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Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz by Teddy Wilson with Arie Lithgart & Humphrey van Loo

Although Teddy Wilson’s book was written between 1976 and 1978, its publication was unfortunately delayed by circumstances described in Alyn Shipton’s prefatory note. But better late than never! Short though it is (over 50 pages are devoted to discography and index), it is full of valuable information and quietly astute observation that matches the pianist’s manner and music.

There is, naturally, a good deal about his association with Benny Goodman and what he terms their “mutual respect,” partly a result of their common interest in classical music. He writes of his own successes with becoming modesty. The chapter entitled “Handful of Keys” is worth the book’s price for what it tells of other piano players, especially “the three great influences in [his] jazz life,” Art Tatum, Earl Hines and Fats Waller. Their qualities and differences have never, been so effectively explained before. His first major influence was Tatum, whom he met in Toledo, Ohio, and considers “the most amazing keyboard talent” he ever heard. Tatum’s ability, he adds, “goes beyond any consideration of him as a jazz pianist.”

When he reached Chicago, he was befriended by Earl Hines, whose work he knew from records. He describes Hines as “both a great soloist and a great rhythm player,” as “a giant of originality” and as “just about my favorite living jazz pianist.” He explains in considerable detail the significance of Hines’ unique “hand touch” in obtaining remarkable power and volume.

Wilson didn’t have the opportunity of getting to know Waller personally in the same way, but he writes enthusiastically about him, as well as about James P. Johnson, Ralph Sutton, Erroll Garner, George Shearing and others no longer fashionable. His short list of “the great individual stylists of jazz” whom “you can pick out immediately,” runs like this: “Armstrong, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Earl Hines and, of course, Jack Teagarden…” Hodges was clearly a great favorite of his, one he liked to have on his record dates whenever possible, as Howard Rye’s discography shows. Elsewhere, too, he gives his opinion that Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” was “the best jazz three-minute solo ever recorded.”

Tom Scanlan terms his lively book an “overview” of the Swing Era, which he sees as beginning with Benny Goodman’s 1935 triumphs; this despite the fact that bands like those of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Earl Hines and Don Redman previously had been playing similar music for most of the decade.

That Scanlan is concerned with what happened 50 or 60 years ago may deter young readers, but if jazz is an art form to be taken seriously, knowledge of its past and foundations are just as essential as knowledge of what contemporary hotshots are doing. In any case, the great names of swing were active long after the Big Band Era ended, Hawkins dying in 1969, Hodges in 1970, Armstrong in 1971, Ellington in 1974, Hines in 1983, Basie in 1984, Goodman in 1986, Herman in 1987, Eldridge in 1989.

Originally Published