Mal Waldron / Aug 16, 1925 - Dec 2, 2002

Yes, I know it's the birthday today of a more famous pianist, Bill Evans, but I want to highlight Mal Waldron because I like his music better (it's just a matter of personal taste, pal) and I feel that he is underrated, despite a much-longer career than Evans.

Born to West Indian parents in NYC, Mal grew up in Jamaica, Queens and took piano lessons before also playing alto sax in bands as a teenager. In the '40s he was witness to the bebop explosion and after college switched permanently to piano.

Turning pro in '50, he cut first record with Ike Quebec in '52 and became house pianist for Prestige in the '50s, composing the standard "Soul Eyes" for a record featuring a John Coltrane (Interplay For 2 Trumpets And 2 Tenors, Prestige '57, credited to Prestige All-Stars). He played and recorded often with Jackie McLean, Gene Ammons, Kenny Burrell and was famously with Charles Mingus at a crucial juncture in jazz history ('54-59).

He formed his own band as a leader in '56 and was also Billie Holiday's chief accompanist for the last two years of her life. It was with her that he first toured Europe. After Billie's death he found fruitful collaborations with Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach and Booker Little/Eric Dolphy (not too mention his joining with Booker ERVIN/Dolphy as well!).

A heroin overdose in '63 destroyed Waldron's memory and ability to play for a few years. Upon recovery he moved to Europe in the mid-'60s, playing with Ben Webster, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie and joining German rock band Embryo for several years. He first toured Japan in '70, becoming a popular artist there and returning many, many times, even marrying a Japanese woman. They lived there part time.

He kicked off two brand new jazz labels around this time, Free At Last was the first album on the new ECM label in '69 and in '71 Enja's debut release was Mal's Black Glory. The '70s saw him continuing recording and touring, playing with Joe Henderson, Charlie Rouse and others.

The '80s & '90s found him often in duo with Steve Lacy exploring the music of Thelonious Monk, as well as dates with Jeanne Lee and Johnny Dyani, while his later albums included work with Archie Shepp and David Murray. His music reached from R&B to bop to avant-garde to rock to free jazz. He also scored for films, ballet and theater. He spoke four languages fluently.

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