Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Twardzik, Dick (Richard Henryk)

Richard Henryk Twardzik was born on April 30, 1931 in Danvers, Massachusetts. His first words were reportedly "nice music" - an auspicious beginning for a pianist's biography. He studied under Margaret Chaloff, a highly respected Boston teacher, and mother of baritonist Serge Chaloff (with whom Twardzik often gigged), and made his first commercial record with Charles Mariano on the LP The New Sounds from Boston released in 1952. Twardzik only appears on one track on this release, produced by Ira Gitler, but his solo on Mariano's bristly composition "Mariners" gives notice of his iconoclastic pianism.

Twardzik at this stage was not only absorbing the vocabulary of modern jazz, but also soaking up the sounds of contemporary classical music. Just as Brubeck, around this same time, had found a way of marrying his jazz inclinations with the sound universe he learned through his studies with Darius Milhaud, Twardzik was finding a similar source of inspiration in the music of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartok and other leaders of the new thing in classical music. As Twardzik brought these elements into his combo work, he created a provocative hybrid, much more than mere imitation, but rather a fresh trail blazed in the annals of American music.

    Richard Twardzik with Peter Littman in the background
  Photo probably by Nick Dean (From the Twardzik / Thompson
   Archive, courtesy of Rosamond Thompson & Jane Sumner)

Others were taking notice of Twardzik by this time. Nat Hentoff mentioned him in a piece in Downbeat from December 1951, quoting Serge Chaloff's comments about an "amazingly mature young pianist" in his band. But the following year, Twardzik came to the attention of Charlie Parker, the living embodiment of jazz modernism at the time. Parker probably heard Twardzik playing intermission piano during Bird's March 3-9, 1952 engagement at the High Hat. If anyone in the jazz elite was capable of appreciating what Twardzik was all about it would have been Parker, with his own sensitivity to the significance of modernist classical composers for the jazz idiom. Bootleg recordings of Parker and Twardzik's work together have survived, but merely whet our appetite for more of the same.

It may be worth noting that Parker, during this same Boston engagement, praised Bela Bartok in a radio interview. "Bartok is my favorite, you know," was Bird's comment. Few, if any, jazz musicians of the day, had a better grasp of Bartok than Dick Twardzik, and one would give much to be a fly on the wall when these two modern jazz artists were conversing about matters musical.

The opportunity to travel to Europe with Chet Baker was both a great opportunity for Twardzik, but also set in motion the events leading up to his death. "Chet wanted me to go to Europe with him," Russ Freeman later explained to me, "but I could see where he was heading with the drugs." When Freeman turned down the gig, Baker hired Twardzik, who he had heard during an engagement at Boston's Storyville club.

Freeman also helped arrange for Twardzik's now legendary session for the Pacific label. "When I heard him play he sounded so unique and so different that I called up Dick Bock [producer for Pacific]," Freeman recounted to me. "I told him about this fantastic piano player I had heard. And Dick said 'Why don't you do a recording?' So we went up to New Jersey to Rudy Van Gelder's studio and did the album. I'm glad we did it, because it's one of the few things Dick ever recorded."

These recordings rank among the finest jazz piano trio sides of the era. On "A Crutch for the Crab," Twardzik starts with a sprightly on-the-beat march that gradually veers into a dark landscape of off-kilter rhythms, mutant stride piano excursions, and a conception of right and left hand integration well beyond what passed for progressive jazz in those days. The harmonic reconfiguration of "I'll Remember April," is brilliant, and the trading fours with the drummer toward the conclusion is volcanic in intensity. His interpretation of "Bess, You Is My Woman" is a case study in the jazz-ballad-as-art-song. This latter performance is worth hearing for the pedaling alone - and how often can you say that about a jazz track? But even more striking is his splashes of sound color - the term "voicings" hardly does justice to what Twardzik is doing with the changes.

Twardzik's music is especially noteworthy for his orchestral textures, which stood out in an era of sparse left hand voicings. But this pianist could also reveal new twists even when playing "conventional" right hand bop lines. On "Just One of Those Things," he shows how much he has learned from bop pioneer Bud Powell - in fact, Twardzik sounds as if he has paid close attention to the solo piano version of this song Powell recorded in February 1951. But on this rapid-fire track Twardzik imposes unusual patterns, stretching them across the barlines in ways that Powell would never have done. The effect is exciting and very futuristic.

These tapes were still unreleased when Twardzik left with Baker overseas on an itinerary that included Paris, London, Geneva, Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam, Stuttgart, Berlin, Milan, Rome and other locales. Here he made some additional recordings alongside the trumpeter that have added to Twardzik's posthumous reputation.

Dick Twardzik would never return home from this tour. He died of a heroin overdose on October 21, 1955. He was expected at a recording session with Baker, and when he didn't show, someone was sent to his hotel room. No one answered at the locked door, and when it was finally broken, Twardzik was found, already dead, with the spike still in his arm.

Some have suggested suicide, and note the locked door as evidence for this. But Twardzik's biographer Chambers argues persuasively that Twardzik had not revealed any suicidal impulses, and his demise was simply the result of what is called "death by misadventure." Chambers notes that many addicts have close calls and survive. This was that time when the odds tilted in the other direction.

Given his early passing, it would be all to easy to forget Richard Twardzik. . . except that his music is anything but forgettable. Even before he had come to the attention of the Pacific Jazz label, Twardzik had stirred up the jazz scene in Boston. "There was this white cat," Cecil Taylor later recalled, "Dick Twardzik . . . He had destroyed some Kenton people by playing like Bud Powell first and getting them all excited and then going into his, at that time, Schoenbergian bag." I agree with those who hear Twardzik's influence in Taylor's early recordings. Twardzik also earned the respect of Steve Kuhn, another student of Madame Chaloff's and a keyboard prodigy. Kuhn has commented: "I admired Twardzik very much, particularly harmonically. He listened to all the modern European composers and was quite advanced."

Herb Pomeroy, a Boston jazz legend in his own right, has noted the impact of musicians encountering Twardzik's music for the first time. "After Dick died," he recalled, "there were a number of musicians I would come in contact with who had never heard of him, or had heard of him but had never heard his playing. I would play the trio recording and they would have a look of disbelief on their faces. I mean, it moves you to tears."

Sources: Jack Chambers, Bouncin' With Bartok: The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik (Tornot: The Mercury Press, 2008).

Contributor: Ted Gioia