Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Waldron, Mal (Malcom Earl)

Mal Waldron’s piano style – dense, roomy and roguish – made him one of the few who managed to fully absorb Thelonious Monk's keyboard innovations into his own truly personal approach as a player and composer.

A member of Charles Mingus’s Jazz Composer’s Workshops, the in-house pianist for Prestige Records, and a close collaborator with John Coltrane and Steve Lacy, Waldron's bottom-heavy sound graced more than a hundred recordings, primarily during the heyday of hard bop in the 1950s and early 1960s.

After a mental and physical breakdown in 1963, Waldron relocated to Europe. His recovery and resurgence as a prolific performer attest to the possibility for renewal in the career of a groundbreaking American jazz musician who found a more supportive environment for his craft.

Although it is widely reported that Malcolm Earl Waldron was born in New York City on August 16, 1926, more recent research suggests he was likely born on the same date in 1925. He began taking classical piano lessons somewhere between the ages of eight and ten, and by his teenage years he had developed an interest in jazz piano and the alto saxophone.

After high school, Waldron entered the U.S. Army, where he trained cavalry horses in New York City. Waldron was therefore able to remain in New York and absorb the innovations of bebop, while many other musicians only came in contact with these after the war.

Upon his discharge, Waldron enrolled in Queens College and studied composition with famed classical composer Karol Rathaus, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949. After giving up the saxophone around this time, Waldron began gigging in and around New York City as a pianist.

Waldron’s first gigs were in rhythm and blues bands, most notably with Big Nick Nicholas. In 1950, he debuted with tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec at the Café Society, and made some of his first recordings with Quebec and drummer Kansas Fields in 1952.

In 1954, Waldron’s career took a significant turn when he joined Charles Mingus’s Jazz Composer’s Workshop, with which he gigged for upwards of two years, including appearances at the 1955 and 1956 Newport Jazz Festivals. He recorded with Mingus on multiple occasions, including Jazz Composer’s Workshop (1954), Mingus at the Bohemia (1955), The Charles Mingus Quintet + Max Roach (1955), which featured “A Foggy Day," and Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956).

Mal Waldron then became the house pianist and arranger at Prestige Records through the late 1950s, highlighted by his multiple recordings with saxophonists Jackie McLean (4, 5, and 6; Jackie’s Pal; Jackie McLean and Co.; Makin’ the Changes) and Gene Ammons (Jammin’ with Gene; Funky; Jammin’ in Hi Fi with Gene Ammons).

Waldron was also a member of the “Prestige All-Stars” during this period, which featured the label's top players, including Donald Byrd, Art Farmer, Thad Jones, Hank Mobley, Al Cohn, Kenny Burrell, and John Coltrane, in various combinations.

On March 22, 1957, Waldron, Coltrane and another tenor saxophone player, Bobby Jaspar, joined forces for a Prestige All-Star date, on which they performed “Soul Eyes,” a Waldron composition which quickly became a jazz standard. A month later, Coltrane joined forces with Waldron and two baritone saxophonists, Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne, for a memorable session which has since been released under the title Dakar.

Throughout the mid to late 1950s, Waldron also released his first recordings as a leader. His first for the Prestige label, Mal-1, reveals two fine Waldron compositions: “D’s Dilemna” and “Bud Study.” Mal-2, from 1957, includes both Jackie McLean and John Coltrane, and Mal-3/Sounds presents an innovative lineup of Art Farmer on trumpet, Eric Dixon on flute, Calo Scott on cello, and Elvin Jones on drums.

In 1957, in addition to his work as a sideman and leader for Prestige Records, Mal Waldron became Billie Holiday’s accompanist throughout the last two years of her life. He recorded with her at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 with Joe Benjamin on bass and Jo Jones on drums, as well as on the albums Lady in Satin (1958), Easy to Remember (1958)

and Billie Holiday at Monterrey (1958) A classic recording of “Fine and Mellow,” famously recorded live for CBS television with Holiday, Waldron, and the tenor trio of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster, can also be found on Billie Holiday: Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959.

In 1958, Waldron made one of his first recordings with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy on Reflections, an all-Monk quartet featuring fine performances from Lacy, Waldron and drummer Elvin Jones on “Four in One." The pair's shared passion for Monk’s catalog created a long-standing musical kinship, and the two would re-connect and become important figures in the second half of each other’s recording careers.

Upon Billie Holiday’s death, Waldron worked with singer Abbey Lincoln and her husband at the time, Max Roach, on Lincoln’s famed Straight Ahead album in 1961. Members of this all-star lineup included Coleman Hawkins, Julian Priester, and two intense young talents in trumpeter Booker Little and alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy.

After Waldron and Dolphy crossed paths again on Ron Carter’s Where? session. Waldron recruited Dolphy to join tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, bassist Joe Benjamin, cellist/bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Charlie Persip for one of Waldron’s best known sessions, The Quest, of which “Fire Waltz” is a hard-bopping highlight.

Directly following The Quest session, Waldron became a sideman for Dolphy and trumpeter Booker Little for their classic run at the Five Spot nightclub. Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot Volumes 1 and 2 captures exciting modern jazz that blurs the defining lines between classic bebop, progressive post bop, and free jazz exploration. “Bee Vamp,” from Volume 1, exemplifies this new sound.

Following his work with Dolphy, Waldron worked in Max Roach’s groups throughout the remainder of 1961 and the beginning of 1962. Concurrently, Waldron recorded multiple sessions for the groundbreaking instructional “play-along” series, Music Minus One.

In 1963, Waldron experienced a breakdown that was likely a combination of a drug overdose compounded by anxiety and exhaustion. Waldron said later about his post-breakdown condition: “I couldn't remember my name. My hands were trembling. I couldn't play the piano. I needed shock treatments and a spinal tap to bring me back."

Waldron gradually regained physical and emotional strength, and dedicated himself to relearning the piano, as jazz mythology would have it, by listening to his own pre-breakdown recordings. After a few years, Waldron sounded as strong as ever on his 1966 solo record, All Alone. His playing on this record suggests that his dark, minimalist, lower-half-of-the-piano style had intensified during his time away from public performance.

Desiring a drastic change of scenery, Waldron permanently relocated to Europe in 1965. After two years in Paris, Waldron relocated to Munich in 1967, where he lived for well over twenty-five years.

Throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s, Waldron toured the world and recorded frequently as a leader and sideman. In 1969, Waldron released Set Me Free, a fine trio record with bassist Barre Phillips and Philly Joe Jones. On November 24, 1969, Waldron recorded Free at Last in Ludwigsburg, West Germany, the first recording for the legendary ECM label.

In 1970, Waldron traveled to Japan, where an immediately warm reception resulted in a fruitful relationship between Waldron and the Japanese jazz scene over the next two decades. Two of Waldron’s handful of sessions recorded in Japan are: Mal: Live 4 to 1, a collection that includes both solo piano pieces and duets with Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, and Mal Waldron/Gary Peacock Trio, both recorded during trips to Japan in 1971.

In the early 1970s, Mal Waldron also reconnected with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, and the two recorded together on a quartet outing entitled Journey Without End, and two quintet/sextet dates: Mal Waldron with the Steve Lacy Quintet and Hard Talk.

With the exception of a few recordings, most notably the Waldron/Jackie McLean reunion on Like Old Time, Waldron recorded rarely in the mid to late 1970s. He returned to New York for an extended period in 1975 to 1976, however, and participated in the under-the-radar “loft scene” of the time. He also continued touring throughout Europe and Japan.

In the 1980s, Waldron’s recorded output increased again, leading one-off bands for single session dates and recording some of his finest music with longtime musical collaborator, Steve Lacy. On August 13-15, 1981, Waldron and Lacy recorded a series of duets, including “A Case of Plus 4’s” and “Snake-Out” released on Snake-Out. In the same span of three days, the duo added trumpeter Enrico Rava to form a trio for another full record’s worth of material, released as Let’s Call This.

Waldron’s additional recordings from the first half of the 1980s featured some of his most accessible, straight-ahead playing on record. He teamed with George Mraz and Al Foster on Mal 81 (1981); Clifford Jordan, Cecil McBee and Dannie Richmond on What it Is;Joe Henderson and Billy Higgins on One Entrance, Many Exits; and the stunning rhythm section of Waldron, Reggie Workman and Ed Blackwell on a collection of re-arranged pop/rock tunes entitled Breaking New Ground (1983).

In the second half of the 1980s, Waldron experimented with duet recordings, choosing partners that included bassist David Friesen and saxophonists Steve Lacy and Jim Pepper, among others. He also released two highly revered recordings from a 1986 stint at the Village Vanguard, Git Go: Live at the Village Vanguard and The Seagulls of Kristiansund, both of which featured Woody Shaw, Charlie Rouse, Reggie Workman, and Ed Blackwell.

Throughout the 1990s, Waldron partook in fewer sessions, yet there will still a handful of standout recordings with new collaborators and longtime partners. He recorded yet another series of duets with Steve Lacy on Hot House (1990), featuring the Herbie Nichols’ tune, “House Party Starting,"and recorded two series of duets with baritone saxophonist George Haslam on Waldron/Haslam (1994) and Two New (1995).

In 2001, Waldron recorded a series of duets with saxophonist/bass clarinetist David Murray entitled Silence, featuring another fine reading of Waldron’s now-classic “Soul Eyes.” Waldron then released two of his final sessions, the first of which was a Billie Holiday tribute entitled Left Alone Revisited, a February, 2001 collection of duets with Archie Shepp. Also in early 2002, Waldron recorded with his good friend Steve Lacy on a series of solos, duets, and trios (with Jean-Jacques Avenel added on bass) on the aptly titled, One More Time.

A long-time smoker, Waldron was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early 2000s and succumbed to the disease on December 2, 2002, in Brussels, Belgium. He was married twice and was survived by his seven children.

Although little on Waldron's life and music has been published, there is a hard-to-find documentary film entitled Mal (1997), in which he discusses his life and music. Additionally, Waldron himself composed the score to several films, which include: Cool World (1964), Trois Chambres a Manhattan (1965), and Tokyo Blues (1986).

Etched in bop but never intent on being defined as a bop musician, Mal Waldron expanded the horizons of jazz pianists in the 1950s and 1960s with his hard-bop, post-bop, and free-jazz leanings. His classical training, dedication to Monk’s musical legacy, and sustained individuality combined to create one of jazz’s most fascinating discographies and personalities.

Select Discography:

As a Leader:

Mal-1 (1956)

Mal-2 (1957)

Mal-3, Sounds (1958)

Mal-4, Trio (1958)

Left Alone (1959)

The Quest (1961)

Sweet Love, Bitter Love (1967)

Free at Last (1969)

First Encounter (1971)

Blues for Lady Day (1972)

One-Upsmanship (1977)

Mal 81 (1981)

What It Is (1981)

One Entrance, Many Exits (1982)

Breaking New Ground (1983)

Dedication (1985)

Git-Go: Live at the Village Vanguard (1986)

Seagulls of Kristiansund (1986)

Where Are You? (1989)

Waldron/Haslam (1994)

Two New (1995)

With Charles Mingus:

Jazz Composer’s Workshop (1954)

Mingus at the Bohemia (1955)

The Charles Mingus Quintet + Max Roach (1955),Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956)

With Steve Lacy:

Soprano Sax (1957)

Reflections (1958)

Journey Without End (1971)

Snake-Out (1981)

Let’s Call This (1981)

Sempre Amore (1986)

Hot House (1990)

With Jackie McLean:

New Tradition (1955)

4, 5, and 6 (1956)

Jackie’s Pal (1956)

Jackie McLean and Co. (1957)

Makin’ the Changes (1957)

With Billie Holiday:

Lady in Satin (1958)

Easy to Remember (1958)

Billie Holiday at Monterrey(1958)

Additional Recordings:

Dakar (John Coltrane, 1957)

Interplay for Two Trumpets and Two Tenors (John Coltrane and Bobby Jaspar, 1957)

Earthy (Prestige All-Stars, 1957)

Here and There (Eric Dolphy, 1960)

Intercontournables (Eric Dolphy, 1960)

Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Volumes 1 and 2 (Eric Dolphy with Booker Little, 1961)

Straight Ahead (Abbey Lincoln, 1961)

It’s Time (Max Roach, 1962)

Contributor: Eric Novod