Born: September 2, 1932 | Died: June 2, 1990 Primary Instrument: Piano
Walter Davis, Jr.a superb jazz pianist who played with and was a respected peer of the founding fathers of bebop, was born September 2, 1932 in Richmond, Virginia, and was reared in East Orange, New Jersey. His mother sang gospel; his father and four uncles played church and stride piano. By the time he entered high school, Walter was clearly a gifted classical pianist, but hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the legendary Billy Eckstine big band changed his music and his life. In 1949, he played his first gig with Bird at the Apollo. It went so well that Bird asked Walter’s mother if he could go with him on a road tour. One show happened to be seen by his high school principal; that finished school for Walter.
Within months, Walter was a regular at the historic Harlem and 52nd Street jam sessions that formed the roots of modern jazz. A pair of inseparable friends and giants of the jazz piano, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, took the promising teenager under their wing and taught him all they knew about the music and the world of jazz. He remained close to them, musically and personally, until their respective deaths.
Walter’s first recording was with Max Roach’s early fifties group. Then he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s 1965 big band that toured four continents, and played with Diz, off and on, for the next thirty years. From 1958-1960, he recorded a classic series of Blue Note albums with Donald Byrd, Art Taylor, and Jackie McLean. The series culminated in Davis Cup, an album of Davis originals and his first session as a leader.
Walter spent the early sixties with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, returning a decade later, in 1975, as the group’s principal composer-arranger. In between, and since, he played with most of the jazz greats in New York, including Sonny Rollins, Philly Joe Jones, and Miles Davis.
After spending years as the quintessential sideman, in the mid-eighties he began to focus on projecting, in solos and small-group sessions, the distinctive Davis piano style which was known to so few people beyond his jazz contemporaries. A series on the Denon label featured Walter as leader with such sidemen as Art Taylor and Tony Williams, not to mention young lions like Carter Jefferson and Kenny Washington. Four other Davis-led recordings were cut on Italian, French, and Danish labels.
In New York, Walter’s piano personality developed further and received more widespread recognition as the result of solo concerts, appearances with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and a continuing set of piano-bass duo gigs at Bradley’s that New York musicians are still talking about. Finally, Walter was coming to be viewed as the living link with and master interpreter ofthe founding fathers of modern jazz, particularly Thelonious Monk, Bud, and Bird.
Walter, who did so much for others, particularly young musicians, could not have been more negligent of his own health. He died of untreated diabetes and high blood pressure on June 2, 1990. He was fifty-seven years old and had been making jazz history for four decades.
Source: James Nadal