Free at Last
Mal Waldron’s ecstatic minimalism.
By Adam Shatz July 26, 2017
Mal Waldron performing in Amsterdam in 1995. (Frans Schellekens / Redferns)
Want to Fight Back?
Sign up for Take Action Now and get three actions in your inbox every Tuesday.
On July 17, 1959, Frank O’Hara, shaken by the news of Billie Holiday’s death, wrote a poem, “The Day Lady Died.” In the last two lines, he remembers leaning against the bathroom door at the Five Spot, a jazz club in the East Village, “while she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.” Seldom has the power of jazz performance been conveyed with such speed and grace. Holiday and Waldron, her pianist, are having a conversation so quiet and so intimate that listening to it feels like eavesdropping. I have always loved this poem for what it reveals not only about Holiday’s stagecraft, but also about her affection for Waldron, who accompanied her from 1957 until her death. Holiday and Waldron were close friends as well as collaborators. Waldron helped her write the autobiographical ballad “Left Alone,” an account of romantic desolation that she never had the chance to record. He had known of Holiday’s addiction, but, as he put it, “Lady Day had an awful lot to forget,” and his debt to her was incalculable. She taught him the importance of a song’s lyrics: Words, as much as notes, could lend themselves to musical improvisation. The magic she worked with them rubbed off. To listen to Waldron is to feel as if he is speaking to you, and only you, because he never forgets the lyrical content of a song.
Waldron was 33 when Lady died. He would live another 44 years, but for many jazz fans he would always remain Holiday’s accompanist. He frequently recorded her songs, spoke of their friendship in interviews, and insisted that if she had moved to Europe, as he did, she would have lived a much longer life. Waldron’s devotion to her memory reflected not only his love for her, but also the knowledge that he had been given a second chance: Four years after her death, he survived a near-fatal nervous breakdown after a heroin overdose. He experienced his survival as a rebirth, but was left with a piercing sense of life’s fragility. “When you take our life span and measure it against eternity it is only a small dot,” he wrote. “In this time we must realize, if possible, our fullest self potential.”
Waldron used his time well, creating one of the most distinctive bodies of work in postwar music. He wrote hundreds of songs, most famously “Soul Eyes,” a lush 32-bar ballad dedicated to John Coltrane (who liked it so much that he recorded it no fewer than three times). Waldron had a big sound and loved the resonances of his instrument, but he worked almost exclusively in small-group settings, preferring their chamber-like intimacy to larger, brassier ensembles. The best way to hear him is either in a duet with one of his favorite partners (his recordings with the saxophonists Steve Lacy and Marion Brown are especially memorable) or by himself.
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Waldron was a lifelong student of classical piano—he often played sonatas for pleasure, and recorded pieces by Chopin, Brahms, Satie, and Bartók—and he brought a classical sense of form and introspection to his solo work. Two long-out-of-print solo-concert albums—The Opening and Meditations—were recently reissued, and they bear witness, in different ways, to the dark, wintry beauty of Waldron’s art. The Opening, a fiery 1970 concert at the American Cultural Center in Paris, features six original compositions, mostly based on ostinatos—vamps that Waldron plays over and again—with small but engrossing variations in tempo, dynamics, timbre, and rhythmic articulation. (One is called “Of Pigs and Panthers,” an allusion to the war back home between the police and the Black Panther Party.) Meditations, recorded two years later at a jazz club in Tokyo, is a more contemplative affair, bookended by two of Waldron’s best-known pieces on solitude, “All Alone” and “Left Alone.”
Waldron’s style is invariably described as “brooding”—almost all of his pieces are in a minor key—but it could also be described as analytical. Most jazz pianists work to create an effect of outward motion when they improvise. Swing, after all, is a musical analogue of dance, and its aim is to make the body more expansive and supple. Waldron’s music appears to work in nearly the opposite direction, burrowing ever more deeply into its materials: He seems to be on an inward journey. In “The Blues Suite,” for example, the slow, winding song that takes up more than a third of Meditations, there’s an extraordinary moment where Waldron plays a descending figure in the lower registers of the piano; as it recedes, a sample from the Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” rises in its wake, suggesting a shadowy recollection, or the previously erased layer of a palimpsest.
Waldron “played every piece as if he were X-raying it,” as Edward Said once observed of Glenn Gould. He turned to music as a kind of mental exercise, a way of figuring out what he thought; his pieces were almost all “meditations.” “I want to be able to see what I am doing,” he explained, “and in order to be very clear in my mind where I am going I have to repeat it.” His search for what he called the “one note that goes for the entire piece” gives his music an almost uniquely obsessive sense of propulsion—the feeling of being in a trance.
The son of West Indian immigrants, Malcolm Waldron was born in 1925 in Harlem and moved shortly after with his family to Jamaica, Queens. His father worked for the Long Island Rail Road and his mother was a nurse; both were middle-class strivers. They wanted, as Waldron later recalled, to “keep me off the streets” and forced him to take piano lessons from the age of 6. He was a quick study: “Fear is a great motivator,” he said.
Waldron was drafted into the Army in 1943 and was stationed at West Point, where he worked in the equestrian services. Whenever he was on leave, he made the scene, going to the clubs on 52nd Street and in Harlem, where he heard the pianists Art Tatum and Bud Powell, both of whom would be important influences. After the war, Waldron enrolled at Queens College on the GI Bill. There, he studied composition with Karol Rathaus, an exiled Jewish Austrian composer who recoiled from the orthodoxies of both tonal music and Schoenbergian serialism. Rathaus was also an admirer of jazz and the author of an essay, “Jazzdämmerung?” (“The Twilight of Jazz?”), that accused George Gershwin and the swing-band leader Paul Whiteman of “cultural larceny” for Europeanizing black music.
Under Rathaus’s tutelage, Waldron listened to Bach, Stravinsky, and Ravel; he also began to write his first scores. In the evenings, he received a different sort of education at the Paradiso, a Harlem club not far from Minton’s Playhouse, headquarters of the bebop movement. At the time, Waldron was playing alto saxophone, not piano: He had picked up the horn after hearing Charlie Parker, whom, like other young bop musicians, he worshipped. By his mid-20s, however, he’d returned to the piano. The saxophone, he realized, was “a very exhibitionist instrument, and you had to be extroverted, and I was very introverted.” In A Portrait of Mal Waldron, a 1997 documentary by the Belgian filmmaker Tom Van Overberghe, Waldron describes how the piano allowed him to hide, to “play very quietly and work out your changes. It’s a very beautiful instrument for a person like me.”
In the early 1950s, Waldron paid his dues in a style of music that could hardly have been less introverted, accompanying soul-jazz bands led by the down-home saxophonists Ike Quebec and George Walker “Big Nick” Nicholas. But he was also studying the work of bebop’s most original pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk. At first, Monk’s style sounded, to Waldron, “so strange, the way he hit the piano,” but “it just grew on me,” and he became one of the few pianists to absorb Monk’s innovations—his flat-fingered attack; his way of “bending” notes by striking two adjacent keys but only releasing one; his radical use of space—without sounding like a Monk imitator.
Waldron’s ability to combine Bud Powell’s fleet, lyrical approach to “comping”—the art of playing behind a soloist—with Monk’s more angular and idiosyncratic style made him a favorite pianist of the most sophisticated hard-bop musicians. Charles Mingus recruited him in 1954 to his Jazz Workshop and featured him on his landmark 1956 album, Pithecanthropus Erectus. The same year, Waldron was hired as the house pianist at Prestige Records, where he played on albums by Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, and other stars of the era. A young father, Waldron also had to find other work, and he supported his family by laying down tracks for Music Minus One, a maker of sing-along and play-along records. Each morning, he reported for work at Music Minus One in a suit and tie, looking more like an accountant than a musician. At night he was out gigging, sometimes with Billie Holiday; sometimes with the many reedmen who appreciated his discreet yet forceful comping; and sometimes with beatniks like Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce.
But Waldron hungered for something more than work as a sideman. A talented sheet composer, he wanted to write his own music. While he was careful to avoid the often arid contrivances of third-stream jazz, he shared its ambition to incorporate classical compositional ideas into jazz, and to move beyond the formulaic theme-solos-theme structure of hard bop. His 1959 album Impressions, a trio recording with Addison Farmer on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums, was his first great statement as a leader, revealing a probing young modernist composer and a daring improviser. Holiday’s influence can be keenly felt in his reading of Jimmy van Heusen’s “All the Way,” a song she loved, and in Waldron’s own composition, “Overseas Suite,” which was inspired by his recent European tour with her.
But in Impressions we also hear the accompanist emerging from Lady’s shadow. In it, Waldron depends less on chord changes—the foundation of bebop improvisation—than on clusters of notes and “whatever enriches the sound.” He was somewhat more tentative than Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, both of whom released revolutionary albums in 1959, Kind of Blue and The Shape of Jazz to Come. But Waldron was just as eager to embrace the new freedoms. As he saw it, they went hand in hand with being a black musician in the era of civil rights. The bar lines in a song were, he recalled, like “going to jail for us.” “We were talking about freedom, and getting out of jails…. So everyone wanted to escape from that.”
Waldron cut an alluring figure for the new jazz modernism emerging in the 1950s: He was slender, with regal features, an elegant bearing, and haunting eyes. Along with Sidney Poitier and Miles Davis, he was one of the original black male sex symbols of the 1950s, a precursor of the “Black is beautiful” era. On the cover of Impressions, Waldron, wearing a suit, tie, and rain jacket, stands behind a ladder against a dark, purple-tinted backdrop. He looks backward, with a somewhat nervous expression: an image of the dissident energies gathering force at the end of the Eisenhower era.
Billie Holiday died a few months after Impressions was released. Waldron was devastated. She was his young daughter’s godmother, and “such a warm person I began to feel she was like my sister.” A year later, Waldron released Left Alone, a tribute to Holiday’s work, whose title track featured a gorgeous performance by Jackie McLean. Released from his duties as an accompanist, Waldron began over the next few years to come into his own. He played a historic two-week date at the Five Spot with one of the most exciting bands of the 1960s, a quintet led by the multi-reedman Eric Dolphy and the trumpeter Booker Little, which also featured the drummer Ed Blackwell (of the Ornette Coleman Quartet) and the bassist Richard Davis. He also contributed to some of the great civil-rights jazz albums made by the drummer Max Roach and his partner, the singer Abbey Lincoln. (Waldron wrote the music to Lincoln’s protest song “Straight Ahead,” in which she sang, with bitter eloquence: “If you got to use the back roads / Straight ahead can lead nowhere.”) He demonstrated his gifts as a composer of small-ensemble jazz on the ambitious 1961 album The Quest, which explored waltzes, ballads, bop syncopation, even 12-tone serialism. The modal composition “Warm Canto,” a miniature jewel that showcased Dolphy’s clarinet and Ron Carter’s pizzicato work on cello, looked forward to the epic tone poems Waldron would write in the 1970s. On The Quest, he also developed what the singer Jeanne Lee later described as his “orchestral way of hearing.”
But Holiday’s death caught up with him—or rather, her habits did. Waldron had been horrified to see the Lady “treated like a criminal” rather than the victim of a disease, an experience that “broke her down.” It broke him down, too. Many Americans assumed that he must be a drug addict, simply because he was a jazz musician, and “it got to the point where if you had the name you just had to have the game, too.” In 1963, while on tour with Roach and Lincoln, he went onstage loaded on heroin, and froze. For the next six months, he was hospitalized at East Elmhurst Hospital and subjected to shock therapy and spinal taps. He could scarcely remember who he was, much less how to play piano. Yet he was grateful: The alternative was worse. And in the wake of his overdose and nervous breakdown, Waldron bit by bit began to come back to life.
His hands trembled, and he had lost his sense of time. But he applied himself with diligence, listening to his recordings and writing out his earlier improvisations on paper. His work as a composer of sheet music would sustain him for the next two years, until he was ready to perform again. He wrote scores for Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World and Herbert Danska’s Sweet Love, Bitter (loosely inspired by Charlie Parker’s last years, and starring Dick Gregory). But there were rumors that he was dead, and Waldron wasn’t sure they were false. He was surrounded by casualties of the jazz life: Booker Little had died of kidney failure, at 23, in 1961; three years later, Eric Dolphy died, at 36, of an undiagnosed diabetic coma in a Berlin hospital, where doctors mistook him for a drug addict and left him in bed so the drugs could run their course.
During these years, work in the New York clubs became increasingly hard to come by because, as he recalled, “the white musicians got the jobs, and the black musicians didn’t get the jobs even if they had more talent.” When Marcel Carné, the director of Le Jour Se Lève, asked him to come to Paris to write the soundtrack for his Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, an adaptation of a moody 1946 novel by Georges Simenon, he had no trouble making up his mind. “In America if you were black and a musician at the time, it was two strikes against you,” Waldron said. “In Europe…it was two strikes for you.” He found “so much respect and love” there that he “didn’t need any drugs.”
Waldron flew to Paris in 1965 and never looked back. He didn’t return to the States, even to perform, until 1975. After scoring Carné’s film, in which he also made a cameo as a barroom pianist, he bounced around France and Italy before settling, in 1967, in Munich. Two years later, he released one of his most important albums, the trio recording Free at Last, which also launched a new, Munich—based label, Editions of Contemporary Music (ECM), founded by a young German bassist, Manfred Eicher, who would become one of the great champions of the American jazz avant-garde.
On Free at Last, we hear a musician who has emancipated himself not only from America but from the overbearing influence of his mentors, particularly Bud Powell. Waldron’s writing is simpler, stripped down to vamps of a few notes, “calls” designed to provoke improvisatory responses. Before the breakdown, he explained, he had “started out with a big tree and I tried shaving and shaving and shaving…to find the perfect toothpick, but…I was nowhere near the toothpick at that moment.” His rhythms, meanwhile, became denser and more complex, his touch harder and more percussive, more “African.” The mood of Free at Last was dark and fierce, radiating identity and purpose. Its idiosyncratic flow came from the drone-like effects that Waldron created by pounding chords with his left hand. They gave the music an expansive sense of space, as if it, too, could breathe more freely in exile.
The jazz historian John Litweiler has characterized Waldron’s post-breakdown style as “repetition/transformation,” a phrase that may remind some of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who were experimenting at the same time with repetitive structures in the early works of Minimalism. But Waldron arrived at his version of Minimalism on his own, through sounds and techniques specific to African-American music—above all, the plaintive, ringing sound known as a “blues cry.” An attempt to approximate the sound of a human voice with an instrument, the blues cry is a common expressive flourish in jazz, but Waldron transformed it into a structural device: He repeated it with different shadings, inflections, and intonations throughout his improvisations.
In Free at Last and Black Glory, a thrilling 1971 trio album, there are echoes of the free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor—for whom Waldron would later write two tributes, “Free for C.T.” and “Variations on a Theme by Cecil Taylor”—but the resemblance reflects kinship rather than influence: Waldron had not left behind hard bop to become anyone’s disciple. Waldron meant “free at last” not only from American racism, or from chord structures, but from any restrictive influences—-including the pianist he had been before his breakdown. One of the reasons that “I feel it necessary to play freer is that I believe no one is ever exactly the same as he was a moment ago,” he explained at the time. “The change from moment to moment can be and usually is very small, almost unmeasurable, but nevertheless it is there. And since I’m definitely not the same person I was five years ago, I cannot pretend that nothing has changed by playing the same old way.”
It’s almost impossible to listen to Free at Last or any of the music that followed without thinking of the trial he had to survive to make it, just as one can hardly listen to The Quartet for the End of Time without reflecting on Olivier Messiaen’s time in a prisoner-of-war camp, or The Basement Tapes without being reminded of Dylan’s motorcycle accident. Survival is essential to its pathos, and to its consolatory power. Here is the sound of a man who has no intention of returning home, who has found not only a sanctuary, but renewal: a “second life,” he called it.
Waldron would continue to explore his newfound freedoms in such rip-roaring anthems as “Sieg Haile” (dedicated to Haile Selassie), “La Gloire du Noir,” and “Snake Out”; but he would also do so in ballads of disarming vulnerability and, not least, in his tributes to his late employer, notably Blues for Lady Day, recorded in 1972 in Holland. His melodic phrasing on the album, particularly in the stark, chilling interpretation of “Strange Fruit,” is slow, stately, and unadorned, as if he were waiting for Holiday to join him. Few purely instrumental albums have been so effective at conjuring the absent lyrics of its songs.
That Waldron not only reinvented himself but produced his greatest music outside of the States, in conditions of comparative dignity and respect, challenges a widespread assumption of jazz history: that the music diminishes in power the further it is removed from its vernacular sources. In 1949, Miles Davis bid farewell to the freedoms of post-liberation Paris to return to a segregated country, because “musicians who moved over there seemed to me to lose something, an energy, an edge, that living in the States gave them.” The unspoken, nostalgie de la boue corollary of this belief is that adversity is the yeast of jazz creativity, that the comforts of expatriate life make musicians go soft. But for many jazz musicians, life abroad has meant exposure to new experiences and ideas. And more than any of his peers, Waldron embraced the perspective of exile within his music. A number of his compositions were postcards from places he had visited; his masterpiece was an ode to flight, inspired by a visit in the early 1970s to the Norwegian island city of Kristiansund, where each morning he had awakened to “watch the seagulls perform a ballet.” He captured their dance in a languid reverie, “Seagulls of Kristiansund,” built around two tone centers, E minor and A minor, recalling the French Impressionist composers he admired.
Like Debussy and Satie, Waldron was drawn to the pentatonic scale and to East Asian aesthetics, whose minimalism and refinement of gesture struck a chord. When he came to Tokyo for the first time in 1970 to record an album, he was already big in Japan, thanks to his 1959 tribute to Billie Holiday, Left Alone, which had been enormously popular there, and he returned many times, recording dozens of albums on Japanese labels. That many of the tunes Waldron wrote in Japan have Japanese titles indicates the strength of his attachment. A “natural mystic,” as the singer Jeanne Lee described him, Waldron felt as if he had been there before, perhaps in a previous life. As it turned out, Japan’s interest in his work meant less to him than his own interest in Japan. “They think I’m here for the gigs, but I’m really here for the temples,” he once told a friend.
Waldron was particularly impressed by Ryoanji (“Temple of the Peaceful Dragon”), a 15th-century Zen Buddhist temple in north Kyoto. Ryoanji is famous for its rock garden, a classical example of karesansui, or dry landscape. Fifteen stones of varying sizes, composed into five groups, lie on a bed of white sand, which is raked each day by monks. The stones are arranged in such a way that only 14 can be seen at once; according to a proverb, only through attaining wisdom can one see the elusive 15th stone. For some, the garden depicts a group of islands floating on an ocean; for others, a mother tiger transporting her cubs over the sea. In its understated play of sameness and difference, movement and serenity, symmetry and asymmetry, Waldron found an analogue to his own music. The garden embodied what in Japanese is called wabi-sabi, an aesthetic of refined austerity, based on the beauty of imperfection and the acceptance of transience. John Cage, who first visited Ryoanji in 1962 with Yoko Ono and the pianist David Tudor, produced a series of compositions inspired by it, as well as dozens of drawings.
Ready to Fight Back? Sign Up For Take Action Now
Waldron’s tribute, “The Stone Garden of Ryoanji,” on the recently reissued Meditations, was recorded in July 1972 at the Dug, a club in Tokyo. Located in the basement of an old building between two high-rises, the Dug was a sanctuary for music lovers, writers, and bohemians; it was the kind of place where, as a young woman in Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood remarks, “They don’t make you feel embarrassed to be drinking in the afternoon.” The song begins with a simple, almost childlike theme, suggestive of Japanese folk music as filtered through Satie, but it moves into a richly involving set of blues variations, examined and observed from every conceivable angle, as if Waldron were in search of the invisible 15th stone. Its beauty comes from the rapt, almost relentless attention to melodic line that was Waldron’s signature, and because the song won’t let him go, it won’t let us go, either. Much of the music that Waldron made in Japan in the early 1970s can be heard as the expression of an impossible farewell, “forecasting my feelings about leaving this island paradise,” as he wrote of his ballad “Sayonara,” which appeared on his 1970 album Tokyo Reverie.
A self-described “born gypsy,” Waldron was used to farewells. He spent most of his time on the road, returning now and then to Munich and Brussels, where he moved in the late 1980s. But Japan would always have a special claim on his imagination, and he went there as often as he could. He met his second wife, Hiromi, with whom he had three children, on a visit to Tokyo in the early 1980s. And in 1995, he went to Japan on an official invitation for the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was joined by the entire Waldron clan, including Hiromi’s two children from her first marriage; his first wife, Elaine; and their two adult daughters. Waldron performed in a trio with Jeanne Lee and the flutist Toru Tenda at temples, concert halls, and community centers from Tokyo to Okinawa. Lee, in her liner notes to Travellin’ in Soul-Time, the album that came out of this tour, remembers that “at one point, there were more Waldrons on the train than other passengers.”
Like John Coltrane, who visited Japan in 1966, Waldron was overwhelmed by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. It was not just the evidence of destruction but the story it told of resilience, atonement, and rebuilding—one for which, as another kind of survivor, he felt a great affinity. For the 50th anniversary, he composed a suite based on “The White Road,” a poem by Syo Ito, a 14-year-old survivor of Hiroshima, and on Black Rain, a novel by Masuji Ibuse about the radioactive rain that fell after the bombings. The harrowing, almost unspeakable words of the White Road/Black Rain Suite for Improvisers were sung by Lee, with whom Waldron had already made a remarkable duo album of standards, After Hours. It was one of their last performances together: She died in 2000, at 61; he died two years later, at 77.
Not since his work with Holiday had Waldron formed such a close partnership with a singer. An heir of both Holiday and Abbey Lincoln, Lee was the finest singer to emerge from the ranks of the free-jazz movement; she had performed with everyone from Archie Shepp to John Cage, and spent much of her career as an expatriate. Like Waldron, she was a blues modernist, steeped both in African-American tradition and in contemporary new music. She understood, too, that concert music is always theater, and she and Waldron brilliantly evoked the terror of the bombings, much as he and Holiday had once evoked the terror of lynching in “Strange Fruit.”
Perhaps the most striking words that Lee sings on Travellin’ in Soul-Time, however, belong to Waldron himself, in a vocal setting of his song “Seagulls of Kristiansund.” He imagines the birds diving into the sea from the sky, “so near, yet so high”:
They’re wond’rously free
They live happily.
They know from the past,
a life cannot last,
So they live for today
for tomorrow they may not
Be able to dive from the sky.
The birds know what Waldron had to learn from his near-death experience. Lee bends and stretches his words with warm, melismatic accents, at one point mimicking the sounds of seagulls. And as she sings to Waldron, one feels as if the lyrics had always been there; the story they tell is as much a self-portrait as a tone poem about a flock of seagulls. Freedom and flight were the themes that gave shape to Waldron’s style after his breakdown. An ecstatic minimalism, it spoke of survival, rebirth, and the longing for transcendence. Its means were simple, but the stakes were not. Through his hypnotic repetitions, Waldron chased down that single, elusive note, as if his life depended on it.
Adam Shatz dedicates this essay to the memory of Geri Allen.