Saturday, March 1, 2008

Three pioneering jazz pianists you should know: III. Teddy Wilson, 1912-1986.

It was an impromptu jam session at a private party in 1935, that started Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson on their first steps down the road to music and social history. Goodman described their playing that night as "though we were thinking with the same brain" and asked Wilson to join him and drummer Gene Krupa in the recording studio. Body and Soul, released as a 78, became one of Goodman's most enduring hits.

"Electrifying" is the word most often used to describe the musical chemistry between Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman. Electrifying for both the performers and their audience, and it was this that eventually propelled Goodman to take the next step. Interracial recording sessions were not new at this point, but African American and white musicians did not appear in public performance together. Though the whole country was dancing to Body and Soul, Goodman hesitated, fearful that introducing a black man on stage might be a career-destroying move. In the end, though, the music itself presented the most convincing argument. Goodman decided to acknowledge his own debt to African American music and to use his current popularity as a force for change. In 1936, Teddy Wilson broke through the color line and joined Goodman and Krupa on stage to make music. It sounded, Goodman said later, as though we had "been born to play this way."

Teddy Wilson played with Benny Goodman until 1939 and in various "reunions" thereafter, but he didn't need Goodman to assure himself a position of prominence in the world of jazz. Wilson was a truly elegant virtuoso and developed a unique "smooth" style of swing piano that in small group settings became known as "chamber jazz." He played and recorded most often in trio and quartet settings, but I think the finest example of his lyrical style may be heard in a solo recording from 1941 of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. Actually, I believe this is one of the finest jazz piano solos ever, in any style. But, if that one is just too heart-melting for you, try one of his solo versions of Earl Hines' Rosetta - a close runner-up. Or, listen to all of his recordings and argue with me for your own favorite. Regardless, keep your sweetie handy - you will want to dance.

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