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Book Excerpt: “He found his own voice” – Cedar Walton with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers

Cover of "Cedar: The Life and Music of Cedar Walton" by Ben Markley
Cover of "Cedar: The Life and Music of Cedar Walton" by Ben Markley

Cedar Walton met Art Blakey prior to his time in the Army. Blakey had heard his playing at a session in New York and took note. The two had also recorded together on saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s second album as a leader, Second Genesis. Lyricist John Hackett remembers a story that Cedar told to him about one of the first times he met Art Blakey away from the band stand:

Cedar had been in New York about six months. He was hanging with a couple of friends and they said, “Hey, I know a place where there’s some women.” And Cedar went with them. They went up the stairs of this apartment building and there were three women there, a mother and two daughters.

They were yucking it up and all of a sudden, the bedroom door opened, and Art Blakey came walking out. And Cedar, bewildered, said, “Art Blakey, what are you doing here?” Art said, “I live here, motherfucker. What are you doing here?” Cedar was speechless at that and just took off. It wasn’t a friendly welcome to him, but he overcame that impression and eventually played with Art, which shows his determination in a funny way.

The Jazz Messengers was one of the paramount hard bop groups in the history of jazz. From the onset, the group and its many different formations included the best musicians and made numerous classic recordings. Blakey had the ability to recognize exceptional talent and was always on the lookout for the next members for his band. The personnel of the group changed regularly.

This was not a band in which a musician would spend their entire career. Part of the success of the group was that Blakey wanted his sidemen to graduate from the Messengers and go on to be leaders. The group consisting of Cedar, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trombonist Curtis Fuller and bassist Jymie Merritt and later Reggie Workman is considered by many to be one of the consummate formations of the Messengers.

Each person who played in the Messengers became part of a special group. A fraternity of Blakey sidemen who wore their membership in the group proudly. Many members were intimately familiar with the lineage and history of the group. Messenger members Terence Blanchard, Brian Lynch, Steve Turre, and Javon Jackson speak about the classic band with Cedar, and what it meant to them.

Terence Blanchard

That group was special. One that myself and countless others were influenced by. These guys were my heroes. When I was in the Messengers, I got to hear Art tell stories about them that made them real people who were also great musicians. That was great for me. There wasn’t anyone who was playing like Freddie Hubbard at that time. He was so powerful. The writing and arrangements of Wayne, Cedar, and Freddie had so much to do with the sound and direction of that group. It could sound like a big band at times.

Brian Lynch

That was always the group, the touchstone, the ne plus ultra of small groups. The contrast in the styles between all the instruments is almost perfect. There’s a sense of balance with it. When you listen to the way that Cedar plays behind all the soloists in that band there are always subtle things he does. It’s also a matter of how you structure a performance. I think that Cedar as a band leader and as a pianist probably got more than a little bit of that influence from Art [Blakey] and Horace [Silver].

Steve Turre

That group was one of the pinnacles. When I first came to New York, we played at the Village Gate, and Curtis Fuller came by and I got to meet him. Cedar was there, and they were talking about old times and they were reminiscing about Blakey. Cedar and Curtis were already established icons. To hear them talk about the Messengers in the way they did was a big learning experience and gave me something to aspire to. I remember thinking, I want to be like that when I grow up.

Javon Jackson

That particular band means a lot to me. I can honestly say, I played with everyone in that band. Wayne would come sit in. I worked with Cedar’s band. I worked with Freddie closely and I know Reggie. I’m fortunate to say, I was involved with all of them at different times. It was a special unit.

I asked Art Blakey about the different Messenger groups on many occasions. Once I remember asking him about Lee Morgan and Wayne and that particular group with Bobby Timmons. Art said, he loved the group and then he said, “But I liked the band when Cedar got in. Because we became more sophisticated.”

I actually told Cedar that, and he really was happy to know Art had said that about him. I had spoken to Freddie and Cedar about those groups too. Freddie and Cedar joined the same day. In fact, Cedar was on tour with Jazztet when he got the call from Art Blakey to join the Messengers.

I’m a fan of all the Messenger groups, going back to Donald Byrd and Hank Mobley and all the other great incarnations. But obviously that group with Cedar, Freddie, Wayne, Curtis, and Reggie was pretty special.

For me, getting to meet all those gentlemen during my time with Art was incredible. I feel very fortunate to have had a really close relationship with Freddie, Cedar, and Curtis on and off the bandstand. Each one of them got to know me and my family. I got to know about them on a real intimate level too. It was an honor to know Freddie, Cedar, and Curtis in this way.

All of the Messengers musicians I’ve been around are connected in a brotherhood. At any time, I can call Benny Golson on the phone and it’s just like talking to another family member. I used to do this with Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean. We had that same kind of closeness. We all shared our stories and laughter about being part of Art Blakey’s group. I always felt that all those gentlemen had information to help me as a musician and as a person as I’m trying to get through this thing—I mean life and being a musician. It’s those kinds of people that helped shape me and allow me to be what I am today.

As Jackson mentioned, Cedar was on tour with the Jazztet when he got the call to join Art Blakey. Cedar and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard joined the Messengers on the same day. Cedar had played with most of the bandmembers on other gigs or recordings prior to joining Blakey. There was a chemistry and fire with the group that was instant. The atmosphere was different from the Jazztet.

The front line of Hubbard, Shorter, and Fuller were sharp. All were virtuosos on their instruments and excellent readers to boot. Cedar wrote “Mosaic” during his time with Jazztet and tried to have the group record it. After 20 to 30 takes, the band was unable to execute. When Cedar brought this tune into the Messengers, however, the group read it down masterfully and with little problem. “They played it better than I could,” I said, “Wait a minute; I wrote this thing here. [chuckles],” said Cedar.

Cedar’s tune “Mosaic” became the title track for his first recording with the Messengers. Mosaic was recorded on October 2, 1961. The album consisted of five tunes all written by band members. In addition to Cedar’s tune, Freddie Hubbard contributed two tunes, “Crisis” and “Down Under.” Wayne Shorter and Curtis Fuller each contributed one tune, “Children of the Night” and “Arabia,” respectively.

Mosaic (2005 Remaster)

The album Mosaic was the blueprint for the group. Blakey encouraged band members to write. “We couldn’t write fast enough,” said Cedar. “We’d write four, five, six tunes and we’d go in the studio and record them. For a long time, I thought he [Art] was breaching contracts, but I found out much later, he just had … one-recording deals with everybody …. He was very smart, smarter than I thought he was, ‘cause I thought he was just brazenly …. ‘Okay, I’m with Blue Note but I’m goin’ over here and record with Columbia.’”

Watching Blakey negotiate and navigate recording contracts was something that impacted Cedar and would help him later in his career when he was working as a leader and recording under his own name.

Cedar was very fond of his time with the Messengers. As he described the band atmosphere and working for Blakey, listeners get the sense that for the most part, the band had as much fun off the bandstand as on. Cedar speaks on Blakey’s leadership:

Incredible. He [Art] pretended that he was the gentleman and we were his officers … it was like we were a team of horses and he was … leading from behind …. That’s how I always pictured him. There was no pain except “Pain” Shorter on sax. [laughs]. No man, we all had a great time and Wayne … he was in the moment too … I thought intellect came from going to college. But after meeting Art Blakey …. I found out that you can be very intelligent by … never going on any campus [chuckles].

The personnel from Mosaic also recorded the classic albums Buhaina’s Delight and Three Blind Mice. Buhaina’s Delight was recorded on November 28, 1961, where Walton contributed “Shaky Jake,” a soulful bluesy tune that swung hard and was driven by Art Blakey’s patented shuffle. Throughout the tune, Cedar demonstrates his grooving propulsive comping that at times vacillates between riff-based big band figures and call and response with the soloists. His solo is soulful and swinging. During his solo, Cedar’s left hand is the perfect rhythmic complement to Blakey’s beat, akin to how Red Garland would frequently accompany himself. Cedar’s right hand is bluesy and lyrical and builds as the horn backgrounds join. As is the case with all the great swinging rhythm sections in the history of the music, each musician in the rhythm section is so strong and able to generate swing on their own. When the rhythm section plays together, they create a groove that in the case of this band makes the listener tap their foot, a hallmark of all the formations of the Messengers and all the groups Cedar would go on to play in.

The final recording with Jymie Merritt on bass, Three Blind Mice, was recorded on March 18, 1962. Cedar wrote “Plexus” for the date and contributed his arrangement of “That Old Feeling.” Walton was very proud of his arrangement of “That Old Feeling.” This is also an instance of his early studies of George Shearing’s simplified arrangements coming full circle.

Cedar’s arrangement of “That Old Feeling” is a piano feature that allows Cedar to stretch out as a soloist, something that with a six-piece group was not as common in the Messengers. The elements of Cedar’s arrangement of “Feeling” were staples in his repertoire that he would employ in arrangements his entire career. The intro starts out with a written bass line that sets the stage for the groove. The horns join shortly with rhythmic pops that invite Cedar’s statement of the melody. Once Cedar starts the melody, he’s not just playing the Sammy Fain classic tune, he is playing his interpretation of the tune. Cedar’s take on the tune is much more rhythmic. As with all his arrangements of standards, Cedar finds a way to honor the composer’s original melody in a way that is still singable and recognizable to the listener while inserting a rhythmic character that embraces the African esthetic that at its core is ultimately what makes jazz, jazz.

That Old Feeling

Cedar uses the horns to punctuate the melody at the end of the bridge. The brief horn entrance acts as a welcome dynamic and textural change before returning back to the trio for the final eight bars of the melody and ultimately Cedar’s solo. In addition to the Three Blind Mice recording, there is also a video recording of the band playing Cedar’s arrangement in Paris, France in 1963.

Cedar’s writing and arranging were no doubt influenced by Horace Silver and Duke Ellington, but just as Cedar would do his entire career, he created a style and identity within his compositions and arrangements that were inherently Cedar.

According to record producer and club owner Todd Barkan, Cedar’s time in the Messengers was vitally important.

Cedar told me that when he started to play with Blakey, he was shy and reticent about playing any solos or really asserting himself. Cedar affirmed to me on many occasions that Art Blakey was absolutely invaluable to Cedar in helping him draw out the full flower of his musicianship, the full expression and forceful delineation of his musical being. Art encouraged him to write, arrange, and to play. Art Blakey was an important catalyst to the full development of Cedar Walton as an artist. Obviously, he had played with people before this. He had a short tenure in the Jazztet with Benny Golson and Art Farmer, but Art Blakey was the first gig that really got him out there. This gig got him out into the world as an internationally recognized jazz force. The edition with Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, and Reggie Workman, the Free for All gang. Both Cedar and Wayne Shorter flowered into major league composer/arranger/instrumentalists during their time with Blakey.

In 1962, bassist Jymie Merritt had to leave the Messengers to recover from an illness.The Messengers were back in New York City and playing at Birdland. Blakey invited bassists Ron Carter and Reggie Workman to come and play with the group. Their playing that night would serve as the audition for the next bassist in the group. Workman was offered the job and went on to be the bassist in the group for three years. That evening was the first time that Cedar and Ron Carter played together. Even though Carter did not get offered the job with Blakey, (he was asked to join Miles Davis’s band in the weeks to come), he and Cedar would gig and record together regularly later down the road.

Bassist Reggie Workman replaced Jymie Merritt after the Three Blind Mice recording. He speaks about meeting Cedar and their time together in the Messengers.

Cedar would breeze in and out and I’d have the opportunity to hang out with him for a minute or two. There were some places we’d meet after gigs and have breakfast together. We’d run into some of the greats and to others that we hadn’t seen for a long time. All those times were pleasurable because we had conversations and experiences that others would never have. Sometimes it even turned into a musical situation where we’d have a jam session.

Cedar Walton was a member of the community who was out there trying to get his own thing off the ground as well as working with an established band like Art Blakey.

After that, we worked together in Art Blakey’s band. Cedar joined the Messengers a little before I did. Before I was in the band, Jymie Merritt played bass and Curley Russell before him. Art Blakey always kept the band together. If one chair was missing, he would send his manager out to find somebody or he and the band members themselves would find somebody. I don’t know exactly how it came about that they found me and asked me to work with them.

First of all, everyone was there to improve their well-being, livelihood, and music. Everyone was making contributions to the band in whatever way they could. I was very young and wasn’t much of a composer at that time. I was beholden to most of the guys doing the writing.

During that time, there were a lot of opportunities to work in clubs and travel on the road for long periods of time. Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff were recording musicians a lot. They had a special place that they rehearsed for each record date. We’d meet one day before the record date at 89th and Broadway which was our rehearsal studio. I was there many times for different Blue Note projects that I was invited to play on.

Everybody in that band was so unique. We used to travel across the country in what we used to call the “White Moriah.” This was a white checkered van that Art bought to transport the band from one city to another. All six of us were in this band and had their own story and jokes. [laughing] They had their own character and reasons to stop and go and do things. It was colorful. Art was the kind of person who liked to tease each person according to what he learned about them. He would mock people, make fun of people, and make fun with people. He kept a jovial feeling in the band. Cedar fit in well with that dynamic. Everyone in that band had a particular attitude and character that you could remember them by. Being with that band was a special experience.

Everybody who brought in a tune would give as much direction as was needed. If there was something I didn’t understand about the tune or something that Cedar wanted to have happen that I wasn’t particularly getting, we’d talk about it and he’d explain what he had in mind. In most cases when someone brought in a tune, very little direction was needed. You’d look at the music that was given to you and play what the composition called for. If you’re doing something that doesn’t work with the band, then naturally someone will say something to you. Namely the composer. The reason why there wasn’t much direction given in those days is because you chose people for the band that have the same mindset. That way when you get on the bandstand to make music everyone understands what is supposed to be done.

Cedar is a very intelligent guy. He was a very subtle, talkative person. He admired the politician [William F.] Buckley for his candid remarks and attitude. He was a well-rounded individual and had his own subtle character. You could bet that Cedar was going to come with something to make you laugh that was in tune with the moment. Something that had a kind of subtlety that caused you to wonder where it came from.

He was a joy to work with. He was very sensitive in the way that he dealt with the music and in tune to the attitudes of musicians around him. He was always giving of himself to make what we were creating happen. He had a great sense of humor, very intelligent, and was a good person to be around. There are times that he could be subtly sarcastic. That was definitely a facet of his character. It was understandable. All of us had something in our character that was uniquely us. His sarcasm was never negative. Sometimes musicians can say something to you and you don’t know where it came from. Especially if you were young like I was during those times. You would find out that this was a lesson. Someone would say something that gave you reason to move yourself from where you were to the next plateau. Cedar was a little older and more experienced than I was. He would say whatever was necessary to help me through my growing pains.

Aside from that, he was a personal, private type of individual. He liked his own space and liked to keep to himself and only open himself when it was necessary as far as he was concerned.

What makes a pianist special is that he has a character, voicing, and touch of his own that makes you understand that here’s a person whose ears and mind are open to whatever creativity is happening during the moment depending on the positioning of the planets. It’s quite evident that there is joy in Cedar’s music. There was also joy in how he approached the music.

When you listened to an acoustic pianist in the ‘50s and ‘60s and you were aware of what was happening, you could tell who it was from their touch, attitude, phrasing, and comping. If you “went to school” like we all had to do daily as far as growing up in this vast world of great creators, you had to listen to people and know who they were using your ear. Cedar fit right into that category because of his character. He found his own voice. That’s one of the things that made him a joy to work with.

Cedar Walton at the piano, 1995
Martha Walton Collection
Cedar Walton at the piano, 1995

Workman’s final comments about Cedar’s pianistic technique were something that many musicians picked up on. Bassist Christian McBride spoke about the sound coming from the piano the first time he heard Cedar play live.

I met Cedar my very first trip to Europe. I went to Europe with James Williams and his quartet. This was in July of 1990. Cedar was there with David Williams and Billy Higgins. I was standing in the back of the hall, and I was so excited. I said, “Man, I’m gonna go see Cedar Walton!” I went to the concert, and I was in the back of the room. It was in a hotel ballroom. All those hotel ballrooms have similar sounds.

They are not very live rooms. There’s a lot of carpet and there’s not a lot of bounce in the room. Most of the sound is coming from the speakers. But what I remember, most of all was all this sound was coming from the piano and it wasn’t because it was loud in volume. It was just a huge sound coming out of the piano and it looked like Cedar was barely moving. I couldn’t believe that so much sound was coming out of the piano with such little effort. [After the concert] I got to meet Cedar, briefly. In fact, there was whole a room full of legends. Billy Higgins, Cedar, and Johnny Griffin were there hanging out. Alvin Queen, Jimmy Woody, and Billy Pierce were there too. I got a chance to speak with Mr. Walton and I said, “Mr. Walton, it’s so amazing. I was standing at the back of the room, and you were barely moving and I heard all this sound coming out of the piano!” And he [Cedar] said “That’s a skill all piano players develop if they play with Art Blakey.” [CM: laughs] And then I realized he was right because the only other person I could think of who could do that was Mulgrew Miller.

Cedar’s work in the Messengers left an indelible mark for all future Messenger composer/ arrangers and pianists. His work along with his bandmates helped to solidify the group’s classic sound.

This excerpt from Cedar: The Life and Music of Cedar Waltonby Ben Markley is reproduced with permission from the publisher, University of North Texas Press.

Ben Markley is an associate professor and the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Wyoming. A noted bandleader, composer/arranger, pianist, and educator, Markley performs widely throughout the northern Colorado–Wyoming region with the best touring and local musicians, many of whom play in the Ben Markley Big Band. His 2017 album, Clockwise: The Music of Cedar Walton (OA2 Records), received critical acclaim. Markley is the author of A Practical Approach to Improvisation: The David Hazeltine Method.