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The Impeccable Mr. Wilson

By Tom Scanlan

Hundreds of pianists have tried to create something new and worthwhile in jazz piano improvisation, but only a handful have succeeded. One who has is Teddy Wilson. Surely, if a responsible list of the half-dozen or so most creative and most influential pianists in jazz history were to be made, Wilson would be included. He is one of the giants of jazz piano; the number of pianists he has influenced, directly or indirectly, is beyond estimation.

It often has been said that Wilson’s distinctive and highly original manner of playing was influenced primarily by Earl Hines, but Wilson himself will disagree. “Art Tatum,” Teddy said.

In 1929, 17-year-old Teddy Wilson, son of James Wilson, head of the English department at Tuskegee Institute, left home to become a professional musician in Detroit. That year, Teddy heard 19-year-old Art Tatum in a Detroit club, sitting in. From that time on, Tatum was the jazz pianist to Teddy Wilson.

“Yes, I liked Hines and Fats Waller,” said Teddy. “But compared to Tatum, it seemed as though they were in a different field of activity.”

Wilson, a soft-spoken and extremely articulate man, continued: “Tatum was head and shoulders over all other jazz pianists and most classical pianists. He had the exceptional gift, the kind of ability that is very rare in people. He was almost like a man who could hit a home run every time at bat. He was a phenomenon. He brought an almost unbelievable degree of intense concentration to the piano, and he had a keyboard command that I have heard with no other jazz pianist and with very few classical pianists—possibly Walter Gieseking. It went much further than that, much further than being a great technician. Art was uncanny. He certainly impressed me more than any pianist I have ever heard.”

What about James P. Johnson?

“I never heard James P. in his heyday,” said Wilson, “and I’m sorry I didn’t. When I heard him, he was rough. But while listening to John Hammond’s record collection one night, I heard some piano rolls James P. made in 1922, and they were amazing. Some of his ideas in 1922 would be appropriate with many of the present Basie orchestrations.”

Speaking generally of the stride piano style, Wilson—who is not a stride pianist—said, “I don’t think it should be lost. It is certainly valid. ... Fats perfected the stride style. He developed the fine points. He had more finesse than any stride piano player I ever heard.”

Wilson began studying piano while in grade school. He switched to violin “in the sixth or seventh grade” and played violin through high school, where he also played oboe and E-flat clarinet in the school’s military brass band.

During his last two years in high school, he took up piano again, because the band needed a pianist. “I could read the bass clef, and they taught me to read stock orchestrations,” Wilson explained.

While in high school, Teddy said he began to listen to jazz closely for the first time, adding, “My father liked vocal music: Caruso, John McCormack and also blues singers, such as Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Trixie Smith. I often heard these records in the house, but I would never play my father’s records voluntarily because my major interest was instrumental music.

“The first records of importance to me were ‘Singin The Blues’ by Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, and King Oliver’s ‘Snag It,’ featuring the famous Oliver break. Later, with Tuskegee students, I heard ‘West End Blues’ by the Armstrong Hot Five, with Earl Hines on piano, and Fats Waller’s ‘Handful Of Keys.’

“In 1928, during summer vacation, I went to Chicago and heard professional jazz in public for the first time: McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Fletcher Henderson and Horace Henderson. Benny Carter was with Horace when I first heard him. Also, Rex Stewart. And Horace was very good, too. Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey, Jimmy Harrison and Joe Smith were with Fletcher.”

Harrison, who died in 1931, is one of the all-time greats of jazz, so far as Wilson is concerned. “Jimmy had a real swinging style,” Teddy said. “Now, swing is not an objective word, but my conditioning of the swing feeling was the way Armstrong and Hines played on the Hot Five records—not the others, just Armstrong and Hines. And Harrison had my conception of swing. Another trombonist who has it is Jack Teagarden.”

After hearing live “professional jazz” in Chicago, Teddy was determined to be a jazz musician, but his mother, Pearl, who like his father taught at Tuskegee, thought that Teddy should just give college a chance.

She suggested that he go to college for a year and then if he still wanted to be a musician, to go ahead “and be a good one.” So, Teddy went to Talladega College, 60 miles from Birmingham, Alabama, for one year. “After that, I still wanted to be a musician, so I quit college, according to our agreement, and went to Detroit to become a professional musician.”

Teddy got his union card in Detroit, worked club dates off and on for a few months and eventually joined a road band working out of Peru, Indiana, led by drummer Speed Webb. The band included Roy Eldridge, Vic Dickenson, Teddy’s brother Augustus on trombone and all of the Bill Warfield band, except for the pianist. They wanted Teddy.

“The Warfield group was very unusual,” Wilson said. “These fellows, from memory, specialized in playing the Red Nichols repertoire. They could play the Nichols records all night from memory. Not just the ensemble but the solos, too.” Trumpeter Reunald Jones, later with Ellington, was one of the Warfield band members.

Wilson worked with Webb from December 1929 until mid-1931. He left the band to join Milt Senior in Toledo, Ohio.

The pianist he replaced in the Senior band was Tatum. Tatum left to concentrate upon solo work, primarily in radio. Wilson was with Senior, best known to jazz historians as the lead alto man with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, until the fall of 1931, when he went to work in the Gold Coast club in Chicago.

“This was quite a club,” Teddy recalled. “A membership cost $250, and each member got a solid gold card. ... Al Capone would come in regularly after hours and bring in a party of 10 or 20 people. He’d always have a wad of bills, and everyone who worked in the place got something. Every member of the band got $20.”

When the Gold Coast club closed because of a newspaper story concerning the gambling in the club, most of the band returned to Toledo, but Teddy remained in Chicago, jobbing around before joining Erskine Tate and later Francois’ Louisianans. Then he went on the road for a few months with Louis Armstrong, with whom he made a dozen records.

“The main thing about the Armstrong band,” according to Wilson, “was the way Louis could play so beautifully with such a bad band behind him. We had a few good musicians—Budd Johnson on tenor and his brother, Keg Johnson, on trombone—but it was not a good band.”

Teddy paused to reflect for a moment and then chose his words with deliberation in summing up his feelings about Armstrong: “I think Louis is the greatest jazz musician that’s ever been. He had a combination of all the factors that make a good musician. He had balance ... this most of all. Tone. Harmonic sense. Excitement. Technical skill. Originality. Every musician, no matter how good, usually has something out of balance, be it tone, too much imitativeness, or whatever. But in Armstrong everything was in balance. He had no weak point. Of course, I am speaking in terms of the general idiom of his day. Trumpet playing is quite different today than it was then.

“I don’t think there has been a musician since Armstrong who had had all the factors in balance, all the factors equally developed. Such a balance was the essential thing about Beethoven, I think, and Armstrong, like Beethoven, had this high development of balance. Lyricism. Delicacy. Emotional outburst. Rhythm. Complete mastery of his horn.”

After his tour with Armstrong, Wilson returned to Chicago and worked with Jimmy Noone and Eddie Mallory. “Noone had a beautiful low register and was very melodious,” Teddy said. “His playing was characterized by smooth legato playing.”

In 1933, Wilson went to New York to join Benny Carter after the latter had gone to Chicago to hear Teddy with Noone on the recommendation of John Hammond.

The Carter band broke up after playing two jobs—the Empire ballroom and the Harlem club—and Wilson joined Willie Bryant’s new band. Bryant was not a musician, but a showman, and bookers had the idea that he could make it like Cab Calloway. It didn’t quite work out that way, but Wilson was with Bryant until 1935. After that, Teddy had two jobs: backing the Charioteers quintet on radio and as intermission pianist at the Famous Door on 52nd Street.

In ’35, Teddy also began making his famous series of records featuring singer Billie Holiday. These records date from ’35 to ’40, and any list of the most influential and most stimulating jazz records of all time would have to include some of these sides, as good today as they were then. How many musicians became jazz musicians because of Lester Young’s solos or Roy Eldridge’s solos or Wilson’s solos on these records? No one can tell. But it probably is a long list, containing some distinguished names.

Has Wilson read Miss Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues?

He has. Quickly.

“And I don’t think much of it,” he said. “It’s full of distorted emphasis and sheer fabrication. I don’t see how anyone could write a book like that.”

The pianist’s evaluation of some of the musicians of that period, particularly those he played with on the memorable Holiday records, include the following regarding Young: “I think Lester is one of the great landmarks in jazz. When Hawk was the yardstick of tenor playing, Lester came along with something different and valuable based on great originality and skill.”

Teddy said he considers Young as one of the three most influential musicians in jazz, the others being Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.

“I certainly think Lester belongs in there somewhere,” Wilson said. “But he has never seemed quite the same since the war. ... On the record I made with him in ’56, I thought he had some of his pre-war sparkle, but this was made when he had just been released from the hospital and had not been drinking.”

Parenthetically, Wilson added, “Guys who think they play better when they are loaded are out of their minds. When you are drinking, the sparkle is gone. A musician who has been drinking might feel like he’s playing better, but he’s not. You’d think some musicians who drink would listen to the records they’ve made while they’ve been drinking and realize this, but they don’t.”

It was also in 1935 that Wilson jammed with Benny Goodman at a party given by singer Mildred Bailey. The results of this trio session (the drummer was “Mildred’s cousin, a test pilot, an amateur drummer”) helped to shape the course of jazz and bring Wilson international fame with Goodman.

Because of the exciting way Teddy and Benny improvised together, John Hammond wanted to record them, and he decided to use Gene Krupa on drums. At that time, Krupa was with Mal Hallett’s band. Hammond arranged the record date with RCA Victor and the justly famous Goodman trio was born.

Wilson’s first nonrecording job with Goodman was at the Congress Hotel in Chicago on Easter Sunday, 1936. Hammond drummed up the idea of Sunday afternoon jazz concerts at the hotel with outside musicians as guest stars, and Wilson was one of the first to be featured. He was such a hit that he was asked to join the band as a steady member.

As the first Negro featured with a nationally known white band, did Wilson have much trouble with racial prejudice while working with Goodman?

“Only in regards to hotels ... sleeping accommodations and hotel restaurants,” Wilson remembered.

Only in the South?

“Oh, no, North and South. And there was another thing, too. The first movie we did—I think it was called The Big Broadcast of 1937, something like that—the movie people wanted me to play the soundtrack but wouldn’t allow me to be photographed. I didn’t agree to that, and I wasn’t in the movie.”

Speaking generally of the swing era, Wilson said, “It was a very exciting period. The Goodman band was the first jazz band to become a nationally popular thing, and it took us all by surprise. No one expected it. And in those years, the audience would even applaud a good figuration. You never see that now!

“Of course, a big part of the audience was sensitive to showmanship— the drum solos, for example—but a good many people in the audience were obviously musically sensitive. In contrast, the audience today is so jaded. They have to be entertained. It’s a problem that young musicians must face.

“Music is something like baseball, movies, or any other entertainment medium in that respect. It isn’t easy, and it sometimes calls for values that are not musical. Today, music is not the thing, as it was then. I imagine it’s discouraging for a good young musician today when he sees how successful a mediocre musician can be.”

Teddy said he believes that a major reason why the Goodman band was able to become the first nationally popular jazz band is because Benny kept music at danceable tempos. He elaborated: “Goodman would sometimes stand in front of the band, tapping his foot for as long as a minute, almost as if feeling the pulse of the dancers, to assure the proper time.”

Wilson added that the band had “a good sound, one of the great clarinet players, good intonation in the reed section, first-rate trumpet work and other musical values, and it was playing within the dance tradition.”

Wilson said jazz has lost the mass audience, partly because it came to ignore dancers. “And so rock ’n’ roll, as bad as it is, is filing the vacuum. Ellington, of course, has always had high musical standards, as well as a good dance band, too. He’s done an amazing job over the years to keep his band in touch with the public while doing other things in music, too.”

Wilson left Goodman in 1939 to form his own big band. The band lasted about a year and was not a commercial success, although it won high praise from musicians and critics. Of this band, Wilson said: “The band simply didn’t have much mass appeal. We didn’t have enough show pieces. We played good dance music, but we needed 10 or 20 good stomp head arrangements to add the excitement that was missing. The mistake I made was in concentrating too much on written arrangements.”

From 1940 to 1944, Wilson fronted an all-start sextet at the two Cafes Society, Uptown and Downtown, and in 1945 he rejoined Goodman, working with Red Norvo and Slam Stewart in the Goodman sextet.

During the next decade, Teddy was in studio work most of the time, as a staff musician at New York’s WNEW and later at CBS. He also taught annual summer classes on jazz piano improvisation at Juilliard. Since the 1956 Goodman movie, Teddy has made more club appearances, notably at the New York City Embers. Currently, he is using Bert Dahlander, the Swedish drummer, and bass man Arvell Shaw in his trio.

Although he has not taught for some time, Wilson remembers and is typically quick to praise his former students, particularly John Ferrincieli, who “played stride piano against a modern type of right hand,” and William Nalle, now in studio work. “I had some other talented students, too, and I am talking about real piano players,” he said.

As might be expected from a two-handed pianist who understands that a piano is not a drum, a pianist whose work has been distinguished by superb finger control, a keen sense of dynamics, master legato playing, originality, love of melody, a compelling and resilient beat and a complete absence of gimmicks, Wilson does not think much of most contemporary jazz pianists.

“With few exceptions, what they play is a caricature of the piano,” Teddy said. “A caricature simply because of the way the piano is made. And pianists today all sound so much alike.”

But Wilson, the schooled pianist, does not include Erroll Garner, who cannot read music, among the caricaturists. Teddy explained: “Garner brought a great deal of originality to jazz piano, working with his time lag. His phrases come through with such conviction because they are his own. On the other hand, when you imitate another musician’s way of playing and are too derivative, your phrases are not too clear, are just a shade vague, and they lack real conviction.”

Wilson, also a critic of modern rhythm sections, said, “Drummers today play a continuous solo, from 9 till 4. And I always thought a saxophonist like Parker would sound much better with a conventional rhythm section than with a hipster rhythm section. To my mind, if the background gets too complex, it kills the solo. I guess Dizzy and others like that kind of drummer and that kind of rhythm section, but I don’t. The Parker-like soloists would sound much better if they had simpler harmonic backgrounds; then their own harmonic thinking would come over far better.”

Wilson also said he feels that the development of records, ironically, has helped what he terms the “conformity” in jazz today.

“When I came up, there was a good deal of local influence,” he said. “We would travel 30 miles or so to hear another musician who had his own way of playing. Musicians developed different approaches to music in different cities. But today the same jazz records are available and popular all over. They influence young musicians in New York, Atlanta, Paris or Tuskegee at the same time. All this tends for conformity.”

Perhaps Wilson’s point of view concerning jazz today is best summed up with this offhand remark: “You have creative people and you have imitative people, and in a period of conformity, as today, there are more imitative people.”

What does he think of the music business today?

“I do feel that music has got to come back,” he said. DB

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