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JAZZ FESTIVAL : Success Story : Pianist Cedar Walton made a name with Art Blakey in '60s and went uphill from there.

September 30, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a business prone to wild mood swings, the career of understated yet titanic jazz pianist Cedar Walton has been long and predictable.

It began some 40 years ago, and crystallized in the mid-'60s during Walton's tenure in a legendary incarnation of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

Today, the influence of the late Blakey's band is evident--through members of the '60s group, like Walton, as well as the legions of younger Messengers like the Marsalis brothers.

For years, Walton maintained a tight musical alliance with bassist David Williams and drummer Billy Higgins.

But when Walton hits the sand at Leadbetter Beach, he will be joined by an alternate group, with bassist Robert Hurst and guitarist Kevin Eubanks (both of the "Tonight Show" band), and journeyman Los Angeles drummer Ralph Penland.

In the past decade, with the mobilization of interest in straight-ahead jazz, Walton has enjoyed a resurgence of attention.

Among the recently released or soon-to-be released Walton albums at a music outlet near you are "Simple Pleasure," by Walton's group Eastern Rebellion (on MusicMasters); a fine solo piano set in the "Live at Maybeck" series on the Concord label. Another album on Muse, recorded three years ago, is just being released.

Of personal historical import is an as yet unreleased project called the "Blakey Legacy," featuring music arranged for various Messengers alumni, to be released on the Sweet Basil label.

Last week, a hale and hardy looking Walton sat down to lunch at an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, looking sharp in a dark suit. He knows the neighborhood, having moved to Los Angeles in 1988 after 35 years in New York, the jazz capital.

The Dallas, Texas, native, born in 1934, gravitated to New York via Denver, where he led an after-hours club frequented by the jazz notable passing through town. Blessed with compositional and performance talents, Walton was destined to carve out a solo career, which began in the late '60s and includes some 25 albums and an international itinerary.

This weekend, see him on the beach in his first--by his accounting--performance in Santa Barbara.

Have you ever played on the beach before?

Well, I've played at Newport, which is sort of a waterfront. On a beach? Let me think. There's Antibes in France. But that's a rock beach. So maybe I haven't played on the sand before. It's a first.

Are you resigned to life on the road by now?

Yeah, we don't even call it the road now. We call it touring. The road is the bus and a cheeseburger. Touring is an airplane and room service.

How much time do you spend touring these days?

It varies. I would say about half the time. I wouldn't want it to be more than that, because I love to be at home, so I can plan things out for the next journey. Preparation, for me, is a very likable, attractive thing to do.

Even when I'm away, I look forward to getting back and preparing. I like preparing almost more than the real thing.

Was it Art Blakey's notion to hone musicians and then send them out into the world?

Exactly. A finishing school, if you will. That was a great idea. Art overdramatized it sometimes, saying, "When these ones get too old, I'm going to get me some more young ones." He would say that to the audience. You could get embarrassed if you were one of the young ones. You would almost rather be one about to get jettisoned out.

You had already arrived by the time you joined Blakey, in a way. You played with Kenny Dorham, Benny Golson and Art Farmer.

But to go from that group into Art's was like night and day, because, with all due respect to Benny, it was all his music in that band. In Art's group, on the contrary, he needed as much as you could give him. As soon as I got in there, they recorded "Mosaic," which became the title tune of our first Blue Note album.

That period set the stage for a lot of what's going on in jazz now. Younger players seem to have a stylistic debt to that period.

I guess so. There's a certain similarity or natural sequence from that period to now.

How have you found the recording industry to deal with?

Oh, the recording industry is fine, especially if you compose. If you get your tunes recorded, you can realize some revenue over the years. I can't complain along those lines. If I had to rely on just my playing and not compositions, I don't know how I'd be doing.

Is writing a regular part of your musical practice?

Oh, definitely. I try to come up with something at all times. When I sit down and play--which is a joy for me, because I have a new Steinway--I immediately try and make up something. For me, practicing is like warming up. That's why I don't like to stay out on tour too long.

What projects would you like to get involved in?

Concord is now doing duo recordings at Maybeck. I got this bright idea that I wanted to hook up with Bruce Forman, or another guitarist. I'd like to prepare and make something real interesting, work out stuff.

I don't enjoy just playing with a guitar player. I enjoy that with a horn player. But if you work it out so chords don't clash, it can be beautiful. First I'm just setting the stage, then I'll see what follows. All I have is an abstracted idea.

When we prepare two songs, that third one will happen.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Santa Barbara Jazz Festival, Friday through Sunday, at Leadbetter Beach, 801 Shoreline Drive, Santa Barbara. Friday, from 6 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, from 1 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, from 1 to 9:30 p.m. Cedar Walton will perform Sunday at 6 p.m. For more information, call (310) 452-5056.

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