“ I just refused to rule anybody out with any style that was on the bandstand. ”
Cedar Walton cut his chops with several great groups, including J.J. Johnson's Quintet and the Jazztet, before making a name for himself with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Since graduating from that venerable institution he's become one of the most in demand pianists in jazz. These days he spends most of his time traveling the world leading his trio. AAJ caught him at his home in Brooklyn having just returned from playing a Caribbean cruise, following a week in Greece.
All About Jazz: You have your annual two week holiday residency at the Village Vanguard coming up. Do you remember the first time you came into the Vanguard?
Cedar Walton: Among the first times I played in the Vanguard was when I played with J.J. Johnson and they used to have Sunday matinees, so that was...I joined J.J. Johnson in '59, I can't do the math, but I know you have a calculator there somewhere.
AAJ: We'll look forward to celebrating your 50th Anniversary of playing the club in 2009.
CW: I remember that for some reason I had a wire recorder on that gig. I'll never remember how I actually had the misfortune to have one of those. It certainly wasn't mine. I must have borrowed it from someone. I was down on my knees probably, while J.J. was trying to count off the first tune. I was trying to set it up, which I thought I could do briefly and I remember him saying "What are you doing down there, Walton?" (laughs) When I think about it now, it's just totally hilarious because you know, I was supposed to be at the keyboard. I was near the keyboard, but I wasn't at the keyboard. So anyway, I don't know if I got it hooked up or not.
CW: I don't think so. No (laughs) I don't know why I was even... You know how you are at that age...the late 20s, I still hadn't reached the 30 mark yet.
AAJ: Who were some of the bands you went to the Vanguard to hear when you were just hanging out checking out music?
CW: I went to hear Ornette Coleman with my sons. I had sons two years apart, so they were six and eight or seven and nine when I took them down the Vanguard to hear Ornette and they made the comment that it sounded like "elephant music." They were just trying to be funny. Anyway, I was attracted to Ornette and anyone else who played music; I just refused to rule anybody out with any style that was on the bandstand performing and had an audience.
AAJ: Max Gordon was the proprietor then.
CW: I consider him to have been kind to me in the sense that he saw I was just...well he had heard me with J.J. and themand probably when I played there with a number of other groups. So he sort of remembered me later and gave me encouragement and was always courteous...
AAJ: Who were some of the other people you worked with in the Vanguard?
CW: I think I went in there with Abbey. I know I worked there with Abbey Lincoln. I remember Miles was in the audience looking over Jack [DeJohnette] and later Jack went with his band. And I worked there with Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley. I was in there a lot as a sideman.
CW: Yeah. Finally I think probably in the late '60s or early '70s Max gave me a gig there on my own. He used to have two bands there, if not three, at least two bands. These days they would call it opening for somebody.
AAJ: Who was in the band that you first played the Vanguard as a leader?
CW: Probably Billy Higgins and Sam Jones. I honestly don't remember the exact personnel.
AAJ: That was before Boomer's.
CW: Yeah, that was me, Sam and Louis Hayes. I hadn't solidified my association with Higgins yet. He was probably still with Ornette or with Jackie McLean or Sonny Rollins. He was all over the place, even with Thelonious. Jackie McLean told me that very often Max Gordon would hire his group to open for Thelonious because he had problems getting there sometimes and Max couldn't be sure if Thelonious was going to show up or if he did show up if he could get him to go up to the piano. So Jackie said it was his duty to play and then get Thelonious up on stage (laughs), which was no small feat. Max certainly couldn't do it, so he appealed to other people like Jackie.
Max was always a gentleman. I remember one time the club was crowded and me and Percy Heath and a few others were standing there as you make that left to go towards the kitchen and Max was coming through there on his way to the kitchen and he started to fall and he said "Somebody catch me." I think Percy was the main one who caught him and sort of propped him up and he just continued along his way. I remember me panicking, thinking "Oh my God, the guy's about to die. This is the last I'll ever see of him." But, he just needed a little propping up. (laughs) I thought that was a wonderful example of his...
CW: Yeah, resilience. He was just an all around nice guy. He liked to sit with the younger ladies. I never met Lorraine Gordon until he was no longer around and then she came around and took over. Prior to that it was always Max. He lived a long time. Long enough to write a book about it. That was a book that I read. What was it, 50 years at the time?
AAJ: I think the Vanguard had been around at least 50 years at the time and maybe 60.
CW: I heard that he used to have people like even Barbra Streisand had done a stint there, perhaps opposite Miles Davis at one point. All kinds of peopleProfessor Irwin Corey and a string of people that no longer appear there because it's strictly music now. Judy Holliday. And he gave people breaks, including myself. Opportunities to be a leader while you were still a sideman.
CW: No, not during that time. The Messengers were always working. Every time you thought you were freeoff for a few days to relaxArt would call with a gig. And I hadn't even unpacked yet. Yeah we really worked a lot. When I think of it now I feel we could have gotten a little more press.
AAJ: I couldn't find any documentation of the Messengers working in the Vanguard around that time.
CW: No I don't think that we did. Birdland was where we played most of the time.
AAJ: I noticed in your discography a DVD where you played with Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Lenny White at the Vanguard. On the disc in between tunes there are interviews and each member of the group talking with Max.
CW: Yeah. That was a project with some people from Philadelphia whose names I can't remember. A production company came and offered us that gig. It was a nice event. I remember that I was more comfortable with some of the tunes than others, but it was still fun. It's always nice to play with Freddie and Ron again.
AAJ: When did you begin playing your two week Vanguard Christmas residency?
CW: Wow. It's been at least five years, I don't have the exact dates. First we would do one week with Jackie [McLean] and one with Vincent [Herring] and then slowly but surely Jackie fades out and we were luckyI consider us lucky because we caught [Roy] Hargrove in town that week off. So we worked it out and he came in and he's been doing it. This is his third year. So Roy fit in and liked being right here at home. We blended in pretty good, much to my surprise. Roy is the type of person, the type of musician, who is very, very sensitive musically and adaptable. Some of the tunes of mine that I didn't think he'd be attracted to he looked straight at and start to play. He's an unusual member of that generation, at least as far as I'm concerned, in that he's comfortable with musicians of generations that came before him.
AAJ: You travel so much, working all over the world, it must be nice having those two weeks to be home for the holidays every year.
CW: Well it is the Vanguard, which is somewhat of a home. Me and the queen there, Lorraine Gordon, get along famously. I call her my wife and she says, "Where's my alimony?" We do have a nice rapport and that's a big part of it. It's something we've gotten used to. One or two times the management of the Vanguard wondered if we'd mind if we were replaced for that particular year and I became adamant about it because I started to depend on it and really look forward to it, so I told her I was going to jump off a cliff if they got somebody else.
Cedar Walton, Underground Memoirs (HighNote, 2005)
Cedar Walton, Latin Tinge (HighNote, 2003)
Cedar Walton Trio, Manhattan After Hours (Twinz, 2002)
Cedar Walton, The Promise Land (HighNote, 2001)
Cedar Walton, The Maestro (32 Records, 2000)
Cedar Walton, The Trio Vol. 1, 2, 3 (Red, 1985)
Cedar Walton, Eastern Rebellion, Vol. 1 & 2 (Timeless, 1975/1977)
Cedar Walton (with Clifford Jordan), A Night at Boomer's, Vol.1&2 (Muse, 1973)
Cedar Walton, Cedar! (Prestige-OJC, 1967)
Joe Henderson, Mode for Joe (Blue Note, 1966)
Art Blakey, Ugetsu (Riverside-OJC, 1963)
Related Article: Cedar Walton Trio Concert Review (2004)