Cedar Walton Dies at 79
Good taste and elegant power defined veteran pianist's style
Cedar Walton, a pianist whose good taste and straightforward elegance as an improviser complemented his considerable strengths as a small-combo arranger and melodic composer, died today at his home in Brooklyn. The death was confirmed by producer and concert presenter Todd Barkan, a longtime friend. Walton was 79. A cause of death was not disclosed.
Walton was something of an institution on the New York club scene, and his imposing CV included time with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the ’60s, when the band also included Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard, as well as alternate-take recordings of “Giant Steps” and “Naima” with John Coltrane. Among his best-loved and most enduring compositions is “Bolivia.” He was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts for 2010.
Cedar Anthony Walton Jr. was born Jan. 17, 1934 in Dallas, Tex., and was exposed to jazz at an early age via his mother, a pianist, who took him to jazz concerts. Following high school, Walton studied at the University of Denver, where he played with a jazz group that often welcomed sit-in guests such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.
After a move to New York, Walton was drafted into the Army in 1955, playing with the military band in Germany. Upon his return to New York two years later, he performed with players such as Kenny Dorham, J.J. Johnson and Gigi Gryce. The recordings with Coltrane were made in 1959 for the saxophonist’s Giant Steps album but remained unreleased until the CD era. Walton worked with Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s band Jazztet in 1960-61, then joined Blakey that same year, staying with the drummer’s group for three years. Among the compositions Walton contributed to Blakey’s repertoire were “Mosaic,” “Ugetsu” and “The Promised Land.”
Walton worked as accompanist for Abbey Lincoln in the late ’60s and also recorded with Lee Morgan during that period. He continued to serve as a sideman in the studio throughout his career, appearing on recordings by Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Eddie Harris, Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson, Art Farmer, Blue Mitchell, Pat Martino, Woody Shaw, Houston Person, Archie Shepp, Charles Lloyd and Christian McBride, among others.
Walton’s debut album as a leader, Cedar!, was released on the Prestige label in 1967 (he was also utilized as a member of the label’s house band). He remained prolific as a leader throughout the rest of his life, releasing albums on Prestige, Muse, SteepleChase, Clean Cuts, Criss Cross and other labels. He was a member of the Timeless All Stars while recording for the Timeless label in the ’80s. For the past decade he recorded for HighNote Records, the most recent release being 2011’s The Bouncer.
In 1974, Walton, along with bassist Sam Jones, drummer Billy Higgins and saxophonist Clifford Jordan, formed the group Eastern Rebellion, which released several albums into the mid-’90s with a revolving cast of members. Walton led his own bands beginning in the ’80s.