Cedar Walton, Pianist and Composer, Dies at 79
Published: August 20, 2013
Rachel Papo for The New York Times
His death followed a brief illness, his manager, Jean-Pierre Leduc, said.
Mr. Walton sat in with Charlie Parker, spent a year accompanying the singer Abbey Lincoln, and recorded with both John Coltrane and, much later, the saxophonist Joshua Redman. He led a series of successful small groups, including a trio and a quartet that both featured his longtime collaborator, the drummer Billy Higgins. Yet he probably remained best known for his early work with one of the most influential incarnations of the Jazz Messengers, the group that the drummer Art Blakey ran as a kind of postgraduate performance academy for rising jazz stars.
Mr. Walton joined the Jazz Messengers in 1961, on the same day as the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. (Among the other members of the group at the time, was the tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter.) It was here that Mr. Walton established himself as a composer; over the years he would write a number of pieces that became jazz standards, including “Mosaic,” “Bolivia,” “Mode for Joe” and “Ugetsu,” also known as “Fantasy in D.”
Mr. Walton said his time with the Jazz Messengers helped him greatly as an accompanist, a role he often said he preferred to that of leader. Asked in a 2010 interview — conducted in conjunction with his being named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts — what was most important about providing accompaniment in an ensemble that thrives on improvisation, he said, “Total listening.”
Cedar Anthony Walton Jr. was born on Jan. 17, 1934, in Dallas. His mother, Ruth, played and sang popular songs at home. He was not initially interested in reading music, but he showed an early inclination to compose.
“Are you making up songs again?” his mother would call out.
He studied music composition at the University of Denver but later switched to music education. Instead of graduating he left in 1955 for New York, where he soon joined the local jazz scene.
Mr. Walton’s survivors include his wife, Martha Sammaciccia; three children from an earlier marriage, Carl, Rodney and Cedra; and a daughter from another relationship, Naisha.
In April 1959, after serving in the Army, Mr. Walton was sought out by John Coltrane to play on a rehearsal recording for what would become one of his landmark albums “Giant Steps.” Mr. Walton played on the technically daunting title song but declined to take a solo. He soon realized that had been a mistake.
“The song was too hard for me,” he said in a 2011 interview with JazzWax, Marc Myers’s Web site. “But you just didn’t do that. I was young.”
When the album was recorded, Mr. Walton was out of town and Tommy Flanagan played piano. Years later, the sessions with Mr. Walton were released as alternate tracks. By then, he had long since established himself as a forceful and elegant soloist. His years with Mr. Blakey helped.
“He had sort of a bombastic style, but he would leave little openings for you,” Mr. Walton said in the 2010 interview. “So you developed your radar when to get in. If you didn’t get in then, you wouldn’t be heard.”