Some people go to New York to be discovered. When jazz pianist Cedar Walton drove his Chevy across the country to get there in 1955, it was for anonymity. "Everybody knew me in Dallas," he recalls. "I was 'that Walton kid.' I couldn't get away with shit. Especially in school. My mother was a teacher, my uncle was a principal."
Talking by phone from his home in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, 78-year-old Walton continued: "I had this unconscious feeling of trying to escape this place where everybody knew me. New York is the capital of nobody knowing you. Even if they know you, they pretend they don't."
Walton, who had sat in with touring musicians while studying music at the University of Denver, spent a year in New York, playing low-key gigs (but "mainly just observing," he says) before he was drafted into the Army. Stationed in postwar Germany in the late '50s, he again attempted to lay low. At first he was "miscast" as an electrician, but Walton later worked his way into special services, where he polished his playing and arranging skills alongside musicians like Glenn Miller Orchestra alum Don Ellis and a young Eddie Harris.
"That was a good turn," Walton says of his stint in the Army. "Quite accidentally, mind you, but you've got to take it how it comes."
Walton left the Army with $700 in his pocket, and he wasn't back in New York long before his sharpened musical skills were picked up by scene veterans. Trombonist J.J. Johnson stuck Walton in his band in 1958, and "that was the beginning of my major-league career, so to speak," he says. (The baseball language is no accident—Walton is an avid Yankees fan who first came to New York as a teenager to watch Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.)
Walton's biggest break, though, came in 1961 when Art Blakey enlisted him to play with his Jazz Messengers, a globetrotting outfit that would come to be known as a sort of finishing school for jazz musicians. "He pushed you to be a leader," Walton says. "Well, he didn't have to push Freddie [Hubbard] and Wayne [Shorter], but me, I was the most stubborn."
It wasn't long before Walton stepped reluctantly into the spotlight. Not only did the Messengers play his composition, "Mosaic," they named their 1961 album after it. The song—a beautifully layered, hard-driving number that has become a well-known jazz standard, was one in a handful of tunes Walton would contribute to the group. The tricky and Latin-tinged "Plexis" and the heart-wrenching ballad "When Love is New" would follow.
"Before I met him, I thought being intelligent meant going to Harvard or something," Walton says of Blakey. "But no way—that guy developed his intelligence traveling around the world and playing for kings and queens and mayors and governors."
In his 45 years as a bandleader, Walton has headlined for plenty of heads of state. He has recorded and toured relentlessly through most of those years, but his career is remarkably free of the years-long potholes that dot most of his contemporaries' discographies. He has released well over 40 albums as a bandleader and, for the most part, they are hard to date from just a listen.
When the world wanted jazz lite, Walton released some of his finest, hardest-driving records with his band Eastern Rebellion. And when Walton did veer off the straight-ahead path, he did it his way. Studio-produced records of their era, like 1978's Animation and 1980's Soundscapes, were funky projects both high-concept and high-overhead, but Walton's playing was solid and his knack for arranging on full display. "I enjoyed anything they asked me to do because it was still me," he says. Only one thing changed: "The money went way up...my pockets were full!"
These days, Walton gets the most satisfaction from playing in the trio setting. "It allows me to play in my own atmosphere," he says. Walton's trio on this rare Portland visit includes bassist David Williams and drummer Willie Jones III.
Fate was a little less kind to the Chevy that took Walton to New York than it was to the pianist. "I parked it in the Bronx at my buddy's house," he says. "I'd go visit my car sometimes and it started disappearing. First the tires...."
SEE IT: The Cedar Walton Trio plays Jimmy Mak's, 221 NW 10th Ave., on Tuesday, May 1, and Wednesday, May 2. Both shows 8 pm. $20. All ages until 9:30 pm.