The passing of Teddy Wilson is a death in the family--our jazz family, in which the losses lately have accelerated at a terrifying pace.
So much is known about Wilson’s life and times that one tends to neglect lesser aspects that were important, to him if not to the public.
The best remembered years, of course, were the four he spent with Benny Goodman, but there were significant developments before and after that widely publicized era.
It was not Benny Goodman, but Benny Carter who brought Wilson to New York. “I first heard Teddy,” Carter recalled Thursday, “when I was touring with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. We had a night off and I went to Woonsocket, R.I., to hear Speed Webb’s band. Webb had this remarkable 18-year-old pianist, Teddy Wilson, and I kept him in mind. Two years later, in 1933, with some encouragement from John Hammond, I drove to Chicago with a friend and we brought Teddy to New York.”
Wilson played on three sessions with Carter: a small band date that attracted serious attention to him as a new, original sound in jazz piano and two others with Carter’s full orchestra. After the Carter band broke up, both he and Wilson worked in an orchestra led by Willie Bryant, a comedian and emcee; but this was only an interim job for both of them.
“Around this time I began writing arrangements for Benny Goodman,” Carter said. “Oddly enough, I remember recommending Teddy to Benny--not as a pianist, which would have seemed impossible at the time, but as an arranger.”
Wilson never did write any arrangements for Goodman, but after the two men jammed together one night in 1935 at Red Norvo’s home, the empathy between them led to a record date and a concert appearance organized by the young Chicago critic Helen Oakley. Less than three months later Goodman, Wilson and Gene Krupa began the regular public appearances that helped break down segregation in jazz.
When Wilson decided in 1939 to branch out on his own, he organized one of the most unjustly forgotten orchestras of the swing era. Because its records are too few and too short to give an adequate idea of its accomplishments, I feel lucky to have heard the band in person on several occasions at the Golden Gate Ballroom in Harlem.
What incredible sounds those 14 men produced! Teddy Wilson was doing much of the arranging, either alone or in collaboration with Buster Harding, who played second piano in the band. Among the soloists were Ben Webster on tenor sax and Harold Baker on trumpet, both of whom would later earn fame with Duke Ellington.
Teddy wrote a beguiling theme song for his broadcasts, “Little Things That Mean So Much.” He played songs written by his first wife, Irene Kitchings, most memorably “Some Other Spring,” which Billie Holiday immortalized.
Nothing was at fault in the Wilson orchestra except the leader’s personality. He simply could not be a Lionel Hampton extrovert. After barely a year he had to call it quits, and hardly anyone realized how much of a heartbreak that was for him.
True, there were some good times ahead: leading a sextet at Cafe Society for four years, the various trios that followed and the three years on staff at WNEW radio station in New York, followed by many successful European tours. But he offered a virtual imitation of his earlier self, with less improvisation and many familiar, easy-to-recall riffs. He seemed to have lost the incentive to expand on the style he had created, or to explore new avenues.
Wilson’s relationship with Goodman (unlike Hampton’s, which remains friendly to the end) was less than cordial. Wilson rejoined Goodman only occasionally, touring the Soviet Union with him in 1962, but Wilson did so only when the terms met his rigid demands, and then with reluctance.
To recall Wilson in his prime, one has to go back to the original Goodman sessions, or, better yet, to the unique record dates he led from 1935 to ’39 for Columbia’s Brunswick label.
Wilson would handpick from six to nine sidemen from whatever great bands were in town. At one time or another Cootie Williams, Harry James, Buck Clayton, Jonah Jones, Bobby Hackett or Roy Eldridge might be on hand, along with Benny Goodman or Pee Wee Russell, Johnny Hodges or Benny Carter, Gene Krupa or Jo Jones, Lester Young or Vido Musso, and, on most of the sessions, Billie Holiday.
Those were the definitive small band records of the swing years and the ultimate proof that swing music was not strictly a big-band idiom.
Wilson later made hundreds of recordings, but none could quite reach the same level of achievement. If he had done nothing more in his singular career than produce that series of performances, then his name still would surely be etched in the history books.