Wallace Roney, a star trumpeter—and the only trumpeter ever to study personally with Miles Davis—who built a 40-plus-year career chasing the cutting edge of jazz, died on the morning of March 31 at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey. He was 59.
His death was confirmed by his publicist, Lydia Liebman, who said that the cause of death was complications from COVID-19.
“I can’t believe this man is gone,” said fellow jazz trumpeter and composer Jeremy Pelt on Instagram. “He meant so much to me and his very real presence in the music kept people honest.”
Already an accomplished and recognized musician during his youth in Washington, D.C., Roney broke through to the wider world at the tail end of the 1980s’ “Young Lions” era as a sideman for two drummers: Art Blakey and Tony Williams, in both of whose bands he played. He began his own solo career in 1987, and by the early 1990s was considered a major figure in jazz. His work included 22 albums under his own name as well as more than 100 recordings as a sideman.
He was often, especially at the start of his career, taken to task for a sound too close to Davis’. Roney, who neither denied nor downplayed the jazz icon’s outsized influence on him, simply dismissed such criticisms as irrelevant. “I don’t think music is to be criticized,” Roney told the website All About Jazz late last year. “I think music is to be experienced. People play what they feel, and that’s good enough.”
In the same interview, he espoused a philosophy of jazz that disdained mimicry: “Build on the masters. Learn everything they’ve done. Don’t cheat on it. But then, always come out you. Always be you, with it. You’re not sitting up there and trying to regurgitate what they did. You’re trying to use it from your point of view. And if you’re lucky, you might even be able to add to it.”
Instead, Roney’s greatest similarity to Davis was his refusal to rest on his laurels, pushing at the strictures of the music in both his compositions and improvisations (although he also had a tender, melodic way with a ballad). His music was largely in the postbop idiom, although he tried his hand at both electric fusion and 21st-century electronics, and, in the mid-1990s, stood in for the late Don Cherry in Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet.
In another nod to Davis (and Blakey), while he made space in his work for elders and peers—including his younger brother Antoine, a saxophonist—he preferred to surround himself with younger musicians who had an ear toward the music’s future. Among these was drummer Kush Abadey, who was in Roney’s band in the early 2010s. “Aside from my father, Wallace … was the most influential mentor I’ve ever had,” Abadey says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for his mentorship and consistent pursuit in striving for innovation.”
Wallace Roney III was born May 25, 1960 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Wallace Garnett Roney Jr. (he apparently did not pass down his middle name to his son), was a U.S. marshal and president of the American Federation of Government Employees. His mother, Roberta Sherman, was a homemaker. His parents divorced when their children were very young.
Roney’s maternal grandfather, Roosevelt Sherman, played trumpet and tuba. Young Wallace followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, beginning to play trumpet when he was six. He quickly proved to be an enormous talent, winning a scholarship to Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School when he was seven. By the time he was 12, he had become the youngest member of the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble and was taking lessons with legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry.
The Roney family moved to Washington, D.C. when Wallace was in high school. He enrolled in the prestigious Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, then at Howard University. He also hit the local scene, quickly gaining plaudits for his abilities in D.C. and beyond: he was DownBeat’s Best Young Musician of both 1979 and 1980. Roney met Dizzy Gillespie, and one night in summer 1975 sat in with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Blakey was impressed enough that a few years later, after Roney’s freshman year at Howard, the drummer invited him to join the band.
This stint with Blakey lasted only a few months, but it brought Roney to New York, where he began making his name. He worked with Joe Henderson and Chico Freeman, and in 1983, while at the Bottom Line club in Greenwich Village, met Davis. He became the legendary trumpeter’s friend, student, and protégé, a relationship that Roney likened to that of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. He studied with Davis from 1985 until the latter’s death in 1991.
In 1986 Roney rejoined the Jazz Messengers; simultaneously, he began playing in drummer Tony Williams’ quintet. When scheduling conflicts arose, Roney opted to continue with Williams. This resulted in the trumpeter’s 1987 debut album, Verses, on which he led four-fifths of the Williams band. He continued releasing a new album under his own name each year through 1996, although he remained a member of Williams’ band until 1992.
By that time, Roney was regarded as a major trumpeter, thanks in part to high-profile “passing of the torch” moments involving Miles Davis. In July 1991, Davis performed a concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival, during which he revisited his 1950s orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans. Roney appeared onstage to support the ailing Davis, who died less than three months later. Roney then toured throughout 1992 with the surviving members of Davis’ Second Great Quintet—Williams, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Ron Carter—as the ensemble V.S.O.P., affirming his status as Davis’ successor and as a prominent voice.
The following year, Roney formed his first band, featuring pianist Geri Allen (whom he would marry in 1995), parlaying it into a contract with a major label, Warner Brothers Records. His brother Antoine would soon become a member, and though its personnel would vary widely over the years, the band remained Roney’s primary vehicle for the rest of his life. He experimented with funk and hip-hop, recording several albums in the 2000s with turntablist Val Jeanty. He also explored the avant-garde tradition, including his work with Ornette Coleman as well as a 2018 recording with experimental Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser.
Most of his music, however, was envelope-pushing postbop featuring younger, forward-thinking players. In his last few years, these included his teenage nephew (Antoine’s son), drummer Kojo Odu Roney. The elder Roney appeared in some of Kojo’s live dates as a leader, and employed him on his final album, 2019’s Blue Dawn – Blue Nights. Roney’s son with Allen, Wallace Vernell Roney (familiarly known as Wallace Jr.), is also a trumpet player who has begun to build a reputation of his own in New York jazz circles.
Roney’s final performance appears to have been a March 5 date with his quintet at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase. A scheduled March 14 performance at Brown University was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Along with his brother, son, and nephew, Roney is survived by his fiancée, Dawn Felice Jones; his daughter, Barbara Roney, and stepdaughter, Laila Bansaiz; his grandmother, Rosezell Harris Roney; a sister, Crystal Roney; two half-sisters, April Petus and Marla Majett; and a half-brother, Michael Majett. His marriage to Geri Allen ended in divorce in 2008; she predeceased him in 2017.
“Wallace Roney was a brilliant musician, a jazz master in every way,” says Terri Lyne Carrington, who played with Roney in Herbie Hancock’s band. “He lived and breathed jazz with a dedication I’ve rarely witnessed. … I learned many things from him and his premature passing is a great loss to the jazz community.”
The family hopes to organize a celebration of Roney’s life once coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted.