100 Jazz Profiles
1912 - 1986
Pianist. The most elegant and naturally tasteful pianist of the swing era, Teddy Wilson's style was a conscious blend of Fats Waller, Earl Hines and Art Tatum. Although he lacked Waller's powerful striding left hand, he achieved similar swinging momentum, to which he added Hines's clarity of melodic phrasing and Tatum's dazzling ability to run from one end of the keyboard to the other.
His airy, effortless style, with its emphasis on lightly accompanied right-hand melody, was a key element in the transition from swing to bebop, and many modern jazz pianists took Wilson's approach as their starting point. He was raised in Alabama, but got his musical breaks when he and his trombonist brother Gus left home for Detroit, where they joined the territory band of Speed Webb.
Later Wilson worked in Toledo , Ohio, where he got to know Tatum, whom he replaced in Milt Senior's quartet, but he found his feet as a musician in Chicago in the early 1930s, playing and recording with Louis Armstrong. Then he worked with Benny Carter in New York, and began a long career as a freelance recording artist that culminated in his marvellous series of discs with Billie Holiday.
On some of these Benny Goodman played clarinet, and in 1936 Wilson joined Goodman's entourage as pianist in the trio (and later quartet) that played alongside the big band. This brought him to national fame, and in 1939 he left to lead his own big band. This failed, but Wilson led a highly successful sextet for the first half of the 1940s, at New York's Cafe Society.
From the mid-1940s onwards, he frequently led his own trio, but also rejoined Goodman periodically. Although he recorded prolifically in his later years, his most brilliant work dates from the 1930s and 1940s, although he maintained a phenomenally consistent standard until the end of his life, including a trio with his sons Teddy Jr. on bass and Steven on drums.
His recording partnerships of the 1950s included significant albums with Lester Young and Benny Carter (both for Verve) in which Wilson's economical style was a perfect setting for each saxophonist. Because of his influence and longevity, he is regarded by many critics as the most significant pianist of the swing era.
Teddy Wilson (with Arie Ligthart and Humphrey Van Loo) Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz (London, Cassell, 1996)
Teddy Wilson with Billie Holiday (ASV Living Era AJA 5053)
Suggested track: I Wished on the Moon
With info, audio and links to Ken Burns' film Jazz.
on radio 3
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