Cedar Walton, R.I.P.
Cedar Walton died on August 19 at age 79. He was born in Dallas on January 17, 1934 and attended high school with a class that included future legends James Clay and David "Fathead" Newman. He said that records by Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker, and the experience of seeing Duke Ellington at the State Fair, gave him a sense that there was a "world out there to escape to." Pianist and Bad Plus co-founder Ethan Iverson interviewed Walton in 2010 and told him he was "the first great jazz pianist" he ever saw in person. Cedar expressed surprise and asked how old he was at the time. When Iverson replied that he was in junior high school, Walton said, "If the bug's gonna bite you, it'd be then."
I caught the Walton bug when I first heard him on Jimmy Heath's Triple Threat, and then picked up on his work with Art Blakey in the '60's. Cedar was a member of one of the most celebrated editions of the Jazz Messengers, the sextet that included Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Wayne Shorter, and Reggie Workman. I'll never forget seeing him in the 70's at Boomer's with the amazing quartet that featured Clifford Jordan, Sam Jones, and Billy Higgins, an experience that made one feel at the center of the jazz universe. The feeling was similar when I saw him years later with Higgins and David Williams backing Jackie McLean.
I last saw Walton about two years ago at the Polish National Home in Hartford with Williams and Willie Jones III, and prior to that at Iridium on the day of Norman Mailer's memorial service at Carnegie Hall. It made for a quintessential New York experience to go from a gathering celebrating Mailer's gutsy brilliance to Cedar's date with Javon Jackson, Christian McBride, and Jimmy Cobb. The pugilist in Mailer would have loved their muscular lyricism, though Walton also had a tender spot for ballads like "Skylark," which he first recorded with Blakey and performed throughout the years.
While Cedar remained a prolific recording artist and ubiquitous figure on the New York scene, I tried not to take him for granted. When Marian McPartland died at 95 a day after Walton, it gave me a benchmark for calculating how much longer it would have been good to have him around. Cedar was the kind of monitor that jazz increasingly needs, and we'll miss him all the more for that aspect of his leadership.
Walton's premier recording with the quartet he called Eastern Rebellion was made in 1975 with Higgins, Jones, and tenor saxophonist George Coleman. It's never been far from my turntables at home or work, especially for its opening title, the exhilarating Walton original, "Bolivia." Hear it here, and check out this version that Cedar made with Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, and Mickey Roker. Thank you, Cedar Anthony Walton, Jr.