Cedar – The Life And Music Of Cedar Walton

He featured in such leading groups as the Jazztet and the Jazz Messengers, but Walton was a grounded performer who didn't seek celebrity


This volume is number 18 in a collection entitled the North Texas Lives of Musicians Series – previous subjects have included King Curtis, Pat Metheny, Stan Kenton and Scott LaFaro. The latest in the line is authored by Ben Markley, an associate professor and director of jazz studies at the University of Wyoming, also known locally as a bandleader, composer, arranger and pianist. He recorded the album Clockwise: The Music Of Cedar Walton in 2017.

Markley spent a considerable period of time preparing this biography, using the more than 75 interviews he conducted with Cedar’s contemporaries, including friends, family and musicians, as a basis for the text. He also added to this material by searching other interviews which Cedar gave during his lifetime.

What clearly emerges from these encounters is that the pianist had a huge respect from his contemporaries, both as a musician and a highly likeable human being. Music emerges as the thing he devoted his life to but his family had a real place in his existence (despite three marriages), with life-long friendships being equally important.

It is easy to forget, over 10 years after his death, Walton’s membership of two major jazz units – the Jazztet led by Benny Golson and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers; he composed Ugetsu and Mosaic for the latter.

More than one interviewee refers to Horace Silver as one of Walton’s influences, probably because the blues elements in Walton’s playing invariably stayed close to the surface. Emphasis is also placed on his undemonstrative demeanour at the keyboard, sitting square-centre to the instrument with a refusal to showboat. The purpose of his performance was first and foremost to take care of business.

When it came to actual business, Cedar looked after his own bookings, although an agent is briefly alluded to, so perhaps his time involved with Wim Wigt of Timeless Records may have caused a degree of consternation. Cedar’s group Eastern Rebellion recorded its first album for Timeless and thereafter Wigt formed the Timeless All-Stars, a band worthy of the all-stars tag. The problems came when the musicians fell victim to the label boss’s tour organisation, which meant crammed schedules, poor accommodation and even poorer transportation.

On a positive front, much is quite rightly made of The Magic Triangle, the trio fronted by the pianist and completed by Sam Jones and Billy Higgins, and of the aforementioned Eastern Rebellion, a group formed to circumnavigate Cedar’s RCA contract. Most importantly he remained a stalwart of the jazz scene from the 1950s to shortly before his death in 2013, never achieving the great commercial success others may have craved for him but recognised as a major player, never to be overlooked.

Cedar – The Life And Music Of Cedar Walton, by Ben Markley. University of North Texas Press, 340pp, hb, $34.95. ISBN: 1574418972. Ebook ISBN: 9781574419047