Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Wilson, Teddy (Theodore Shaw)

Pianist Teddy Wilson's astonishing technique and uncompromising sense of swing made him the perfect foil to Billie Holiday, and Lester Young in small-group sessions. A founding member of Benny Goodman's groundbreaking integrated quartet, Wilson was one of the first to bring the true sounds of swing to the white listening audience. His lesser-known recordings with Red Norvo, Jo Jones and Milt Hinton also reward curious listeners.

Theodore Shaw Wilson was born on November 24th, 1912 in Austin, Texas. Both of Wilson’s parents were schoolteachers. When Wilson was six years old, his family moved to Tuskegee, Alabama. Wilson’s first instrument was the violin. Wilson eventually switched to the piano and modeled his style off of Earl Hines early solo records. Wilson attended the Tuskegee Institute as well as studied piano at Talladega College. His first professional spot was playing with Speed Webb whose band included a young Roy Eldridge, whom Wilson would later collaborate and record with. Webb’s band played mainly in and around Detroit. Wilson moved to Chicago in 1931.

While in Chicago, Wilson worked with a number of celebrated musicians including trumpeter Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, and the Erskine Tate Orchestra. Discovered by John Hammond while playing in Chicago, Wilson moved to the East coast to join Benny Goodman’s band the Chocolate Dandies in 1933. Upon arriving in New York, Wilson recorded with the Willy Bryant big band between 1934 and early 1935. Wilson became one of the most prominent piano players of the Swing Era, and is often mentioned in the same breath by pianists with Nat 'King' Cole and Art Tatum.

In 1935, Wilson recorded with vocalist Billie Holiday for his sessions with Columbia Records. Wilson had been convinced by record producer John Hammond to move from Chicago to New York, where Hammond helped him get a deal with the Brunswick label for this band. Wilson’s band at the time included trumpeter Roy Eldridge, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, clarinetist Benny Goodman, and drummer Cozy Cole.

This incredible lineup of musicians is featured, along with Holiday with on the song “What A Little Moonlight Can Do.” On the song ““Yankee Doodle Never Went To Town,” the same band is featured alongside Benny Morton on trombone and John Kirby on bass.

Also in 1935, Wilson recorded with vibraphonist Red Norvo for the first time on the Hep release Dance of the Octopus, which featured Norvo and Wilson along with a big band and Gene Krupa on drums. The band recorded several songs for the album including “Honeysuckle Rose.”

In May of 1937, Wilson and Holiday recorded with tenor saxophonist Lester Young along with Buck Clayton on trumpet, Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, and Cozy Cole on drums. This band is featured on the songs “I’ll Get By” and“Mean To Me.”

In 1935, Wilson was asked to join Benny Goodman's trio, with drummer Gene Krupa. Goodman later added Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, and the quartet became one of the most successful in jazz, and the first integrated group to reach a national audience. The quartet performed at Carnegie Hall on January 16, 1938. The concert, a first for a jazz band as well as for an integrated group, sold out weeks in advance and launched all four members to nationwide fame.

This band can be heard on the song“Moonglow” from the RCA album Original Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet Sessions Volume 1. Another one of Goodman’s best-known songs “Avalon,” featured the same personnel and was featured in the 1955 Goodman bio film The Benny Goodman Story in which Teddy Wilson starred as himself.

Through the late 1930s and early 1940s, Wilson acted as Billie Holiday’s musical director and continued to play with Benny Goodman. Many of Wilson’s most notable contributions came with Billie Holiday. In 1941, Wilson recorded along with Holiday the song “Gloomy Sunday.”

Wilson left the clarinetist Benny Goodman in 1940 to form his own big band. His big band featured many recognizable musicians such as tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and Shorty Baker. Unfortunately, Wilson’s big band failed to capture the same success as he enjoyed with Goodman and disbanded his group not long after its inception.

In 1945, Wilson recorded with vibraphonist Red Norvo for sessions that were released last year on Savoy. Wilson appeared along with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Slam Stewart on the song “Congo Blues.”

During the end of the 1940s, Wilson played most in small group settings and recorded several albums for the Mosaic label entitled The Teddy Wilson School For Pianists. Also during this time the pianist joined CBS radio and the radio station broadcasted a series of live performances on New York’s WNEW through 1952. Wilson continued to educate young musicians in the 1950s and taught at the prestigious Julliard School of Music and Metropolitan School of Music.

Wilson continued to work for CBS radio until 1955. During his time there, he along with drummer Jo Jones and Milt Hinton had a trio that hosted their own radio program. Also in late 1952, Wilson toured Europe up until February of 1953. Wilson teamed up with tenor saxophonist Lester Young again during 1956 to record the Marks and Seymour song “All Of Me,” which featured Gene Ramey on bass and Jo Jones on drums. This cut is heard off of the Lester Young Verve release /i>The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions On Verve. Also during this time period, the pianist also recorded some meaningful albums with Benny Carter for the Verve label.

In the 1960s, Wilson rejoined his old friend Benny Goodman for several tours and concerts, most notably for a tour of Russia in 1962. The group also appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1973. Wilson continued to appear, record, and tour with artists from the Swing Era up to his death. During the 1970s and 1980s, Wilson led a trio along with his sons, bassist Theodore Wilson and drummer Steven Wilson. Teddy Wilson died on July 31st, 1986 in New Britain, Connecticut at the age of seventy-three.

Wilson was married several times during his lifetime. He is remembered for being the pinnacle pianist of the Swing Era and for being one of the first black musicians to achieve success with the white mainstream. His swinging but elegant style of piano influenced many generations of players following him, ensuring his undeniable place in jazz history.

Select Discography

As Teddy Wilson

Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra (1935)

I Want To Be Happy (1944)

The Complete Verve Recordings of the Teddy Wilson Trio (Verve, 1952)

Teddy Wilson (LRC, 2003)

The Noble Art of Teddy Wilson (Storyville, 2004)

With Lester Young

The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions On Verve (Verve, 1956)

With Billie Holiday

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Columbia)

With Benny Goodman

Original Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet Sessions, Vol. 1: After You've Gone (RCA)

With Red Norvo

Dance of the Octopus (Hep, 1935)

Congo Blues (Savoy, 2007)

Contributor: Jared Pauley