Mal Waldron, sideman of big names in jazz, gets a solo retrospective
Best known as the composer of the jazz standard “Soul Eyes”, Waldron was also Billie Holiday’s accompanist for the last two years of her life. As a session pianist for Prestige Records in the late 1950s, he appeared on seminal recordings including Jackie McLean’s “Eric Dolphy at The Five Spot”, “Makin’ the Changes”. and “Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors”, a 1957 album that was one of John Coltrane’s first major releases.
Waldron has written over 400 compositions, as he told writer Ted Panken in a 2001 interview. This tally likely includes his Prestige compositions and early backing records released by Music Minus One. “My mother used to tell me that he would work on maps and arrangements on the train or in the car, on the way to sessions,” pianist Mala Waldron, the late musician’s eldest daughter, said in a recent phone conversation. . And yet, jazz history has largely ignored Waldron and his vast contributions to this music.
“I think the way [Waldron] plays and its feel, its eccentricity, just isn’t easy for jazz students to master,” said pianist Matthew Shipp. “The way it syncopates and formulates, if not codified, then it escapes a dialogue about the history of jazz piano.” (Shipp explored this idea in more detail in his recent article on “Black Mystery School Pianists.”)
Waldron was the epitome of style and urbanity in jazz, from his dangling brown cigarette that hung from his fingers to his natural, combed black hair that turned majestic white. He was an expatriate, traversing much of Europe and settling in Paris, Munich and Brussels. He has composed music for film, ballet and theatre, including Amiri Baraka’s famous plays “The Slave” and “Dutchman”. He spoke four different languages (English, German, Japanese and French), worked with horses and, according to Mala, was such a chess virtuoso that he often beat the computer.
Compared to Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie or Charles Mingus, he was much more discreet as a player and a man. No one was more aware of this fact than Waldron himself. “The piano was very, you know, inside, and you hide behind the piano,” he explained in the 1997 documentary “A Portrait of Mal Waldron.” by Belgian filmmaker Tom Van Overberghe. “You play very calmly and work on your changes. It’s a nice instrument for a person like me.
Waldron was heavily influenced by other jazz piano giants – Bud Powell, Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk. He deeply explored the latter’s work as a duo with the late saxophonist Steve Lacy in the 1980s and 1990s. Rather than imitating Monk’s idiosyncratic flat-fingered style, Waldron’s playing became less terse and much more dissonant and harmonious, especially later in his career.
“[It’s] the contemplative use of space, which few people seem to know how to do today,” famous bassist Reggie Workman, one of Waldron’s frequent collaborators, said in the documentary. “How to play the percussive instrument, as well as the harmonic.” You can hear some of Waldron’s drumming in a 1964 performance of “All Africa” (from the “Freedom Now Suite”) as a member of the Max Roach Quintet, with Abbey Lincoln on vocals.
Waldron, who died of cancer aged 77 in 2002, is the subject of a new archival publication, “Searching in Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert.” Transferred from the original Radio France soundtracks, the two-disc deluxe album was released in coordination with Waldron’s estate and the Institut National de L’audiovisuel. It’s deep work that captures some of his most exploratory games. “When I play the piano, I try to find things,” Waldron said in the 1997 documentary. “And I miss, and sometimes I don’t miss.” But it’s always a constant search, you know? I’m looking because I don’t know what’s going on. And I have to try to find out what’s going on.
When listening “Research in Grenoble”, it is hard to fathom that Waldron suffered a nervous breakdown after a near-fatal heroin overdose more than a decade earlier. He had to learn to play the piano again. He underwent lumbar punctures and shock treatments as part of his physical rehabilitation. “Part of the beauty of Mal is that you hear the struggle,” said pianist Ethan Iverson, who wrote a poignant eulogy of Waldron’s musical journey. “The fight is right in front of you, which is also very appealing. He worked with Billie Holiday, and we love Billie Holiday because we know wrestling and can hear her wrestle. … People who can play a ton of piano can’t give the vibe that Mal Waldron gives.
He was born Malcolm Earl Waldron in New York on August 16, 1925 to middle-class Jamaican parents. Her father was a mechanical engineer for the Long Island Rail Road and her mother was a nurse. When she was 4 years old, Waldron and her family moved to Jamaica in Queens.
Waldron said he started taking piano lessons at an early age because his parents hoped it would keep him out of trouble. And they were strict and adamant about what he could and couldn’t play. “They insisted it had to be classic, and they didn’t want to hear anything about it,” her daughter Mala said.
Waldron took a slight detour to saxophone after being floored by Coleman Hawkins’ playing on his legendary track “Body and Soul.” But it was after hearing another iconic saxophonist, Charlie Parker, that Waldron was brought back to the piano. “He felt that people were playing certain instruments that matched their personality,” Mala explained. “My dad was always an introvert, and he felt the saxophone was more of an outgoing person’s instrument and the piano was more fun – he felt it suited his personality more.”
Waldron was stationed at West Point while serving in the military, giving him access to New York’s many jazz clubs. After two years of service, he attended Queens College and earned a Bachelor of Arts in composition, studying with composer Karol Rathaus whose essay “Jazzdämmerung – The Twilight of Jazz” cited George Gershwin and the Paul Whiteman Band for “cultural theft” and blamed America for the “Europeanization of black music”. Waldron’s studies helped him hone his compositional skills while firmly cementing his move from saxophone to piano.
He emerged on the New York jazz scene in the 1950s. A staple of the Café Society, he performed alongside all those from Ike Quebec, Lucky Thompson and Mingus, who was in the infancy of his movement towards the collective improvisation. However, one of his most important collaborations was with Billie Holiday.
“[Bassist] Julian Euell called my dad, and he got the job on short notice,” Mala said. “She was my godmother. He always said that Billie was like his big sister who had him under her wing. As he and Billie were rehearsing, she could tell he wasn’t comfortable playing that track, which was a blues [number]. Billie teased him saying: ‘I’ve never known a black man [who] couldn’t play the blues!’ They were laughing at it. »
“My father was always an excellent accompanist who loved working with singers and knew how to listen,” she continued. “And Billie loved it. She taught him to pay attention to the lyrics, approach them when you play the song, and be more [present] in what happens with a song on any given day. Not just chords or melodies, but the actual story.