Teddy Wilson: American Jazz Hero7 minute read

Teddy Wilson was one of the most consequential figures in jazz right when jazz was making its greatest impact on American society, the 1930s. This alone would make him one of the music’s greatest heroes. He has been called “the Jackie Robinson of jazz,” and despite the anachronism, this is no exaggeration.

Eleven years before Robinson integrated major league baseball, Wilson joined Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa to form the Benny Goodman Trio, the first racially mixed, high-profile musical group to make publicized live appearances before paying audiences in the United States. Wilson was almost ideally suited, in both his impeccable musicianship and his temperament, to bear up under the pressure of this role. In fact, his piano playing precisely matched his personality: understated, self-assured, cool, controlled, elegant.

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Wilson is heard on a staggering number of classic jazz recordings from the ’thirties, yet his sound never grates, never wears out its welcome. His music washes over the listener with a soothing smoothness, like an expertly mixed hot toddy for the ear. Perhaps the most distinctive element of Wilson’s keyboard style is his touch, that little hint of restraint and modulation in his dynamics. His sophistication of technique conveys a sound classical training. Goodman wrote that “my pleasure in playing with Teddy Wilson equalled the pleasure I got out of playing Mozart.”

Benny Goodman (third from left) with some of his former musicians, seated around piano left to right: Vernon Brown, George Auld, Gene Krupa, Clint Neagley, Ziggy Elman, Israel Crosby and Teddy Wilson (at piano), 1952. World Telegram & Sun photo by Fred Palumbo. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public domain.
Teddy Wilson (at piano), with Benny Goodman (third from left), seated around piano left to right: Vernon Brown, George Auld, Gene Krupa, Clint Neagley, Ziggy Elman, and Israel Crosby. 1952. World Telegram & Sun photo by Fred Palumbo. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public domain.

Wilson’s solo work overflows with spontaneous melodic ideas. Often he plays two melodies simultaneously, introducing contrapuntal melodic lines in the left hand along with stride figures, walking tenths, and other devices. Early in his career he spent time with Art Tatum, picking up many effects. He could do everything Tatum could do—well, all right, let’s say a great deal of what Tatum could do!—but he never, as a rule, allowed glissandi or other decorative effects to break the rhythmic flow.

He’ll often fill in a rest in the melody with a right-hand run or trill, but these ornaments are used only to add texture and invariably remain tightly within the bounds of both the bar line and his refined taste. Wilson’s physical presence, especially as a young man—the smoldering intelligence in his lean, handsome features—reinforced the sense of quiet authority that was audible whenever his fingers struck the keys.

Teddy Wilson: American Jazz Hero
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Teddy Wilson: American Jazz Hero
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Teddy Wilson: American Jazz Hero
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Tuskegee Childhood

Men like this do not just appear out of nowhere to make their mark on history; character formation starts with one’s upbringing. Theodore Shaw Wilson, born November 24, 1912, in Austin, Texas, was the child of two accomplished educators. When he was six, the family moved to Alabama, where his father had been hired to head the English department at the famous Tuskegee Institute. Tuskegee’s longtime leader, Booker T. Washington, had died just a few years earlier. Wilson’s mother also taught at the school and later became head librarian. Teaching basic literacy to adult blacks “required a great deal of tact and insight on the part of the teacher,” Wilson recalls in his memoir, Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz, “but my mother fortunately possessed these qualities in ample measure.”

Wilson received his elementary and secondary education at Tuskegee, and began music lessons around age seven, along with older brother Gus. He learned piano first, then violin, oboe, and clarinet. Around 1927, when he was 14, he got his first exposure to jazz on gramophone records such as Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer’s “Singin’ the Blues.” That summer on vacation in Detroit, the brothers heard McKinney’s Cotton Pickers at the Graystone Ballroom. They were both hooked and became dead set on musical careers.

Pearl Wilson demanded her younger son give college a try first, so Teddy dutifully matriculated at Talladega College in Alabama. After one year studying music theory, he got his mother’s blessing to join Gus in Detroit. Soon they were both members of Speed Webb’s territory band, Gus on trombone, Teddy on piano. Around the end of 1930, Wilson moved to Toledo, Ohio, to join a combo led by Milton Senior. He was filling a spot vacated by Tatum, who’d been offered a daily radio show in Toledo, his hometown. The two ticklers got along well and went out together nearly every night to after-hours clubs and private parties. (Holy Toledo!)

By late 1931, Wilson was in Chicago. He played in bands led by Erskine Tate, Eddie Mallory, and Jimmie Noone, and spent a few months touring and recording as a member of Louis Armstrong’s orchestra. In 1933 he married the pianist and composer Irene Edie. She wrote several tunes memorably recorded by Billie Holiday, including “Some Other Spring” and “I’m Pulling Through.” They were eventually divorced; Wilson had three other marriages in his lifetime, producing five children.

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Hammond’s Patronage

At this point, the wealthy young New York jazz maven John Hammond, a major behind-the-scenes player on the 1930s jazz scene, enters the story. One evening listening to the radio, Hammond caught a broadcast from Chicago’s Grand Terrace ballroom and phoned the station to learn the name of the pianist who was filling in so brilliantly for Earl Hines that night. He soon had a conversation about his find with Benny Carter, who already knew and admired Wilson. In later years, Carter and Hammond differed in their recollection of who had the idea to invite Wilson to join Carter’s band in New York. The agreed facts are that during their talk, Hammond handed Carter $150 to go recruit Wilson; Carter then traveled to Chicago by car in September 1933 and got his man. The very day they hit New York, Hammond ushered them into the studio to record with the Chocolate Dandies.

Teddy WilsonOf all the artists with whom Hammond associated in his long career—or to whom he “latched on,” as he put it—Wilson is arguably the one whom he provided the most concrete career assistance, and the one with whom, so far as we know, he enjoyed the most untroubled relationship. In his memoir, Wilson praises Hammond’s “unfailing acumen and discernment in things musical” and thanks his patron for introducing him not only to Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday but to New York’s cultural life.

Once in New York, things started happening fast for Wilson. Carter’s orchestra soon disbanded and the pianist bounced into Willie Bryant’s group. He started getting frequent studio work and played during intermission at the Famous Door on 52nd Street. In 1935 Hammond secured him a contract with Brunswick to lead small group jazz recordings with a rotating cast of hand-picked sidemen as well as Holiday, the ace vocalist Hammond was touting. One evening in June, a little before the first Brunswick date, Wilson attended a party at the home of “Mr. and Mrs. Swing,” Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey. That evening in Forest Hills, Queens, became legendary for the jam session between Goodman and Wilson, plus an amateur percussionist drumming on a suitcase. The rapport between the two outstanding musicians was unmistakable. The Goodman Trio made its first records a few weeks later, to great critical acclaim.

Wilson became the linchpin in the left-leaning Hammond’s campaign to integrate popular music. To be sure, racially mixed groups of musicians sometimes got together in the recording studio—it happened more frequently once Hammond was organizing sessions—and in after-hours jams. The bread and butter of the music business, however, was scheduled public performances, and those remained strictly segregated in both the south and the north until the mid-1930s. But Hammond saw in the young pianist, much as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner, later recognized in Jackie Robinson, character traits that would fortify him against the haters and help him rise above the inevitable setbacks and provocations.

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As he wrote in his memoir John Hammond On Record, he believed Wilson’s middle-class family background and Tuskegee education had instilled in him “the bearing, demeanor, and attitude toward life which would enable him to survive in a white society…he not only had the talent to make it in any surroundings, but the mental and emotional equipment to do so.”

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The breakthrough event, by historical consensus, was Benny Goodman’s Easter Sunday concert in 1936 at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, organized by Helen Oakley of the Chicago Rhythm Club. Wilson, Goodman, and Krupa performed as an entr’acte between two sets by the full orchestra. The King of Swing chose to keep his big band all white, with Jess Stacy as the pianist, but at that point Goodman hired Wilson as a full-time member of his touring organization.Benny Goodman Quartet Press Photo

That summer the trio became a quartet with the addition of the vibes phenomenon Lionel Hampton. Through live appearances, radio, and records, Goodman’s small groups became immensely popular and introduced the notion of “chamber jazz” to the broad public, most notably at the famous Carnegie Hall concert of January 1938. [Also See: Some Reflections on Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall.]

Wilson was still leading the small-group Brunswick sessions that made Holiday a star. She performed with him live at the Famous Door a few times, but their collaboration was mostly confined to these magical discs, which contain most of her early jukebox hits such as “These Foolish Things,” “Carelessly,” and “Mean to Me.” Other vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne also took part in these sessions, along with many star sidemen from the Goodman, Ellington, Basie, and other orchestras. These top players accepted union-scale pay to play on the Wilson sessions, participating mostly for the pleasure of working with other musicians at their elevated level.

By 1939, Wilson’s exposure in the Goodman Trio and Quartet made him perhaps the most famous pianist in jazz. He quit Goodman that year, at the height of the big band fashion, to start his own orchestra. He brought in star instrumentalists such as Ben Webster, Rudy Powell, and Harold “Shorty” Baker, plus a proficient rhythm section, but the band’s tidy sound failed to catch on with the public. Wilson’s artistry proved most accessible in the small-group settings and underneath vocalists. He disbanded after a year and a half to accept the job of house bandleader at New York’s hippest jazz club, Café Society in Greenwich Village. The city’s first fully integrated nightspot, on and off the bandstand, sold itself as “the wrong place for the right people.” The venue’s owner, Barney Josephson, had delegated picking the talent largely to Hammond.

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With a 4F classification, Wilson rode out the war years leading a sextet at Café Society. The blatantly radical ambience of the place didn’t bother him in the least. Wilson was more committed to social justice than most celebrity musicians of the time, an active participant in the left-wing politics of the Popular Front. He played fundraisers for the Spanish Republicans, struggling trade unions, refugees escaping fascist Europe, Ethiopians resisting the Italian invasion, and other progressive causes. He helped organize a committee in Harlem to oppose discrimination in culture and entertainment. One colleague in these efforts branded him the “Marxist Mozart.”

Wilson lived four more productive decades after World War II. Tastes in popular music changed with the times, while Wilson, never the most adventurous of keyboard artists, declined to revise his methods or repertoire. He remained in great public esteem, but as befitted this soft-spoken man, he did a larger share of his work away from the limelight. He worked in radio for much of the ’40s and ’50s. He taught jazz piano at the Juilliard School and around New York. For some time he sold instructional books and recordings through a correspondence course called the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists.

He recorded many albums for Columbia and Verve, two highlights being Pres and Teddy (1959, with Lester Young) and the solo album With Billie in Mind (1972). He performed in Europe and other parts of the world, including the highly publicized 1962 Benny Goodman State Department tour of the Soviet Union. Wilson played himself in Hollywood’s Benny Goodman Story movie (1955), and performed in numerous reunion concerts with Goodman, Krupa, and Hampton. He appeared at one final Goodman tribute in 1985, already suffering from the stomach cancer that took his life the following July. In his final years he played in a trio with two of his sons, Theodore on bass and Steven on drums.

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