Mal Waldron, sideman to jazz greats, gets a solo retrospective

Photo by Brian McMillen.
Mal Waldron in San Francisco in 1980.

One of the great joys of jazz is seeing how the music of many of its giants – Dizzy, Miles, Duke, Mingus – reflected their unabashed personalities. Their music was synonymous with who they were in life, always keeping your attention with material that was audacious and irreverent. Just as enjoyable is discovering the accompanists who helped shape the sound and bring to life the vision of these very leaders. It’s an incalculably long list of musical greats, and among the upper echelon is pianist Mal Waldron.

Best known as the composer of the jazz standard “Soul Eyes,” Waldron was also the accompanist for Billie Holiday 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 “Eric Dolphy at The Five Spot,” Jackie McLean’s “Makin’ the Changes,” and “Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors,” a 1957 album that was one of John Coltrane’s first major outings.

Waldron penned more than 400 compositions, as he told writer Ted Panken in a 2001 interview. This count likely includes his Prestige compositions and early play-along records published by Music Minus One. “My mom used to tell me that he would be working on charts and arrangements on the train, or in the car, on the way to sessions,” said pianist Mala Waldron, eldest daughter of the late musician, during a recent phone conversation. And yet still, jazz history has largely overlooked Waldron and his vast contributions to this music.

“I think the way that [Waldron] plays and his feel, his eccentricity, is just not easily copped by jazz students,” said pianist Matthew Shipp. “The way that he syncopates and phrases, if it’s not codified, then he escapes a dialogue about jazz piano history.” (Shipp explored this idea more fully in his recent article on “Black Mystery School Pianists.”)

Waldron was the epitome of style and urbanity in jazz, from his pendulous brown cigarette dangling from his fingers to his signature coifed natural Black hair that grew into a stately white. He was an expat, traversing much of Europe and settling in Paris, Munich and Brussels. He composed scores for film, ballet and theater, including Amiri Baraka’s celebrated 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 wiz that he often beat the computer.

Compared to the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie or Charles Mingus, he was far more understated as both 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 quietly and work out your changes. It’s a beautiful instrument for a person like me.”

Waldron was heavily influenced by other giants of jazz piano – Bud Powell, Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk. He deeply explored the latter’s body of work in duets with the late saxophonist Steve Lacy in the 1980s and 1990s. Rather than imitate Monk’s idiosyncratic, flat-fingered style, Waldron’s playing grew less terse and much more dissonant and harmonic, particularly later in his career.

“[It’s] the contemplative use of space, which not too many people seem to know how to do today,” said renowned bassist Reggie Workman, one of Waldron’s frequent collaborators, in the documentary. “How to play the instrument percussive, as well as harmonic.” You can hear some of Waldron’s percussiveness in a 1964 performance of “All Africa” (from the “Freedom Now Suite”) as a member of the Max Roach Quintet, featuring Abbey Lincoln on vocals.

Waldron, who died of cancer at the age of 77, in 2002, is the subject of a new archival release, “Searching in Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert.” Transferred from the original Radio France tapes, the deluxe two-disc album was released in coordination with Waldron’s estate and the Institut National de L’audiovisuel. It’s a profound work that captures some of his most exploratory playing. “When I play the piano, I’m trying 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 search because I don’t know what’s happening. And I have to try and find out what’s happening.”

When listening to “Searching in Grenoble,” it is difficult to fathom that Waldron suffered a nervous breakdown after a near-fatal heroin overdose over a decade earlier. He had to teach himself how to play the piano again. He underwent spinal taps 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 has penned a poignant encomium on Waldron’s musical journey. “The struggle is right there in front of you, which is also very appealing. He worked with Billie Holiday, and we love Billie Holiday because we know the struggle and can hear her struggle. . . . The people that can play a ton of piano can’t give the vibe that Mal Waldron gives.”

He was born Malcolm Earl Waldron in New York City on Aug. 16, 1925, to Jamaican middle-class parents. His father was a mechanical engineer for the Long Island Rail Road, and his mother was a nurse. At the age of 4, Waldron and his family moved to Jamaica in Queens.

Waldron had said that he started taking piano lessons as a young child 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 that it had to be classical, and they didn’t want to hear anything about it,” his daughter Mala said.

Waldron took a slight detour to the saxophone after being floored by Coleman Hawkins’s playing on his legendary tune “Body and Soul.” But it was after hearing another iconic saxophone player, Charlie Parker, that Waldron was drawn back to the piano. “He felt that people played certain instruments that went with their personality,” Mala explained. “My dad was always an introvert, and he felt that the saxophone was more of an extroverted person’s instrument and that the piano was more fun – he felt that that suited his personality more.”

Waldron was stationed at West Point while serving in the Army, giving him access to New York’s many jazz clubs. After two years of service, he attended Queens College and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in composition, studying with composer Karol Rathaus, whose essay “Jazzdämmerung – The Twilight of Jazz” cited George Gershwin and the Paul Whiteman Band for “cultural larceny” and blamed America for “Europeanizing Black music.” Waldron’s studies helped him hone his talents for composition while firmly cementing his switch from saxophone to piano.

He emerged onto the New York jazz scene in the 1950s. A fixture at Café Society, he performed alongside everyone from Ike Quebec, Lucky Thompson and Mingus, who was in the nascent stages of his movement toward collective improvisation. However, one of his most significant collaborations was with Billie Holiday.

“[Bassist] Julian Euell called my father, and he got the gig on short notice,” said Mala. “She was my godmother. He always said Billie was like his big sister who had him under her wing. While he and Billie were rehearsing, she could see that he wasn’t comfortable playing this tune, which was a blues [number]. Billie teased him saying, ‘I never knew a Black man [who] couldn’t play the blues!’ They used to laugh about that.”

“My dad was always a great accompanist who loved working with singers and knew how to listen,” she continued. “And Billie loved that. She taught him to pay attention to the lyrics, how to approach them when you’re playing the song, and be more [present] in what’s happening with a song on a given day. Not just chords or melodies, but the actual story.”