Jazz pianist Cedar Walton dies at 79

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Cedar Walton

Piano player Cedar Walton (left) performs beside alto saxophone player Vincent Herring at Jazz Showcase, in Chicago on Thursday, December 2, 2010. (Chris Sweda/ Chicago Tribune / August 19, 2013)

Cedar Walton, a New York pianist who won the country’s highest jazz honor – a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship (2010) – died Monday in his Brooklyn home, according to the NEA and news reports.

Walton, 79, was a regular visitor to the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, his pianism striking for its subtlety and understatement. Where many pianists of Walton’s generation thundered at the keys, Walton tended to deflect attention away from himself and toward the scores at hand. When he played the Showcase last December, one had to marvel at intricacies of his keyboard voicings and the complexity of his harmonic language in music of J.J. Johnson, Cole Porter and Walton himself. As always, hints of funk graced a musical vocabulary steeped in the hard-bop language of the 1950s, the era when Walton came into his own as a pianist.

But Walton also made his mark as composer, with tunes such as “Bolivia,” “Mosaic” and “Ugetsu” becoming modern-day classics.

Born Jan. 17, 1934 in Dallas, Walton served in the Army in the mid-1950s, then settled in New York, working with Johnson, Art Farmer, Kenny Dorham and, most significantly, with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, from 1961 to ’64. Walton also collaborated with Abbey Lincoln and Lee Morgan in the 1960s. And starting in the 1970s, Walton led his Eastern Rebellion, a widely admired ensemble that endured for more than two decades, performing periodically in Chicago.

In 2009, he told the NEA how he addressed the art of composition.

“I happened to be in Max Roach’s apartment up on Central Park West, for what reason I can’t remember, but his saxophonist was there, and I just happened to be doodling at the piano. And first I think I named (the tune) ‘Central Park West,’ because it came so quick, like it was coming from somewhere through me on the keys. So it became my sort of patented method of coming up with pieces and digging them out of the piano, so to speak. I don’t think of them and then scratch them down.”

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The Grammys 2011