DU Alumni

Pianist Cedar Walton was once a DU jazzman

In 2010, Dallas-born and University of Denver-educated pianist Cedar Walton received the prestigious Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for Arts. That award, established in 1982, is “the highest honor that our nation bestows on jazz artists” who, like Walton, “have reached the highest pinnacles of their art.”

For more than five decades, Walton has simply performed with the kind of consistent keyboard intelligence that impresses listeners and critics alike. Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing into the present, Walton has displayed his enormous talent as part of trombonist J.J. Johnson’s group, the Jazztet led by Art Farmer and Benny Golson, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and singer Abbey Lincoln’s trio, as well as with his own bands and the group Eastern Rebellion.

Born on Jan. 17, 1934, Walton, according to reference books on jazz, finished high school and then headed to Denver in 1951 to attend the University of Denver. But speaking on the phone from his home in Brooklyn just before departing on a European tour with his quintet, Walton adds a little twist to the standard story.

As the pianist explains, “I was a mid-year graduate from Lincoln High School; and instead of waiting a year for me to go to college, my parents decided to shuffle me off to school right away. So, I went to Dillard University in New Orleans for the spring semester where Ellis Marsalis — father of Wynton and Branford — was one of my classmates.”

In January 2011, it is Walton who will host pianist Marsalis’ entry into the new class of Jazz Masters.

After a semester at Dillard, Walton and his parents took a summer road trip to California, making a fateful stop in Denver. While in the city, Walton visited the DU campus and was impressed. Instead of returning to Dillard, he would move a mile high.

“I can’t put my finger on exactly why I decided to leave Dillard,” Walton says, “but I was always eager to try new things. I remember, for example, a trip to New York with my parents when I was 13 and watching Jackie Robinson play baseball. After sliding into home, the umpire called Robinson out and Jackie protested, going face-to-face with the white official. When I saw that, I said ‘I want to live here.’ ”

Once he settled in at the University of Denver, the pianist expressed an interest in majoring in composition but was guided away from that and toward a music education degree.

“I understand that the advice to follow the more practical education track was well meaning — and I can’t blame anyone for giving that advice — but it was the wrong choice for me,” he says.

Ironically, over his career, Walton proved to be an impressive composer, writing a number of songs that have become jazz standards, including “Bolivia,” “Mosaic,” “Ugetsu,” “Firm Roots” and “Clockwise.” That, he notes with a little laugh, “demonstrates that I actually did know what I wanted back then.”

Walton continues, “Among the things that impressed me about the school was that we had to play a variety of instruments. Along with the piano, there was Cedar on flute, on oboe, on bassoon. That was a unique way of acquainting us with other instruments and it was a great experience that helped in my future orchestrations.”

At the same time, Walton spent a lot of time in the Five Points area of Denver, where jazz was alive and kicking into the early morning hours. As Walton recalls, “I worked with drummer Shelley Rhym at Lil’s. It was an afterhours spot and we didn’t start playing there until after midnight and didn’t stop until after dawn. So it wasn’t very smart on my part to schedule classes early in the morning.”

Yet, the playing experience was invaluable and allowed the young pianist to meet visiting jazz giants like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and a soon-to-be giant named John Coltrane. It was such players traveling through Denver who continually encouraged Walton to go to New York — the center of the jazz universe. In 1955, before completing his degree, the pianist followed that advice and drove to New York with a friend, each armed with $75. The New York journey, however, would take an unexpected twist when Walton was drafted and spent time in Germany before returning two years later.

Back in New York, the pianist recorded with trumpeter Kenny Dorham in 1958 and the following year went into the studio with Coltrane. Because Walton was touring with J.J. Johnson and the drummer for the session, Lex Humphries, was touring with Dizzy Gillespie, both players only had a little time in the studio before they had to hit the road. “When I returned,” Walton notes, “I called John to tell him I was back and he said he was sorry but that they had to finish the album and it was done.” That album was Giant Steps, one of Coltrane’s classic discs.

But Walton’s imposing career in jazz is defined by what he did and what he continues to do in the music, not by what didn’t happen — whether that involved Giant Steps or his decision to leave DU before completing his degree.

After all, the only other NEA Jazz Master prior to Walton with a Denver connection is big-band leader Andy Kirk, who grew up in the city and received the award in 1991. Little wonder, then, that the University thinks of the pianist, who has so many fond memories of Denver, as one of its own.

–Norm Proviser

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