Teddy Wilson is universally regarded as one of the supreme keyboard masters of the swing era. He refined the stride piano tradition established by James P. Johnson and Fats Waller and introduced qualities of elegance, delicacy and finesse that were to earn him wide-spread acclaim and a great number of imitators. Among the major piano stylists who came under his influence in the thirties were Billy Kyle, Jess Stacy, Joe Bushkin, Hank Jones, Billy Taylor and Mel Powell.
Born Theodore Wilson in Austin, Texas on November 24th, 1912, he studied piano and violin and majored in music theory at Talladega College. At 17 he started working with local bands in the Detroit area and in 1930 he moved to Toledo to join Milton Seniorís band.
The early thirties found Wilson in Chicago where he gained valuable experience with the bands of Louis Armstrong, Erskine Tate and Jimmie Noone. Arriving in New York in 1933, he joined Benny Carterís Chocolate Dandies and recorded some sides for John Hammond. Then, after a short spell with Willie Bryantís Band, Wilson teamed up in July 1935 with Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa in the famous Goodman Trio in a group that pioneered racial integrated jazz and became a major force in the swing era.
In the late thirties Wilson, once described by Benny Goodman as ìthe greatest musician in dance music today, did posterity the inestimable favour of recording a large number of sides for Brunswick and Vocalion with the incomparable Billie Holliday and a band of Basie alumni who included Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Freddie Green and Jo Jones. Those recordings represent the cream of Lady Day’s recorded work.
Wilson remained with Goodman until the spring of 1939 and then formed his own excellent but unhappily short-lived band which included Ben Webster, Doc Cheatham, Al Casey and J.C. Heard. The band played such New York venues as the Famous Door on 52nd Street and the Golden Gate Ballroom, but broke up in June 1940.
For the first half of the forties Wilson led various small combos, appearing in and around New York, and he devoted an increasing amount of time to teaching, arranging and broadcasting.
Between 1949 and 1952 he had a staff post with the WNEW radio station in New York. In the sixties, Wilson continued to front small groups, to teach and to work in radio and television; he also made numerous trips to Europe for festival appearances, concert dates and recordings. In 1962 he visited the Soviet Union with his old boss, Benny Goodman. In the seventies he made a number of trips to Japan where he was received with great enthusiasm and was much in demand for record dates.
Leonard Feather has described Teddy Wilson as succeeding Earl Hines in being the most imitated pianist in jazz. Joachim Berendt has assessed Wilsonís small combo recordings as ìsome of the best and most representative of the swing era.
(– Mike Hennessey)
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