Mal Waldron

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Mal Waldron, jazz pianist and composer

Born: 16 August, 1925, in New York City

Died: 2 December, 2002, in Brussels, aged 77

MAL Waldron made his mark as a sympathetic accompanist for Billie Holiday in the last years of her career in 1957-59. The pianist went on to forge a reputation as an uncompromising creative musician in his own right, initially in his native New York and later in Europe, where he lived from 1965, first in Paris, and later in Munich and Brussels.

He was a prolific composer in several genres as well as a pianist. His most celebrated jazz tune is the strong but wistful Soul Eyes, written in 1957. It became established in the jazz repertoire as a modern "standard", but he also composed scores for ballet and a number of films, beginning with The Cool World in 1965.

He was born Malcolm Earl Waldron in New York. He began to learn piano at the age of eight, and his initial musical training came as a classical pianist. He played alto saxophone in the school band as well, but was intimidated by the example of Charlie Parker, and eventually set aside the alto and turned to piano in a jazz context as well.

He was called up by the US Army in 1943, and served in New York, where he trained cavalry horses and soaked up the city’s jazz scene. After the war, he studied piano and composition at Queens College in New York, graduating with a BA in composition.

He made his professional debut as a jazz pianist with the saxophonist Ike Quebec in 1950. He linked up with Charles Mingus’s progressive Jazz Workshop in 1954, and remained with the bassist for two years, appearing on the classic Pithecanthropus Erectus album in 1956. He formed his own band later that year, and recorded copiously for Bob Weinstock’s Prestige label, both as a leader and as the effective "house" pianist on many of the label’s sessions.

The musicians he worked with in this period included Jackie MacLean, John Coltrane, Gene Ammons, Herbie Mann and Steve Lacy (the last association would be taken up again when both became expatriates).

His elegant and thoroughly attuned accompaniments for Billie Holiday in her last years led to further work with the singer Abbey Lincoln and her then husband, the drummer and bandleader Max Roach, who used Waldron in his own group for a time.

Waldron formed a band with the trumpeter Booker Little and saxophonist Eric Dolphy, and made important recordings with both musicians before their tragically early deaths in 1961 and 1964 respectively.

His refined technique and creative musical imagination kept him in constant demand as a session musician in addition to his work as a leader. The combination of drug problems and overwork eventually led to a nervous breakdown in 1963 (he claimed later that he had had to relearn his style from his old records). The pressures precipitated his move from the hot-house of New York’s jazz scene to Paris in 1965, the first of his European homes.

He scored his first film, The Cool World, that year, and went on to compose music for several more films, including Marcel Carn’s Trois Chambres Manhattan (Three Rooms in Manhattan, 1965), Herbert Danska’s Sweet Love, Bitter (1967) and Haruki Kadokawa’s Tokyo Blues (1986). He appeared in Mal Waldron and Friends: Live at the Village Vanguard (1986) and Tom Overberghe’s documentary Mal (1997).

He adapted readily to life in Europe, and often linked up with various other members of the American jazz community in exile, including Ben Webster, Steve Lacy, Kenny Clarke and Archie Shepp. He worked with many European musicians, including a fruitful musical relationship with the English baritone saxophonist George Haslam, who both performed with the pianist and recorded his work for his own Slam label.

He was a frequent return visitor to the US from the mid-Seventies, both to perform at club and concert dates and to record. He resisted any temptation to return to his homeland on a permanent basis, however, and settled in Brussels in the early Nineties.

He was popular in Japan, and was commissioned to compose and perform a piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1995, in a concert which also celebrated his 70th birthday.

He recorded numerous albums, both as a solo pianist, including sessions dedicated to two of his most important early connections, Blues for Lady Day (1972) and Mingus Lives (1979), and in a variety of group situations. He was belatedly recognised by a so-called major label when he recorded Soul Eyes in Brussels for RCA Victor in 1997. His most recent album, One More Time, was released in October.

Waldron, who died of cancer after a short illness, was twice married, and is survived by both his former wives and seven children.