Cedar Walton, one of the top jazz pianists to emerge in the aftermath of bebop, died Monday morning at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to his wife, Martha. Walton was 79.
The pianist and composer/arranger rose to eminence after an early-1960s spell in drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and continually cemented his reputation as a bluesy, graceful and commanding improviser up until his death. But Walton's legacy also rests on a body of compositions, at least one of which became a standard ("Bolivia"); his ability to orchestrate small groups also secured him work and opportunities to lead his own bands.
Born in 1934, Walton grew up in Dallas, Texas. His mother was at one time an aspiring concert pianist, and served as his first teacher. Drawn to jazz, he continued to pursue playing during college between classes and classical studies, briefly at Dillard University in New Orleans and then at the University of Denver in Colorado. He moved to the jazz hub of New York City in 1955, and — after compulsory military service, where he played in an Army band in Germany — returned in 1958.
Walton rubbed shoulders with emerging greats of the era. He toured with J.J. Johnson, the preeminent trombonist of his era. He jumped ship to Benny Golson's Jazztet, another small group with tightly crafted arrangements. Along the way, he recorded the first drafts of John Coltrane's seminal Giant Steps album. And in 1961, he joined Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) and Wayne Shorter (saxophone) in the Jazz Messengers, where he was one of the stars in what became one of Art Blakey's most celebrated lineups. That unit was responsible for classic albums like Mosaic, Ugetsu and Free For All — among other recordings — and Walton contributed tunes to several of them. He later described the experience "like we were a team of horses, and [Blakey] was, you know, leading from behind. You know, driving a team of horses."
Walton later worked with vocalist Abbey Lincoln and trumpeter Lee Morgan, and between freelance work, created the band Eastern Rebellion, a quartet with rotating personnel which also featured drummer Billy Higgins. In his later years, he still toured and recorded frequently, and his December residency at New York's Village Vanguard became a highlight on the city's jazz calendar.
"Where to retire to?" he asked rhetorically in a 2010 interview. "I mean, stop playing the piano? Stop going around having people listen to you and your group play your music, or your versions of other people's music? That's a utopia in my view and the way I look at it. That's about the best thing that could happen to a person that's trying to be a creative artist."