You were playing some of that stuff with Blakey and Wayne, and on that Joe Henderson record Mode for Joe.
CW: Very possible. You have a good sense of the body of my work, a better sense than I do.
EI: One thing about the way you play these polychords: they’re very specific. When Herbie Hancock plays these chords they are usually a gateway for further abstraction or elaboration of the harmony. But you play these chords as “This is what it is” – like pillars. Not on the way to someplace else.
CW: That’s how you see my approach? That’s how you evaluate my approach?
EI: Oh – well…I hope it doesn’t bother you.
CW: No, that sounds pretty accurate.
EI: It’s also Monkish, too.
CW: Very good. “Play your own shit.” As I’m listening to it, I’m reminded there’s two sides to this story: one’s plain, the other’s futuristic – or as futuristic as I can get – compared to the bridge. Wow, what a nice sounding piano.
EI: You are a New York jazz institution. I’ve been seeing you play since I came to town in ’91, almost every year.
CW: Since ’91? Wow. That’s when you came to town? That’s going on, what, 20 years?
EI: Pretty soon. To have seen you and Higgins together at least a half-dozen times: I really hold that in my heart as one of the real blessings. That was such a special scene.
CW: Yeah, it was.
EI: What was he like as a person?
CW: Oh, man, a sweetheart. Just totally…all music. If we rented a car and John Coltrane come on the radio, we would both say, “There’s the chief.” We had that kind of camaraderie and a shared love for a lot of things, especially those groups. Oh, man.
EI: There’s a certain lift to Higgins’s beat.
CW: Yeah, it fits right in. Doesn’t matter to him much who’s on bass or how the bass interprets the beat. He can adjust immediately. There’s no warming up. On the first beat he’s with it, which sets him apart from a lot of drummers. For most, after a while, you hear them and say, “Ah, he’s got it now.” Not Higgins – Higgins was immediate. I always was blown away by that quality of his contribution.
EI: Swinging from the first note.
CW: Yeah, the first note. That just expresses his special feeling about music. He’s pure jazz. He came here with Ornette Coleman. He played for weeks at the Five Spot. I used go down there and never thought once of trying to sit in, even though there was a piano sitting right there.
EI: Did you like that music?
CW: Yeah, it was amazing what they were doing. They had learned it by rote more or less, compared to any other process. He might’ve written something out that only he and them… I don’t want to be quoted as having an opinion about how Ornette processes music. But mostly they had it in their heads.
EI: I know that he and Don Cherry practiced a lot together getting the heads just right. They could start – no count-off. Bam.
CW: So that was innovative. I enjoyed it very much.
EI: Did you ever play with Charlie Haden?
CW: A little bit. Once he invited me and Higgins up to Vancouver – when I was living in California – for a festival. That’s about the only time. I was spoiled by Sam Jones and Ron and Ray and people like that. Mr. Haden had his own world and I had mine on another avenue. So be it. But thank God there’s a lot of good bass players, most of them based here, I’m afraid. George Mraz comes to mind. Great people. I’m lucky.
EI: You played with Dexter Gordon some?
CW: Yeah, especially after that movie.
EI: There’s that record from the 70’s that I like: Gotham City with Percy Heath and Art Blakey.
CW: Oh yeah. And there’s one with Freddie Hubbard and Buster and Higgins, Generations, from when Dexter was still living in Europe.
EI: It’s great to hear you and Buster together. Last year I saw you two play “All the Things You Are” in a way that was just so smoking.
CW: Is it on record?
EI: No, I heard it live at the Iridium. You were improvising some melodies I hadn’t heard you play before. And the way Buster was playing behind you – it was a really exciting moment.
CW: Oh yeah? You can read in between the lines, obviously, which is a good trait.
EI: Since Higgins is gone I’ve seen Kenny Washington and Lewis Nash and Joe Farnsworth and now Willie Jones all play with you.
CW: Willie is amazing. There’s another guy, if I go out West – he’s in Chicago – George Fludas. You wouldn’t know him; he’s a Chicago resident. We’re going to Kalamazoo in May. I’m gonna use him, because he’s another one who just knows all my stuff. I don’t know where he got it from. It’s just amazing. I find one of those guys, you don’t even have to rehearse.
EI: So you don’t tell these guys too much about the way they should play?
CW: They already know. I’m 76; if I was 40, I would probably tell them, or even if I was 50. But now I’m at a place where, believe it or not, they know it all. Those are the kind of guys I seek out and if I find one of them available, I’ll grab him. And of course I’ll take David Williams.
EI: Your relationship with David now goes back many years. I meant to play something with David. The record I really love is Manhattan Afternoon.
CW: Yeah, right, I remember that. That was with Higgins. David has taken a few lessons from Ron and he’s got that beat you can’t help but like.
EI: You guys now play together in a very special way.
CW: I can sense that, too. He’s improved; he’s developed. At first his soloing was in need of improvement and it has improved over the years.
EI: When I’ve seen you with some of the guys who have followed Higgins, I felt like you and David really had the scene, and the drummer was coloring it.
CW: I totally agree. That’s always a plus: two who are there and one guy who needs to be just gifted. Two people who know and another guy who can know in a minute. It’s an advantageous position. And I’m glad you noticed me because not necessarily everyone notices.
EI: I’m not surprised that the drummers know what to do, since you and Higgins are a known quality. You told me this story once about somebody calling “Bolivia” on a gig with Billy Higgins and asking Billy if he knew it.
CW: Yeah, Eric Reed.
EI: He must’ve been joking when he said it.
CW: I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Higgins told me.
EI: Was Higgins a little offended by that?
CW: No, you couldn’t offend Higgins. He thought it was very amusing. He said, “Guess what that son of a bitch asked me?” Eric Reed is a great pianist. He did a whole week of my music once at the Coca Cola. I went down there; it was just great…
EI: Well sure, Eric Reed is a great pianist. I think he was goofing on Higgins because there’s no way he would not know.
CW: Well, if you weren’t there, you can think what you want to; you have that privilege.
EI: Well, you said something there.
CW: I wouldn’t dare comment. But he and Eric did such a good job on my songs. He did a good job on all of them, but he completely changed the character of one of mine named “Groundwork.” He turned it into a waltz. It was great.
EI: I’ll tell you my “Bolivia” story. You won’t remember this.
One time at the Vanguard, at least eight years ago, I was playing with the tenor player Mark Turner. I don’t think you heard the band, but you came to hang a little bit. You were there at the bar with friends. It was getting to be on the late side, but some very reputable bass players were still there.
CW: Oh, was the gig over?
EI: The gig was over.
CW: And I arrived at that time?
EI: Yeah, you arrived post-gig. Anyway, I had a taste and said to these bass players, “Man, who’s going to go up and play ‘Bolivia’ for Cedar with me?” They said, “No way.” They’re not going to embarrass themselves. And I said, “Man, you think Cedar hasn’t heard 1,000 mediocre versions of ‘Bolivia’? He won’t give a shit if we go up there and play ‘Bolivia’ badly, he’ll just enjoy the tribute. ” They didn’t believe me, so they split, they just faded.
So I had to up there by myself and play “Bolivia” solo! I was proved correct: You were very nice and then we hung for a minute. In fact, you showed me your changes on “Ojos De Rojo” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and then drove me home at about five in the morning. That was a real highlight for me.
And this interview was another one. Thanks for your time, maestro.
For Cedar Walton:
4) Cedar’s Blues (essay)