Interview with David Hazeltine

Ethan Iverson:  You probably know as much about Cedar’s playing as anyone, Mr. Hazeltine. Give us an overview of Cedar Walton.

David Hazeltine:  In the history of jazz, he was one of the greatest pianists. At the end, it was him and Barry Harris, and now we only have Barry.

Cedar was one of the distinct voices: harmonically, rhythmically, and especially melodically. To me, Cedar defines elegance. One of his big idols was Duke Ellington, who we also think of as in the “elegant world,” and Cedar was very much that way. I never heard him play anything less than perfect.

His harmony was full of surprises (and they were always his own harmonies) but they were always beautiful. Kind of like Bill Evans, who was also always beautiful. But I think Cedar had even more surprises.

“Over the Rainbow” is one of his defining pieces, I think. He played it a lot. All my students check out Cedar’s versions of “Over the Rainbow,” with all those classic movements and re-harmonizations. He’s on the heels of Art Tatum and Bud Powell, of course, but he really made it his own.

It’s hard to trace Cedar back to anybody. He’s very distinct.

EI:  The precedent I might offer is Red Garland.

DH:  H’mm. That’s interesting. He didn’t really know Red personally, although they were both from Dallas. But Cedar is much more modern than Red. Harmonically, he was much more evolved. I’m not saying better, but Cedar had all those polytonalities that Red didn’t have.

EI:  Cedar was one of the guys that really put that in the music.

DH:  I think so. You can really hear it and identify it. Bill Evans did it but his stuff is more impressionistic. Still, there’s a link there in my mind with Bill and Cedar, in the care they took with voicings.

Art Tatum was the same way. Tatum had very specific ideas. He makes it sound like that it’s off the cuff, but when you compare the live tracks to the studio versions they are almost the same. Sure, some of the ornamentation is different, but the essential harmony is the same. Tatum, Bill, Cedar: there was a lot of attention to detail.

People think, “This is jazz so we improvise everything,” but masters like Cedar thought everything through. It was pristine.

EI:  What about Cedar’s beat?

DH:  I have a tape from the first time I saw Cedar live. It was with Buster Williams and Billy Higgins. In the early 80’s I went to a (since defunct) club called The Star and Garter and snuck my recorder in my coat. You can hear Cedar’s foot through the whole recording, the whole night.

I was sitting right behind Cedar, of course. That was the first time I saw Cedar live, and I was just floored by the whole thing. The way he sat at the piano, the control he had: I was just mesmerized.

Anyway — you can hear it on the tape — he tapped with his left foot ahead of the time. And if you talk to drummers who played with him, they will confirm that Cedar played on the top part of the beat.

EI:  Really? I thought he was more laid back on the beat, except maybe when it was a fast tempo.

DH:  Well, certainly he was more swinging like that in the right hand. But how you feel it and how you place it can be different things.

Billy Higgins has an unusually wide beat. It’s teetering on “super-hip” and “corny.” Of course, it was always “super-hip.” But his eighth-note on the ride cymbal was almost even. And that cymbal beat combined with Cedar’s time is the greatest.

EI:  I’m not sure how to organize this interview, exactly, other than to ask you about some of your favorite Cedar Walton records.

DH:  It’s interesting listening to the few things that were recorded of his solo playing. My favorite was the first one, Piano Solos on Clean Cuts, recorded at Don Sickler’s studio. Terrible cover but great music. To me that is defining Cedar. Plus, that was a high point in his playing: 1981. His “Over the Rainbow” there might be his best version.

Of course he was one of the guys who maintained his artistry. Not everyone does: they peak and fall off. But Cedar always played with a high level of integrity. He was always interesting to hear, it was always exciting to hear him play.

EI:  What about his time feel when he was playing solo?

DH:  Rhythmically, it’s like listening to Art Tatum. It’s so profound: you can feel it, even though he’s not playing it. Only a handful of guys can do that. And when I’m talking about Tatum here, I don’t mean when he’s going all out stride, but when there is spaces and skips, yet you feel the time. It’s so amazing. Cedar could do that, and Buddy Montgomery.

EI:  It’s funny, some people say Art Tatum couldn’t play the blues or really swing, but I almost think his rhythm was his heaviest thing.

DH:  Oh my god! Absolutely! It’s so in the pocket, even when there are spaces. And Cedar was part of that. Cedar’s time is part of what makes him so great, and that comes through in the solo playing.

In the trio category, my two favorites are Pit Inn with Sam Jones and Billy Higgins and Firm Roots with Sam and Louis Hayes.

The live date in Japan at Pit Inn is just tremendous. Maybe the repertoire isn’t the best, but the playing is extraordinary. I think Clifford Jordan dubbed them “The Magic Triangle.”

EI:  Did you ever get to see Sam Jones live?

DH:  In 1979, during my first visit to New York. Sam was at Knickerbocker’s with Roland Hanna. But I was only focused on Sam. He was already sick, he had cancer, he was going down. Still, it was an amazing experience, I’ll never forget it.

Those guys, Cedar, Louis, everyone, they all loved him so much.

Pit Inn is Sam and Billy, and the other one, Firm Roots — well, just having Sam and Louis together is also so special. Louis is playing his ass off.

EI:  Of course I get you but I never liked the electric piano on that one. Isn’t there a lot of electric piano on that?

DH:  Yeah. It was a live gig in Rochester where they had been playing for a couple of weeks. I heard about it from from both Cedar and Louis. There only acoustic piano on “Shoulders” and “One for Amos,” where Cedar and Louis trade choruses. Amazing.

On the other tunes, Cedar insisted to me it was a Wurlitzer but I think it is a Fender Rhodes. There’s a really fast “Firm Roots” that gets even faster, because Louis Hayes plays way on top, especially on uptempos. I have some of my better students transcribe that solo. If you really want to get inside his mind, that’s a great place to look, because he can’t be thinking too hard! It’s just too fast.

Playing straight-ahead on Fender or Wurlitzer: it’s challenging. Especially the way Cedar played, so precise and organized. It could sound corny if someone else did it, but his feel is so strong.

The other really great tune on the record is “Voices Deep Within Me.” It’s really funky, not so precise, but just great.

EI:  What about a more recent trio record? Joe Farnsworth told me to check out Manhattan Afternoon, which is the group with David Williams and Billy at their height.

DH:  Oh, David is a great bassist. You interviewed him, so he told you Sam chose him to take his place? He was shocked to get that gig, and he held it so long.

EI:  Yes, he told me that and also that he really enjoyed playing with you!

DH:  The way David played with Cedar was perfect, and it’s so great for me to play with him now. He reminds me of that trio and he knows the music so well.

David’s sound is very distinct, it’s coming out of Sam Jones but he has his own thing. But his view of the role of the bass with Cedar is closer to Sam, than say, Ron Carter, who had a different thing.

On record, there’s an album called Simple Pleasure which is particularly good for David with Cedar. Ralph Moore is on it too, he’s just great as well.

Ok, so if we are adding horns, I first cite Breakthrough with Hank Mobley. His comping and solos on that are just extraordinary. And that arrangement of “Love Story”: it’s so great! So simple yet profound.

EI:  Of course that is Sam and Billy there, too.

DH:  That’s the cherry on top.

There’s a Dexter Gordon record, Generations, with Freddie Hubbard, Cedar, Buster, and Billy. That’s also classic Rudy Van Gelder piano sound, the piano sounds so great.

Of course, these guys were doing something. They had a bottle or something in the studio. There’s a few times when Cedar starts to solo and Freddie comes in instead or something. But everyone is playing at such a high level.

I love Dexter Gordon, he’s part of the history of the music. But this record, the way the group sounds as a group: that really is on another level for me. It’s not just another great Dexter Gordon record.

Another couple of records as a sideman come to mind: Hubert Laws on CTI with Milt Jackson, Ron Carter, and Steve Gadd. Goodbye. It’s weird personnel but Cedar sounds amazing on it, playing all electric piano. Cedar is one side and Herbie is on the other. I love Herbie, but Cedar wins the award.

Then there’s an obscure Milt Jackson record on Pablo, Milt’s Bag. There’s a soprano sax player on it, nobody knows who that is, they aren’t listed!

EI:  It’s not Jimmy Heath?

DH:  That was my guess, but I asked Jimmy and he said no. Anyway, it’s not that great a record, but again is Cedar is playing electric piano in such a pleasing way, making that post-bop thing really happen on that instrument.

He could work in different contexts. There’s a record with singer Stephanie Haynes doing all Jimmy Van Heusen, made in LA when Cedar was living there for a moment, close to Higgins. It’s obvious that Cedar arranged all the tunes, and some of the tunes are more obscure. Cedar told me he didn’t like it, but it’s a real lesson in how to play for a singer, how to arrange the music, everything.

He also did a record with orchestrations for Etta James.

EI:  He mentioned that one to me, he was proud of that one.

DH:  Yeah, it’s great. I’m sure he could have done a lot more arranging for large ensembles if had wanted to.

He always sounded like Cedar, in any situation, going back to the earliest dates to the last. For me, Cedar really started his arranging thing with the trio feature “That Old Feeling” on Art Blakey’s Three Blind Mice. Total Cedar.

His style was very adaptable, though. It’s hard to put it in a time zone. Barry Harris, as great as he is — he’s one of my favorites — is in a certain time zone. It’s got to be in a certain way and with certain people. Cedar can play with almost anybody.

I’m still using present tense, talking as if he’s alive. Well, he is still here in a way, that’s the beautiful thing.

EI:  One person I wanted to ask about from the early years was Eddie Harris, and those records with Ron and Higgins.

DH:  God, those records are great! I’m such an Eddie Harris fan. The uptempo saxophone playing on there is out! Great out, I mean. Eddie Harris and Cedar were roommates in the early ‘60s or late ‘50s…maybe even they were in the army together.

I played with Eddie a little bit. Eddie told me some stories about Cedar I can’t repeat here.

For some of the most burning Cedar, try Live at Boomer’s with Clifford Jordan. The arrangement of “This Guy’s In Love With You” is fantastic, with an incredible solo, too. That group plays so freely, taking risks, no second takes, live…

EI:  And that piano on there is terrible!

DH:  I know! It’s awful! That Boomer’s piano is particularly funky, even by jazz standards.

I remember Buddy Montgomery had a gig in Milwaukee, five nights a week, and often the piano was really out of tune. I asked him how he played on it, and he said, “I’m not really listening to it.” And he was playing so beautifully!

EI:  I love Cedar and Clifford together. There’s a lot of records, fortunately. What about Cedar and his horn players?

DH:  H’mm. Clifford, George Coleman. Bob Berg, Ralph Moore, Vincent Herring…others. I’m not sure. There’s an evolution there, but I’m not sure how to describe it. I don’t know for sure, but I think Cedar was always looking for a distinct voice, strong, and could carry the music.

But when I think of Clifford Jordan he doesn’t really match up with those other guys like George, Bob Berg, and Vince. He seems like a different kind of saxophone player.

Cedar always wanted someone strong to comp behind.

EI:  He was a real active comper.

DH:  So much! A lot of people don’t appreciate that.

EI:  I was transcribing his comping…I couldn’t believe how much shit he was playing!

DH:  It’s unbelievable how busy he is sometimes. Like on the blues on Breakthrough — all these little movements and lots of diminished stuff. But busy in an good way.

EI:  Well, it certainly helps the swing.

DH:  Exactly. It sounds great. But I’ve heard a lot of guys say, “Cedar doesn’t know how to comp.”

EI:  What!?

DH:  Oh yeah.

EI:  I thought he was held to be one of the great compers.

DH:  I certainly think so. But some guys thought it was too much, I guess.

A great match for him was George Coleman. The first Eastern Rebellion! That’s great quartet playing, writing and arranging.

Have we talked about his compositions yet? Several of them are jazz standards now. Eastern Rebellion has the first recording of “Bolivia.” He’s such a great composer, especially for pianists. Maybe horn players want more fast moving lines, but for pianists the way those simple melodies hook up with harmonies: they are just classic.
I know Cedar loved Horace Silver, there’s a connection there. Not stylistically, but in a very general sense: as a writer, bandleader, and distinctive player.

EI:  Cedar calls Horace “Horatio.” You’ve written some tunes for Cedar, right?

DH:  “For Pooh” is because Curtis Fuller called Cedar “Cedee-Pooh,” like “Winnie-the-Pooh,” because his harmonies were so snuggly and warm.

“Lord Walton” is because Cedar would do that British accent and do a gentle put on, call people “Your Lordship” and so forth. “Lord Hazeltine.”

I recently heard a tape of Charlie Parker giving lessons. The way he talks reminds me of the way Cedar Walton talks. Very dignified.

They could do a put-on real easily! Like in the club, Cedar would get lit up and do his solemn British accent when introducing a tune.

Cedar had a lot of classic harmonic tricks. There’s almost always a big flat nine on dominant chord, like on the fourth bar of the moving melody of “Bolivia.” And he frequently modulated down in half-steps, like on “Clockwise.”

I always think of Cedar when I write, even if it means I ask myself, “What wouldn’t Cedar do?”

Did you go to the wake? It was at a funeral parlor on 82nd and Madison. They said they had a piano, but when Vincent Herring, David Williams, Willie Jones and I got there there was just an old Yamaha synthesizer. We could barely get it to work, and we could never get it to play in the right octave. It was set to be two or three octaves lower than it should. So I had to play only in the top octave or two.

It was open casket, so Cedar was right there, and his family was all right in the front row. Vincent and I were crying already, and then we had to to get the keyboard to work. The only thing that got me through it was that I knew Cedar was up there laughing at us: “You stupid motherfuckers. Try to play my tunes on that thing!”

EI:  That story is some real blues. Actually, to be a real white academic for a moment, let me ask you about Cedar Walton and the blues.

DH:  Cedar is absolutely a great blues pianist. You can hear the church in his playing. But is so elegant. It’s like the blues with a expensive cushion under it. But it’s right in there, really the blues. Like if you asked God, this is what he’d want to blues to be like: heavenly.

It’s more elegant than earthy, but it’s definitely there.

EI:  I know Cedar loved Oscar Peterson. Oscar has this kind of technical clarity when playing the blues that I think was inspiring to both Cedar and Herbie Hancock. It’s grits ‘n gravy but impeccable pianistically at the same time.

DH:  I remember hooking up Oscar and Cedar in my mind early on. Very different pianists but some things in common. Cedar’s relatively restrained compared to Oscar.

EI:  Cedar really played with the bass and drums, which was less Oscar’s thing.

DH:  It was Oscar’s show, always.

I was lucky in my exposure to Cedar. But he seldom shared much about the details of the music. I tried to get him to do an online lesson thing, where I asked him questions and he answered at the piano. The money was good, especially since we were asking only for an hour of his time, but he didn’t want to do it. I even offered that he could pick the questions, and he still let it go.

I wish I had made him do it.

EI:  When I interviewed him, I think he had an okay time. But then, at the end when I turned off the tape recorder, he started telling me all this great stuff about what he practiced as a kid. I said, “Oh, Cedar, please let me turn on the tape and please say that again.”

And he looked absolutely crushed. But he was a nice guy, and I was a tyrant, and when I turned on the tape he mumbled a bit about hours of all the scales in both hands, Bach, and “Rhapsody In Blue.”

DH:  If you watch the videos, his technique is impeccable.

EI:  I got it on tape, or a little bit of it anyway, but I think he was bummed at saying it for the record or putting in an academic setting.

DH:  I wonder what that is. I know Buddy Mongomery was that way, but it was a little different because he wouldn’t tell me anything on or off the record.

EI:  Well, this much I can say: if you would argue that jazz is America’s classical music, then you can rest your case with Cedar Walton.

DH:  Definitely. Definitely. Definitely!

For Cedar Walton:

1) Interview with Cedar Walton (2010)

2) Interview with David Williams

3) Interview with David Hazeltine

4) Cedar’s Blues (essay)