Wilson was born in 1912 in Austin, Texas, but moved at age six with his parents to the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His father was the head of the English Department while his mother later became the school’s head librarian. Wilson began his musical instruction at Tuskegee, where he studied not only the piano, but also violin, oboe, and clarinet. Around 1930, when playing music in Toledo, Ohio, Wilson met the great Art Tatum and the two played together often during that period. Wilson eventually moved to New York City, with the encouragement of jazz supporter John Hammond, and went on to join Benny Goodman‘s band. It was with Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa that Wilson became the first African American to play in a racially mixed, high profile musical group in the United States. Wilson performed with Goodman, off and on, for many years, including for his famous Carnegie Hall Concert of January 16th, 1938, which was called, “the most important concert in jazz history,” by Phil Schaap, curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Schaap produced the Columbia Records album reissue of the 1938 concert and says the event – with no dancing and no booze — elevated jazz to an art form.
“Outside of music, the concert was culturally historic. In 1938, music venues were segregated. But Goodman took more than half a dozen African American musicians with him onto the Carnegie Hall stage, including pianists Teddy Wilson and Count Basie, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and saxophonist Lester Young. Benny Goodman made a stand for integration onstage nine years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.”
My father — Tom Brown — loved Wilson’s style, which has been described as “understated, self-assured, cool, controlled, elegant.” Daddy passed that love onto me, and one of my great musical memories is hearing Teddy Wilson live with his trio in an Atlanta jazz club in 1980. One of the sides in my father’s collection of 78 RPM records is Wilson, on solo piano, playing the classic Body and Soul. That was one of the few tunes my father could play on the piano, so when I listen to this memories flood my heart.
Wilson’s playing with Goodman is on another planet. Listen to this group, in their prime in 1937, play I Got a Heartful of Music. Oh my! These guys are in overdrive! Channeling his mentor Art Tatum, Wilson’s amazing solo takes off at the :30 mark, and those big hands go racing up and down the keyboard, with the bass lines in walking tenths (except they are running here)! When the quartet (Lionel Hampton on vibes) made this 1972 recording (with George Duvivier on bass) of Avalon, they were older and some were semi-retired, but nonetheless this group can still swing. Wilson’s cool solo begins at the 2:20 mark. From that same concert, listen to the group play their hit Moonglow.
Many commentators have noted that the great jazz singer Billie Holiday did some of her best work when backed by Teddy Wilson on the piano. From 1937, here’s I’ll Never Be the Same which has an extended Wilson introduction. More Than You Know is another classic from this period, showing Wilson’s understated, but perfect, accompaniment. His solo begins around the 1:25 mark. One of Holiday’s signature songs, I Cried for You, was recorded in 1936 with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra.
In 1963, Wilson played a concert at Chicago’s Civic Opera House with Jim Atlas on bass and Jo Jones on drums, and the three have some amazing interplay on Honeysuckle Rose. And since it was another of the songs my father could play on the piano, I’ll end with Wilson’s rendition of St. Louis Blues from a concert in Copenhagen with the Teddy Wilson Trio, featuring drummer Ed Thigpen and the Danish bassist Hugo Rasmussen.
Since we can’t go out and hear live music, this is the perfect time to pull up a swing playlist on your electronic device and take yourself back to the 1930s and 40s. Teddy Wilson will certainly be there!
More to come.