‘Classic Brunswick & Columbia Teddy Wilson Sessions 1934-1942’ Review: The Peacemaker of the Piano
A boxed set shows how the musician’s elegant swing transformed the jazz keyboard from an instrument of battle into a conversational member of small groups and big-band rhythm sections.
April 13, 2018 1:22 p.m. ET
Teddy Wilson c. 1960 Photo: Getty Images
Up until Teddy Wilson’s emergence in the mid-1930s, the jazz piano was an instrument of battle. Hard-charging stride pianists such as Fats Waller, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Art Tatum, James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith sat down at the keyboard with the express purpose of teaching rivals a lesson.
With the release of “Classic Brunswick & Columbia Teddy Wilson Sessions 1934-1942,” a new seven-CD boxed set from Mosaic Records, we hear how Wilson’s elegant swing refined the jazz piano and transformed the keyboard into a conversational member of small groups and big-band rhythm sections. Over the course of the box’s 169 tracks, Wilson’s piano transitioned from the busy style of early stride contemporaries to a more graceful approach that would influence a generation of pianists in the 1940s and ’50s.
During the nine years covered in this box, Wilson relaxed the pronounced syncopation in his left hand and developed a lushness and sophistication in his right. Like most stylistic shifts in jazz, the evolution was born of necessity. Swing demanded it.
Though the Swing Era began in the early 1930s with the rise of African-American dance bands, the music didn’t reach white audiences until 1935, when Benny Goodman became a national sensation. When Goodman hired Wilson that summer for his trio with drummer Gene Krupa, an oom-pah bass line on the piano would have been too heavy and overpowering.
Instead, Wilson used his right hand to accompany Goodman, spraying twinkling notes around the clarinetist’s solo lines. It’s also important to note that by joining the Benny Goodman Trio, Wilson became one of the first African-American musicians to appear in an integrated group. The move was risky at the time for both Wilson and Goodman.
Courtly and urbane, Wilson was self-assured even as a child. Born in Austin, Texas, in November 1912, he began formal piano lessons at age 7. Both of his parents were educators. At Talladega College, a historically black school in Alabama, he studied music theory and classical piano but left after a year.
Wilson relocated to Detroit, where his aunt had taken him on summer vacations. He began his professional career there in 1929 before moving on to Toledo, Ohio, where he befriended Art Tatum.
Wilson was a fast study. When Tatum left Milt Senior’s band to take a job playing on WSPD radio in Toledo, Wilson inherited his chair. He spent 1931 and ’32 touring with Senior’s drummer-less band. In 1933, Wilson joined a band assembled by Zilner Randolph to back Louis Armstrong. At 21, with less than four years of professional band work, Wilson was already a standout player.
That fall, Wilson traveled to New York to record with Benny Carter. There, Wilson was befriended by Columbia producer John Hammond, who nudged Goodman to hire Wilson for a nonet recording on May 14, 1934. Then Hammond helped Wilson land a contract with Brunswick.
The new boxed set opens with Wilson’s first four solo recordings: “Somebody Loves Me,” “Sweet and Simple,” “Liza” and “Rosetta.” In October 1935, four more solo recordings were made. As evidenced by the second “Liza,” Wilson’s playing style was fast becoming streamlined.
Many of Wilson’s orchestral sessions are here as well. Once Wilson established himself as a bankable bandleader in 1935, Brunswick began recording him leading groups with A-list artists, including Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, as well as Goodman and his band’s trumpeter Harry James.
In November 1937, Wilson recorded two solo sides, “Don’t Blame Me” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” deftly reworking the songs’ melodies. By April 1941, on his solo recording of “Rosetta,” there are marked shifts in his style and harmony. For example, his signature right-hand tremolo is fully established. Another Wilsonian hallmark is evident: a fondness for letting his right hand amble into the upper register only to swan dive down the keys with a great flourish.
Perhaps the high point on the box is a solo recording session on April 11, 1941 for a series of Columbia 78s. Featured from this session are numerous previously unreleased takes, including nine of “I Surrender Dear” plus the master. These provide a glimpse into the high standards Wilson set for himself. Another charming surprise is the September 1941 session with a 24-year-old Lena Horne singing “Out of Nowhere” and “Prisoner of Love,” with solos by trombonist Benny Morton and clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton.
One small drawback: While this box lays out an engaging roadmap of Wilson’s development, it’s missing all of the Wilson-led Billie Holiday band recordings for Brunswick. Obviously too much for one set.
Clearly, Goodman’s support and roaming clarinet were major influences on Wilson. As Goodman wrote in the foreword to Wilson’s 1996 autobiography, “Teddy Talks Jazz,” “My pleasure in playing with Teddy Wilson equaled the pleasure I got out of playing Mozart, and that’s saying something.”
In the years after 1942, jazz piano styles changed dramatically, starting with bebop in 1946. Through it all, up until his death in 1986, Wilson continued to play in his Swing Era style. Postwar piano greats including Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans were listening.
Mr. Myers, a frequent contributor to the Journal, writes daily about music and the arts at JazzWax.com. He is the author of “Anatomy of a Song” (Grove).