Pianist Mal Waldron was both an icon and legend of the New York jazz scene of the 1950s and early 1960s. His playing can be heard accompanying some of the period’s most luminous names that virtually defined the cutting edge of jazz during this period, such as John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Max Roach, Jackie McLean, Teddy Charles and more. After moving to Europe in 1963, he re-established a successful career in jazz and from the 1970s, he frequently performed in Japan and the U.S.A. During this period he built an impressive discography that included the first ever release by the Munich based ECM label. He continued to regularly perform and record until two weeks before his death on December 2, 2002.
After graduating with B.A. in music and composition in 1949, his early professional experiences on the New York scene was with rhythm and blues bands, including that of the now legendary Harlem saxophonist Big Nick Nicholas. In 1954, he joined the circle of musicians participating in Charles Mingus’ jazz workshops and it was here he met alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, an association that led to his becoming the house pianist for Bob Weinstock’s Prestige record label between 1956 and 1963, appearing on more than 40 albums. Frequently called upon to create on-the-spot themes if artists had not brought enough material to record, he began actively composing, his ballad ‘Soul Eyes’ first appearing on Interplay for Two Trumpets and Two Tenors (1957) by the Prestige All Stars and more famously on the John Coltrane album Coltrane (1962) when it acquired the status of a minor jazz standard.
In 1956, Waldron formed his own working quintet with saxophonist Gigi Gryce and trumpeter Idrees Sulleman and in 1957 he became pianist and musical director for Billie Holiday, with whom he recorded amongst others, Lady in Satin, perhaps the most moving listening experience in the whole of jazz. When he left Holiday in 1959, he began working with Abbey Lincoln, recording several albums with her, and with her then husband Max Roach. In 1961, he was a member of a quintet co-led by Eric Dolphy and Booker Little that recorded the now legendary two volume set live at the Five Spot. In 1963 he suffered a heroin overdose in a life threatening incident that necessitated two years of recuperation. When presented with an opportunity to write the film score for the movie Three Rooms in Manhattan he decided to permanently relocate in Europe to escape the ‘jazz life’ and its associated drug scene.
After living in Paris for a year, he moved to Italy, and finally Munich, Germany where he remained for 25 years. It was in Munich he met with Manfred Eicher, who was in the process of setting up his ECM label, and in 1969 Waldron’s Free at Last had the distinction of being the very first release for the label with the catalogue number ECM 1001. In 1971, his recording Black Glory was the first release for Enja Records, recently founded in Munich by jazz enthusiasts Matthias Winckelmann and Horst Weber. Waldron toured extensively through Europe, Japan and the U.S.A. during this time, recording frequently and leaving an extensive legacy of recordings in his wake. In 1998, he signed with RCA Victor, producing Soul Eyes with an all star line up including Joe Henderson, Steve Coleman, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, Abbey Lincoln and Jeanne Lee.
I met Mal Waldron in February 1994 when he had been invited to the United Kingdom to play a few dates with the fine baritone saxophonist George Haslam, who was based in Oxford, just 30 miles from my home. George kindly hooked-me up with him since I was just finishing my biography on Billie Holiday, which was subsequently published in 1995. I suggested lunch at an agreeable pub, and sure enough he was there to meet me when I turned up. I later learned he was a stickler for punctuality. Even though he was 68 at the time, he seemed to me to be the epitome of hipness in his sharp suit, immaculately coiffured hair with its shot of grey and his ‘no-one messes-with-me’ demeanour. Suitably intimidated, I broke the ice with small talk as I set-up my hand-held C90 tape machine, and began to follow the questions I had prepared, which he dealt with politely, but perfunctorily. Clearly a change of tack was called for, so I bought another round of drinks, put the questions away and started chatting with him informally. A warm and engaging man, it turned out he was more interested in hanging-out and enjoying a laugh, continuing to reminisce well into the evening, long after my tape had run out.
Like any conversation, this ‘interview’ took several twists and turns, but what emerged were the recollections of a prime witness to the drug culture in New York City that provided the backdrop to what is now considered ‘The Golden Years of Jazz’ — the hard bop years of the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a remarkable period in jazz history that produced countless classic recordings, many of which had Waldron on piano, such as John Coltrane’s Dakar and Coltrane, Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus and Blues & Roots, Eric Dolphy’s The Quest and At the Five Spot, Teddy Charles’ The Teddy Charles Tentet, Gene Ammons’ The Big Sound, Kenny Burrell’s All Night Long, Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin, Steve Lacy’s Reflections, Jackie McLean’s McLean’s Scene and A Long Drink of the Blues, Max Roach’s Percussion Bitter Sweet, Teo Macero’s Something New, Something Blue, Abbey Lincoln’s Straight Ahead, Phil Woods’ Four Altos and many more. Although I didn’t quite get as much as I had hoped for my Billie Holiday bio, I had something much better, the memory of a wonderful afternoon and evening spent in the company of a jazz legend and true gentleman.