Mal Waldron, a versatile pianist perhaps best known to jazz enthusiasts for his mainstream work as Billie Holiday’s last accompanist, has died. He was 77.
Waldron died Monday in Brussels of complications from cancer, said his manager, Rob Leurentop.
In a varied career, Waldron played with some of the giants of jazz, including bassist Charles Mingus, and recorded with saxophone legend John Coltrane. He accompanied Holiday from 1957 until her death in 1959, and in the early 1960s played in a quartet led by saxophonist Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Booker Little.
Waldron moved to Europe in the 1960s, where he found jazz work more plentiful and, he told the International Herald Tribune, where there were fewer restrictions on smoking.
A thin, angular man, Waldron was born in New York City. As a child, he aspired to be a classical pianist, but he took up the alto saxophone and began playing jazz. He switched to jazz piano while attending Queens College at City University of New York, where he earned a degree in composition.
He worked with various bands in New York after his graduation and made his first recording with saxophonist Ike Quebec in 1950. He joined Mingus in 1954 and played with him for several years before forming his own quintet. He recorded albums for Prestige Records and then led the house band and arranged for artists such as Coltrane and trumpeter Art Farmer.
One of Waldron’s best-known compositions, “Soul Eyes,” was written for Coltrane. As a composer, Waldron also worked in film and wrote music for two plays by LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka): “The Slave” and “The Dutchman.”
In the early 1960s, Waldron turned to avant-garde jazz as a member of an influential quintet led by Dolphy and Little that played at the Five Spot, a New York club, in 1961. Waldron later recorded with Dolphy.
But his career tumbled in 1963 when he suffered a nervous breakdown. He learned to play again by listening to his recordings.
He settled in Munich in the mid-1960s and learned to speak French, German, Italian and Japanese. He lived in Germany for several years before moving to Brussels.
His most interesting work over the last few years was with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy.
Waldron worked steadily in Europe over the last several decades, returning to the United States a couple of times a year for engagements.
He played his last concert in Lille, France, just two weeks ago.
He is survived by seven children from two marriages.