About this Recording
8.120665 - WILSON, Teddy: Blues in C-Sharp Minor (1935-1937)


Original 1935-1937 Recordings

In Teddy Wilson elegance and understatement combined with rhythmic strength and accuracy to make him one of the greatest of the jazz piano impressionists. Technically immaculate, his style derived in part from Earl Hines and, influenced by Art Tatum, he was a forerunner of bop and post-War cool. Born Theodore Shaw Wilson in Austin, Texas, on 24 November 1912 he was raised in Tuskegee, Alabama, where his academic, middle-class parents were both teachers (his mother, who taught English, was the librarian at Tuskegee Institute where his father was Head of History) and as a child he was nurtured, via records, on a diet which ranged from Caruso and McCormack to Bessie Smith. The youthful Teddy also received a thorough grounding in ragtime and classical music, the latter applied to some extent against the grain and while he studied oboe (and later violin at Tuskegee and music theory at Talladega College), his first love was always the piano.

In 1928, in Chicago, he heard the Henderson Brothers, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and King Oliver and the following year, already eager to shrug off his classical shackles and make a name for himself in jazz, fled to Detroit where he was soon playing with Speed Webb and other local outfits. By 1930 he had joined Milt Senior’s band in Toledo and later travelled with him to Chicago (his base from 1931 where he also worked variously with Louis Armstrong, Erskine Tate, Jimmie Noone and Art Tatum) and in 1933 he was heard on radio in a broadcast with the William Moore band by promoter and recording scout John Hammond. Hammond brought Wilson to New York to join ‘The Chocolate Dandies’, a small studio band fronted by Benny Carter whose line-up included Chu Berry and Mezz Mezzrow and in October, with this outfit, Teddy recorded his first four sides, for Decca.

From 1934 until mid-1935 Wilson was pianist-arranger to a fourteen-piece led by Willie Bryant (he recorded with this group first, for Victor, in January 1935). A brief informal stint with Benny Goodman followed and, again initially through Hammond’s influence (‘… man of destiny … Wilson was perhaps the first man I met in jazz whom I thought I could really help …’), Teddy was destined soon to be a participant in the birth of ‘chamber jazz’. As a founder-member of the Goodman Trio, the first integrated mini-ensemble of the Swing Era, he played alongside Goodman and Gene Krupa and later, in the Quartet, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and was among the first black musicians to enjoy equal billing with white artists. Although in live performance he was normally assigned to small ensemble features within the band, or intermission piano, and seldom if ever featured with the full orchestra, on records his fluent, pulsating piano lent structure and rhythm to the Trios and Quartets.

As Hampton recalled (in Hamp, his 1989 autobiography) ‘There were good reasons why Benny couldn’t put Teddy and me in the orchestra. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before that he was going to have a lot of trouble booking his band into those big white places with two black musicians …That’s how it was in those days — you didn’t have mixed bands’. Wilson worked alongside the cordial Goodman, appearing regularly in small-group recording sessions until 1939 (when he fronted his own short-lived big band) and was associated with the clarinet ace again in 1945 in commercial sessions and Seven Lively Arts. In mid-1935 Teddy cut his first sides with the Goodman Trio (from this session Body And Soul became their first definitive US popular chart hit, at No.5, in September) and until 1942 he continued to record simultaneously, under his own personal contract, piano solos and items of his own creation as well as leading ad hoc studio line-ups in jazz standards in which Goodman and the other white players were regular participants. In conjunction to his association with Goodman, Wilson also steadily gained a reputation as a fine arranger and as an accompanist to several key jazz vocalists in whose careers he became an active catalyst, starting with a series of legendary blues-orientated ballads recordings with Billie Holiday (once catapulted to stardom with Wilson, among her numerous titles were Life Begins When You’re In Love, Guess Who, He Ain’t Got Rhythm, I’ll Never Be The Same and the April 1937 US No.1 hit Carelessly). Other names were soon added to the list of worthies, including Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald (heard here in a swing revival of the 1912 standard My Melancholy Baby, a US No.6 in September 1936) and later Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan.

In 1939, Teddy Wilson tried to launch a swing big-band, an ensemble which lasted only a year, failing not only because, like Wilson himself, it was perhaps a little too genteel but also because, unlike other contemporary big-bands, it failed to swing. Subsequently, he returned to running smaller ensembles, notably, from 1944, a sextet which included trumpeter Hot Lips Page and trombonist Benny Morton and its successor whose line-up, by 1946, included Charlie Shavers, Red Norvo and Charlie Ventura, which was heard regularly at New York’s Café Society in arrangements which emphasised Wilson’s often florid piano style but which were, nonetheless, economical understatements with a forward-looking eye to bebop.

Apart from his work with post-War small groups, in later years Wilson was much in demand as an arranger and admired as a jazz tutor (he ran a jazz summer course at the Juilliard School from 1945 to 1952). He toured extensively in Britain and Europe during the 1950s and from the 1960s to the mid-1980s this revered elder statesman of swing could still be heard regularly in collaboration with Benny Carter, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison and other notables of his generation. Frequently reunited with Goodman (together they toured the USSR in 1962), he appeared at the Newport Festival in 1973 and gave a Carnegie Hall concert in 1982. Teddy Wilson died in New Britain, Connecticut, on 31 July 1986.

Peter Dempsey, 2003

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