NEWPORT BEACH — There's a bit of Art Tatum to be heard on pianist Gerald Wiggins' recent solo album, "Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume Eight." Wiggins brings some of the same strolling rhythms, a rich harmonic sense and the kind of playful, inventive embellishments to his standard treatments that Tatum, the late keyboard master whom Fats Waller once introduced as God, brought to his music.
The 70-year-old Wiggins, who leads a trio tonight at the Hyatt Newporter in Newport Beach, readily acknowledges the influence. "I'm still trying to get out of it," he said with a laugh earlier this week in a phone conversation from his home in Woodland Hills.
"I met Art back in the '40s at a little joint called Reuben's in Harlem. He didn't really take me under his wing, but he encouraged me, showed me a few things. At the time that I was first starting out, all the piano players were trying to play like Art. None of us could, but we tried. Even (pioneer be-bop pianist) Bud Powell tried. I remember hearing Bud trying to stride like him one time. Now \o7 that \f7 was funny."
But Wiggins is no Tatum clone. Since moving west from New York shortly before 1950, he has amassed a nearly endless string of recording credits that include the likes of Louis Armstrong, Nat Cole, Milt Jackson, Buddy Collette and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
He gained a reputation as one of this coast's premier accompanists, having worked with singers including Lena Horne, Joe Turner, Helen Humes, Eartha Kitt and Dinah Washington. He's been involved in a number of television and film projects and coached such stars as Marilyn Monroe and Cybill Shepherd in their vocal efforts (Monroe once signed a photo for him with the words, "I can't make a sound without you"). Now "Wig," as his fans call him, says he's concentrating on his own work.
"I don't accompany singers much anymore. I'm more interested in piano playing now, trying to have some fun for myself. I spent too many years with singers. They were all great years, but that's a different bag from playing. It's something most piano players would rather not do, I'm sure. You try to think what you can play behind a singer that enhances her or his performance. You're not out in front. You're in a secondary role, which takes a little doing, especially if you have a huge ego, which I don't."
Wiggins claimed that he hated the piano while growing up in New York. "I didn't want to play at all," he recalled. "In New York at that time, all the kids played stickball. Well, I never really got a chance to play because I was always practicing. I kind of resented that."
All that practice led to a job with singer-comedian Stepin Fetchit and his eventual move to Los Angeles.
"I was working with him at the Brooklyn Strand Theater when Les Hite had the orchestra there. One day, Step got into a little competition with the police and they took him off. So Les said, 'You don't have a boss and I don't have a piano player. How'd you like to go to California?' I jumped at the chance."
Before long Wiggins, who lived in Woodland Hills for a short while with legendary saxophonist Benny Carter, was involved in L.A.'s Central Avenue club scene of the late '40s and early '50s, where he worked with such notables as Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. He agrees that with the disappearance of the Central Avenue scene, the Los Angeles jazz world lost its center.
"But that's true of everyplace now. It's not like it used to be. As far as chances to play, my only complaint is that the youngsters don't have a chance to go out and sit in with other guys like they used to. Everything is business now. In those days, you played for the love of playing and meeting different guys and exchanging ideas."
Wiggins is still as active as ever. He'll be spotlighted at this year's Long Beach Music Festival on July 21 and Dick Gibson's annual jazz party in Denver this summer, as well as appearing on the Regency Jazz Cruise out of Vancouver, B.C. In October, he'll travel to Japan with saxophonist Scott Hamilton.
The solo Maybeck recital album is a bit unusual for Wiggins. The keyboardist, who appeared solo in 1988 at the Carnegie Center's Weill Recital Hall in New York, says he prefers working with at least a bass.
"Solo's all right, but I still have a lot to learn about solo piano playing. That's more than just a notion. Believe me, I've heard guys that really do it. No. 1: Art Tatum. Then there's Teddy Wilson, Dick Hyman . . . Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones. All these guys really know what it's about. Me, I'm still learning at the piano."
\o7 Gerald Wiggins plays with bassist John Leitham and drummer Paul Humphries tonight at 7:30 at the Hyatt Newporter, 1107 Jamboree Road, Newport Beach. Admission: $6 to $7. Information: (714) 729-1234.