The fact is, each era in the history of jazz has a canon of great pianists, and Cedar Walton was one of a stellar cluster in the hard bop era. He’s in good company with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Bobby Timmins, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, and Kenny Barron.
Cedar Walton had a rolling rhythmic feel and an elegant harmonic palette. He had a natural ease moving back and forth between the hard bop swing blues sound and the Latin sound that was emerging in that time. He had a way of caressing a ballad—something about his touch exuded a sense of warmth and light. I was fortunate to play with him once here in Winnipeg and I ceased to be aware of challenges or effort. He transcended the piano and let us all hear Music.
His biggest impact is his large book of jazz standards. He was an incredibly gifted composer, and across the board, people are playing his work. The most familiar tune is “Bolivia,” then “Firm Roots,” “Cedar’s Blues,” and “Ugetsu.” I’m still thinking of “Dear Ruth,” the beautiful jewel we discovered when he was visiting here—I think that was a recent composition.
Cedar Walton was born in Dallas, Texas in 1934. He studied music composition and education at the University of Denver until after-hours sessions with musicians like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker fired up his desire to head to New York. After a stint in the army, he was welcomed into the jazz scene. He played in the Jazztet led by Art Farmer and Benny Golson for three years, and spent another three as the pianist-arranger with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He was Abbey Lincoln’s accompanist for a year, and spent a couple of years recording with Lee Morgan.
Over his career he has played with everybody imaginable, and led countless recording sessions as a leader. In 2010, he was inducted as a member of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, a well-deserved honour. He was still active as a composer and performer when he died on August 18, 2013 at the age of 79.
Cedar Walton’s death leaves us all a little poorer. He was a consummate musician, one of the last to come up the old way, learning on the streets without the benefits of the academic training and a glut of audio information. He began as an apprentice and he grew into a master, and you could hear it in both his playing and his writing—he had such intimacy, delicacy, wit, and imagination.
Thanks for the music, Cedar.