Teddy Wilson: Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz

Robert R. Calder

Musical father to hundreds of jazz pianists; once truly great, very prominent figure in breaking down the public color bar; Teddy Wilson became another, lesser pianist from whom only circumstances like this brought anything special.

Teddy Wilson

Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz

Label: Concord
US Release Date: 2005-09-27
UK Release Date: Available as import
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In the liner notes to this very decent CD (originally issued in 1983, three years before Teddy Wilson's death), a man identified as being from Keyboard Magazine declares that "Boogie Woogie was the dominant form of improvisational piano in Chicago in the early 1930s", when Teddy Wilson arrived to work in the city. The guy who wrote that seemed to think he knew what he was talking about. Do you know what the main style of jazz piano was in Chicago in 1932? He doesn't! How can anybody who writes about music be so unaware as to the extent of his ignorance? Beside the real horror of ineptitude he can drop the now obscure name of Erskine Tate, but he can hardly have heard or read about Chicago jazz of the period. This insulting nonsense ought never to have been written, far less printed.

Wilson's earliest recordings will tell you what had been attained by Chicago pianists when he arrived in the city. Wilson himself played much like Earl Hines, unmistakably. He mentions Hines in his talk on this CD, and how he was talent-spotted when subbing in the Hines band radio slot. The major pianist in Chicago since his early recordings with Louis Armstrong -- has the man from Keyboard Magazine never heard these???!!! -- Hines was one of the crucial figures in all jazz piano, one of a single handful who made a great stylistic leap (some years before Wilson reached Chicago). The previous Chicago master, Teddy Weatherford, had left town some years before to lead bands in the Orient, but even he played something akin to Fats Waller. Joe Sullivan, Cass Simpson (a ringer for early Hines) and several others had recorded in the 1920s. Check the Chicago Jazz website! Read! Listen!

Boogie boo! Where the sleeve note bungler reports having had a hard time trying to interview Wilson, did he know enough to ask useful questions? He claims to find some enlightenment in what Wilson says in one of the chat interludes to be heard here. Really? This comes from the series of radio programs Marian McPartland's been doing for ages now, with a guest playing and duetting with her on piano and in conversation, and her own little playing in spots (check the NPR website for other samples; numerous of these broadcasts have been out on CD for some years now).

The English clarinetist Dave Shepherd, who worked with Wilson a lot in his later years and got on well with him, remembered Wilson's very considerable stretch on the piano (twelve keys wide). Wilson's style is said to have been influenced by that of a gifted lady pianist named Irene Eadie, who recorded two accompaniments with a singer, and apparently worked at the keyboard with Teddy Wilson, though she never recorded again after they married. He developed a style of playing sometimes a rapid but always flowing succession of tenths in the left hand, with a liberated right hand moving and playing lines and trilling and purling on top.

He needed his wide span to play that left-hand harmonic and rhythmic support -- making the accents and syncopations and swinging without repetitive figures: with more evenness than any of his predecessors. Modification of his left hand parts, necessary for people without very exceptional hands, allowed the development into much subsequently important jazz piano: Hank Jones, Ray Bryant, not to mention McCoy Tyner and hundreds more. He built a bridge to later harmonic sophistication. Where Wilson tells Ms. McPartland that he can play some tenths with ease, firmly, securely, but others only with limited force -- and he demonstrates at the piano -- he plainly has some problem with the latter. For most pianists they're almost impossible, but to play a succession of them in tempo, and at much faster than walking pace? My hands are sore even thinking about that.

Wilson also talks about a teacher whose lessons he attended for a long time, who trained him in a method of relaxation. The unhappy thing is that after about 1945, when according to general lore he had spent some time with a teacher, he for the most part lost it. His playing fell below the standard of his followers and even imitators. Too often his timing was shot, and it only came back from time to time, and after a while less and less (some say maybe only with Lester Young in 1956). He remained wholly distinctive, technically amazing in refinement of touch as much as fingering, but never what he had been. And he had been an indisputable giant among jazz musicians. His attack and precision of swing were lost, and he was the first or maybe only giant jazzman to lose it quite like that, without intrusion of external factors: booze, needles, powder, banknotes or commercial hack management. While at his rare worst he could fall into occasional self-parody, that usually involved loss of judgment in deployment of an expressive command of piano hardly anybody else had.

John Hammond remembered that after he'd heard Wilson on a radio show, subbing for the Earl Hines band during its touring season, he was slightly unnerved to meet perhaps the only sophisticated "black intellectual" with whom he'd so far had dealings. Wilson was unusual. His decline is so well documented because he was so prominent a jazzman, having from the age of 24 been an integral performer with Benny Goodman's groups: other non-white performers with white swing bands (more commonly trumpeters, or singers) tended to have the social status of foreign guests.

His was a major role in the story of integration, given that Goodman was as much a celebrity as any film-star. Maybe nobody could ask him what it meant to him to perform perfectly normally according to intelligent criteria, in the potentially oppressive context of the time (the absence of a color bar between musicians was not matched in public, or with only a few exceptions on record). Maybe nobody could ask Wilson what he was put through.

His subsequent big band was musically excellent, but flopped financially before it attained individuality. Although his subsequent small bands were successful, they couldn't match the small group recordings he made in the later 1930s, with the best musicians of the time, and most famously with Billie Holiday. His contemporaries revered him for as long as they lived. Perhaps the most amazing thing of all is a surviving recording made to test studio balance before one of the solo sessions, which was eventually issued on a 2CD set. He plays some Scarlatti mighty impressively, joking with Hammond that that was one of his latest compositions. Then he goes into some jazz improvisation. That whole set has numerous different takes of various titles, solo and trio, with such imaginative, spontaneous improvisation you're never hearing the same thing twice.

So much for primary musical Wilson. The man who engages in relatively lightweight jazz piano talk with Ms. McPartland here was qua pianist secondary Wilson, the other musician he became. And this is definitely one of the better latter-day recordings by secondary Wilson.

Here his later lack of musical tension, and avowed dedication to delivering the same prepared performance on some tunes every time, is irrelevant because of the extraordinary relaxed context. He just happens to be at ease, which makes a difference even if he knew in advance which notes he was going to play. It's informal. He has the inspiration of playing for a friend, and of her being Ms. McPartland (ask anybody who ever worked with her!). "Stompin' at the Savoy" is an incredibly friendly beginning, and he sounds delighted in Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore".

The first of the duets characteristic of these McPartland radio sessions maintains the medium tempo of the preceding Ellington tunes, and works especially well because McPartland takes Wilson out of his tendency toward routine -- she is always a creative improviser -- and she works with his tendency to sacrifice line and forward movement in the cause of a pretty and soft sound. There's a wonderful breadth of harmony and overtones: a marvel. His solo performance of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" is especially pretty, without ironies, and the performance of "A Train" unusually mellow. Ms. McPartland remarks on the same quality in "Moonglow", but before hearing that track on a straight play-through of the CD the listener can catch a couple of bars of primary Wilson, conjuring in singing tone a little motif for which Ms. McPartland asks, to give her the beginnings of a whole theme she wants to improvise, and then to improvise on. Maybe somebody could compile a McPartland CD of such highlight solos she has played over the long series of these jazz encounters? In one of the little chats she speaks of never having had an individual style such as Wilson's, but there's no doubt her consciousness of that does on occasion stimulate highly individual things. At her best she is very, very good: capable of being inspired.

The chat includes Wilson's talk about special pianists, whether jazzmen or his hero Vladimir Horowitz (whom he'd heard in concert not long before: Horowitz at that late stage in his career when he was the very great pianist he hadn't been as a young virtuoso). Wilson even has a go at Schumann's little "Träumerei", in a rather mannered style self-consciously close to his jazz playing of the time. That tune really isn't the slight thing Wilson suggests, talking of Horovitz's ability to work magic with trifles. If you want to suggest that only circumstance -- meaning endemic racism -- prevented Wilson from becoming a rival to Horovitz, the painful answer is that you might be right.

The concluding duet on "Flying Home" is all right, fun after a nice hour. Wilson's is a fascinating story, full of complexities, and it would have been good to have a competent note about him with this CD. But you can't often have everything, for all that for about a dozen years after he emerged at the age of twenty Teddy Wilson came as near to that as external circumstance permitted.


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