Saturday, November 10, 2012

Teddy Wilson: Elegant, Refined and Swinging


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


In her essay, Beauty By The Numbers [Smithsonian Magazine, November 2012], Dana MacKenzie argues that the essential requirements for mathematical beauty are simplicity, surprise and depth “ … in the sense that the best theorems contain many layers of meaning and reveal more as you learn about them.” [paraphrase]

Perhaps, the same can be said about the aesthetic beauty of the Jazz piano stylings of Teddy Wilson – he executes them in a simple, straightforward manner, he often astonishes by going to new places in his solos and the more you listen to him the more he reveals about the essence of a song’s structure [i.e.: it’s “theorem,’ if you will].

Teddy Wilson was – noticeably – the first Jazz pianist I ever heard.

I say “noticeably” because the big band recordings that gave me my first taste of Jazz had the occasional piano introduction by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or Stan Kenton, but the piano in most Swing-era big band Jazz largely functioned as a part of the rhythm section.

Of course, there were some notable exceptions such as Jess Stacey’s extended solo from the Benny Goodman Band’s performance of Sing, Sing, Sing on the famous 1938 Carnegie Hall recording, but, for the most part, the piano player in these bands thumped out four-beats-to-the-bar along with the other members of “the engine house” that powered Swing music.

Listening to recordings of the trio and later the quartet performances that clarinetist Benny Goodman featured as “the-band-within-a-band” from around 1935-1938,  gave me my extended exposure to what author Len Lyons in his book The Great Jazz Pianists has termed “an instrument that has been central to the evolution of Jazz.”

Teddy Wilson was the pianist in Benny first trio and quartet and I was so taken with his approach to Jazz piano that I memorized his solos on Nice Work If You Can Get It, China Boy, Sweet Lelani, Moonglow, and Nagasaki.

Teddy is rarely discussed today with pianists such as Herbie Hancock. Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner and Brad Melhdau being more in vogue, but when he first came to prominence in the mid-1930s, Teddy was quite an innovator having developed his own style from influences derived from Earl “Fatha” Hines, Art Tatum and Thomas “Fats” Waller.

Teddy is often referenced by “modernists” such as Bud Powell, George Shearing, Nat King Cole and Bill Evans as someone who had a great influence on their playing and they in turn influenced those Jazz pianists who predominate today.

I love listening to all Jazz pianists because as a friend was fond of saying: “When you sit down at a piano, the entire range of music theory and harmony is in front of you in black and white,”

Or, to put it another way: “The piano is the most versatile and autonomous of all the musical instruments. No more perfect tool (…) for expressing music has ever been developed.” [Len Lyons, Ibid].

Fortunately, there has been much written about Teddy that analyzes and discusses his piano style including Loren Schoenberg’s essay for The Complete Verve Recordings of the Teddy Wilson Trio [Mosaic Records MD5-173, Gunther Schuller’s chapter on Teddy in the Swing Era [pp.502-12], an annotated description of his recordings in Richard Cook and Brian Moron, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed., and a marvelous interview that Len Lyons conducted with Teddy which is included in Len’s The Great Jazz Pianists [pp.60-74].

One of my favorite expositions about Teddy is by Dick Katz, the late Jazz pianist and educator, which he prepared as the liner notes to a recording that Columbia Records issued in 1977 entitled Teddy Wilson: Statements and Improvisations, 1934-42.

This double LP was produced in conjunction with The Smithsonian Institute when its Jazz Program was under the direction of the esteemed, Martin Williams.

Thanks to a Canadian internet friend, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles was able to obtain a copy of Dick’s excellent liner notes to Teddy Wilson: Statements and Improvisations, 1934-42 which are particular valuable because of his pellucid comments about Teddy Wilson’s significance in Jazz history and the salient characteristics of his Jazz piano style.

© -Dick Katz/The Smithsonian Institute, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Anyone who has involved him­self with that beguiling, consuming presence called "jazz piano," either as player or listener, probably has his own list of innovators and es­sential contributors. But it seems to me that Teddy Wilson should be .included on anyone's list as one of the most significant artists.

As a jazz pianist myself, and one who was fortunate enough to have been Teddy Wilson's pupil, my re­marks on his work are necessarily somewhat subjective. In any case, it will be best first to establish some historical reference points in order to gain some perspective on his sizable contribution.

We will not deal with the body of ragtime music developed by Scott Joplin, James Scott, Joseph Lamb, and others, but begin with the great keyboard improvisers (rag­time was not an improvisational music). My list goes like this: James P. Johnson; Willie "The Lion" Smith; Fats Waller; Earl Hines; Art Tatum; Teddy Wilson; Count Basic; Duke Ellington; Nat "King" Cole; Erroll Garner; Thelonious Monk; Bud Powell; Bill Evans; McCoy Tyner.

Each of these men added new dimensions and they are the names I hear discussed most among other pianists as key influences.

Of course, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett are names mentioned today, but at this writing it is perhaps too early to assess their impact on the future. Oscar Peterson is also a favorite topic but the jury is still out on whether the content of his playing matches his technical prowess. And there are many other pianists, of course—Hank Jones, Al Haig, Horace Silver—who perform with excellence and have exerted a considerable influence.

Reducing this list to those whose innovations have proven essential, and to those, each of whom have created a whole "school" of play­ing, we get:
James P. Johnson, "the father of stride piano." Earl Hines, the father of horn-like piano concepts and the first true rhythmic virtuoso. Teddy Wilson, the father of elegant, subtly swinging, lyrical playing. Art Tatum, every pianist's father and mother, inasmuch as he covered it all. Count Basie, the father of modern "comping," who also showed us the importance of know­ing what not to play and how to use silence effectively, as did Thelonious Monk later. Bud Powell, the father of "bop" piano and pioneer of the long, across-the-bar-line, single-note melodic line on the piano. Bill Evans, who enriched the standard song with fresh har­monies and voicings and who helped add a new suppleness to the rhythmic line. McCoy Tyner, who seems at this date important be­cause he applied the modal con­cepts of John Coltrane to the piano successfully —i.e., a running, "sheets of sound" right-hand against an insistent, stabbing left-hand accompaniment, using chords often voiced in fourths.


The records in this collection offer examples of Teddy Wilson's work between 1934 and 1942. By 1934, Art Tatum had thoroughly shaken up every musician within earshot, including many outside jazz. Teddy, too, was forever smit­ten by Tatum's genius. Earl Hines, who was then probably the most famous jazz pianist, led a scintil­lating big band and was exerting his monumental influence on most pianists, including the young Teddy Wilson. Count Basie was still plain Bill Basie, and had not yet burst onto the national scene with his innovative rhythm section. Boogie woogie piano was all but unknown except to black patrons in rural and big city gin mills and rent parties and to a few white record collectors. Many were still under the spell of Fats Waller and the stride piano masters. Cecil Taylor was one year old. Herbie Hancock wasn't yet born.

Except for Duke Ellington's work (which, to use a phrase he never applied to himself, was always "beyond category"), piano accom­paniment in the jazz ensemble, large and small, usually took the form of rather relentless, stiff (to today's ears) left-hand-right-hand-left-hand-right-hand "oom-pah" thumping, regardless of tempo. This often resulted in an intense kind of rolling swing—but it be­came a rhythmic box, and was quite limiting to many horn players who were beginning to want a looser, more sensitive background for their improvisations.

String bass technique was (ex­cept for a small few players) far behind that of the other instru­ments in jazz and the bass had mainly a percussive, timekeeping function. It is interesting to con­template what direction the music might have taken if bassist Jimmy Blanton had arrived five or ten years earlier than 1939. For ex­amples of pre-Blanton rhythm sec­tions, listen to early records by the Fletcher Henderson orchestra or by Fats Waller's ebullient little band.

In such a milieu Teddy Wilson shaped a more sophisticated way both to accompany and to solo in the jazz ensemble.

Born in Austin, Texas, Wilson was raised from the age of six in Tuskegee, Alabama, where his father was head of the English De­partment at Tuskegee Institute and his mother, chief librarian. He dutifully studied both violin and piano and went on to major in music theory at Talladega College, also in Alabama. Early exposure to classic jazz recordings like Louis Armstrong's West End Blues, Fats Waller's Handful of Keys, and the Bix Beiderbecke-Frankie Trumbauer records had a great impact on him. After moving to Detroit in 1929 and hearing the touring bands there, he made his commitment to be a full-time jazz musician. Early experience with Milton Senior's band took him to Toledo, where he met and came under the awesome spell of Art Tatum about 1930. From 1931 to 1933 he worked in Chicago with several well-(continued inside) known bands, including Louis Armstrong's.

One night in 1933, John Ham­mond, that irrepressible jazz super-fan who became the music's first and most active patron and bene­factor, heard Wilson on a radio broadcast with Clarence Moore's band from the Grand Terrace in Chicago. Hammond knew that alto saxophonist and composer-arranger Benny Carter needed a pianist.

He secured Teddy the gig and facili­tated Wilson's subsequent move to New York. Hammond also super­vised an important recording ses­sion with the "Chocolate Dandies" (imagine an all-black jazz group with that name today!) that fea­tured both Carter and Wilson.

Once Teddy was in New York and was widely heard, opportuni­ties to play and record became plentiful. He made records with Red Norvo's group and records ac­companying singer Mildred Bailey, and these did much to attract a wider, well-deserved attention.

It was also Hammond who ar­ranged for Teddy to lead the all-star recording groups that featured Billie Holiday. By now it is almost superfluous to point out how mar­velous and timeless these records are. They used the very best players available, including Lester Young, Ben Webster, Jo Jones, Buck Clay­ton, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges, Benny Goodman, and others. And on them, Wilson achieved a re­corded legacy that is indispensable to anyone who is serious about jazz. Two of these collaborations are happily included in this album— These Foolish Things and More Than You Know—and notice the dates, 1936 and 1939 respectively.

For the larger public, however, the real emergence of Teddy Wilson came with the birth and the impact of the Benny Goodman Trio, and later the Quartet when vibraphonist Lionel Hampton joined. The Trio was informally conceived at a party at Mildred Bailey's apartment in June, 1935, and it seems that fate fortuitously brought together two of the most technically adroit per­formers since Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines collaborated in 1928. Prodded by Gene Krupa's "hot" brushes, Goodman and Wilson took collective improvising to a new level of clarity and precision, and attracted listeners who had previ­ously thought of jazz (quite wrong­ly, to be sure) as a crude and even primitive musical idiom.

Aside from Goodman's obvious virtuosity and keen sense of the jazz pulse, what really made the Trio unique was Wilson's vitaliz­ing and strikingly original concept of contrapuntal harmonic move­ment. He revised the conventional stride left-hand by outlining the harmonic structure of a piece with an uncannily well-placed series of both consecutive and "walking" tenths. This produced many inter­esting voice leadings and meshed beautifully with the work of the soloists. Against this smooth, flow­ing left-hand constant, his right hand in his solos spun out stunning, metrically immaculate, and ex­ceedingly lyric melodies in single-note lines or feather-light octaves. All this with a mellow, pearly touch. As Earl Hines before him had successfully adapted much of Louis Armstrong to the keyboard, so did Teddy absorb the messages of major figures like Benny Carter, Ben Webster, and Roy Eldridge.


And whereas Hines was a musical tightrope walker, Wilson purred along like a finely tuned Rolls Royce with soul, imparting to the listener a sense of security and balance. He was the first authenti­cally cool and controlled—but deeply involved—solo and en­semble pianist. He proved, as did Lester Young, that understatement can swing. But when called upon, Wilson could also generate terrific heat, as his fast, florid, and flag-waving pieces vividly demonstrate.

It is evident that Teddy's interest in "classical" piano and his diligent study and practice of keyboard techniques were an essential part of his development. Like Waller and Tatum, he helped explode the myth that, to be authentic, jazz pianists had to sound self-taught and crude. That he was able to adapt something as foreign as the "pianoforte" methods of Tobias Matthay to jazz verifies Wilson's resourcefulness and dedication to self-improvement.

Teddy, like Art Tatum, brought about a natural amalgam of Euro­pean and Afro-American musical practices. In this regard, Benny Goodman said of playing with him, "What I got out of playing with Teddy was something, in a jazz way, like what I got from playing [Mozart] with the string quartet." Certainly Wilson expressed his ideas with a delicacy and a symme­try otherwise then unheard in jazz. He was years ahead in his skill in sustaining a flowing melodic and harmonic line that perfectly com­plemented the soloist both in en­semble and solo. True, Waller and Tatum (one can't get away from those two) performed with great control and polish. But they com­pletely dominated any situation in which they might have been found, primarily because they were solo­ists who usually sounded best when they played alone.

Teddy's style immediately caught on and captivated pianists every­where. Even Tatum, his idol, incor­porated some Wilson into his own work—for example, the running tenths and some of Teddy's right-hand octave passages —and Wilson is naturally very proud of that fact. Indeed, I believe that Art Tatum's medium-tempo conception and even his approach to ballads was also affected by Teddy's graceful way with the pulse, by his flowing sense of phrase and legato touch. Tatum was a self-contained, one-man orchestra. His impact was rather like the fallout from a huge musical explosion—no one could get close to the center, but every­one was touched. Teddy's methods were more accessible, so long as your left hand could negotiate tenths easily. Thus, Wilson's in­fluence is in some ways just as far-reaching as that of Hines or Tatum.

It is my opinion that the two pianists who came closest to sound­ing like Teddy, both in content and spirit, were the late Sonny White and the Mel Powell of the middle and late 1940s. Clyde Hart was also a pianist who creatively assimilated much of Wilson, particularly the left hand, and was on his way to becoming an important and original piano voice in the burgeoning bop movement at his untimely death. And I am certain that younger pianists like Hank Jones, Al Haig, and Tommy Flanagan, among many others —and, to be quite immodest, myself—owe so very much to the Wilson magic.

The eight years represented here, from 1934 to 1942, span most of the swing era. In 1934 Teddy was un­known except to a few perceptive musicians, and by 1942 he was probably second only to Tatum as the world's most esteemed jazz pianist. Only Count Basic (basically a traditional stride player) en­chanted the public anywhere near as much, mostly because of his deceptive simplicity and ability to imply, both of which he best ex­pressed within his rhythm section of Jo Jones, Walter Page, and Fred­die Greene.

It was only a few short years until Wilson's all-pervading influ­ence finally gave way to the revo­lutionary flights of Bud Powell and the "new" music.

I am fully aware that all styles overlap to some extent, but I believe that there was a strong link between Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell in Nat "King" Cole during his years as a jazz pianist.

[And because] … Cole was a major force in their own stylistic development. He managed to distill the substance of both Hines and Wilson … [in the styles of many contemporary pianists such as Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, George Shearing and Bill Evans] ….”

Teddy Wilson’s elegant, refined and swinging style of Jazz piano can be heard in the following video tribute to him which features performing on Nagasaki with Benny Goodman on clarinet, Lionel Hampton on vibes and Gene Krupa on drums.