a brief outline of his musical life

by Anders Mathiessen

Mal Waldron is a unique pianoplayer and composer - like Ellington and Monk. Among musicians this has been a well-known fact ever since the 1950`s. But on the U.S. jazz scene he never attained notoriety - as Max Roach put it some 10 years ago. I think this has been changing during the 80`s. At least in Europe and Japan Mal`s audiences have been steadily growing since the mid-60`s. During mid - and late - 1980`s Mal Waldron has been touring Canada, United States, Japan, Australia, Italy, Germany, DDR, France,Holland,Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, England, Spain, Greece, Finland etc. - playing solo piano, duo, trio, quartet, quintet etc. (including big band). In Japan he just made the music for a new film "Tokyo Blues"  


During the 1950`s Mal Waldron developed compositional and pianistic styles uniquely his own.  As a pianist he has been absolutely "different" ever since. He recently discussed, what his breakdown and temporary retirement 1963 had ment to his way of playing the piano. His rhythms and his approach was the same before and after 1963, and Mal believes he has got all his old qualities back in his playing now (Cadence, May 1988). With his unmistakable rhythms and touch, his economy  of uses of material, his use of space and repetition - his music has been changing all the time though. As has his life. Born in New York City on August 16, 1925  (not 1926) - in Cadence, May 88, Mal explained this mistake) Mal Waldron began to study the piano at the age of ten - classics only. During highschool and the U.S. army he began playing jazz on piano and alto sax. When released 1947, he decided to study composition with Karol Rathaus at Queens College ending up with a BA degree 1949. After that, Mal began writing music for modern and ballet dancers. During 1950-51 he returned to study composition with Dr. Rathaus, and about that time he began working with different rhythm and blues groups.


When Charles Mingus formed his first Jazz Workshop group, Mal Waldron was the pianist. In a more extensive interview (New York, July 1976) , Mal told Roland Baggenaes about these years. He joined the Jazz Composers' Workshop too in 1954 and met Teddy Charles - another composer searching for new directions in jazz. With him, Mal contributed to the experiments later labeled "third stream  music".  A colaboration for years to come. As late as 1963 Mal arranged Prokofiev's ETUDE for Teddy Charles' Russia Goes Jazz-record. And he was with Billie Holiday the last two years of her life (April 1957- ). During that same period, Mal wrote for and played on a lot of PRESTIGE "jam sessions", and he made his first 5 records as a leader. He was house pianist for Prestige Febr. 1957- Febr.1959  (Jazz Hot, Dec. 1958). Mal Waldron was a friend of John Coltrane. They worked and recorded together during the decisive period (1957), when Coltrane left the original Miles Davis Quintet and joined Thelonious Monk for almost six months at the Five Spot. With Steve Lacy, Mal recorded the first LP wholly made up of Monk's muslc ln 1958 - apart from Monk of course. Mal and Lacy met during some work with poets at the old Five Spot - performing Jazz and Poetry together 1959 and 60. Mal worked with his own groups at the Five Spot. He also was among the first involved wlth developing "play-along" records for jazz musicians, for MUSIC MINUS ONE.


Jazz was always polltlcal, always a protest against the conditions of negroes ln white Amerlca. Around 1960, when the struggles of black Amerlcans began to find direct expresslons on the bandstand, Mal worked with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln - supporting thelr first voicings of the black pride and black anger. 1961 Mal made one of his finest record THE QUEST, a challenging album based on some of his most complex writings exploring new possibilities in jazz forms and time signatures - a masterpiece. When Eric Dolphy and Booker Little formed their historic quintet, July 1961, Mal was the pianist - there too. Durlng the following years Mal wrote some remarkable filmscores. For THE COOL WORLD {1963) by Shirley Clarke based on Warren Miller's book (1959), about a l4 - year old black teenager in Harlem - about reasons for riots or revolutions in black communities; and for SWEET LOVE, BITTER (1966) based on John A. William's novel Night Song (1961), about the life of Charlie Parker - about reasons for black blues. That was how Mal got the chance to get out of 'cool' white America. 1965 he went to Paris to write the muslc for Marcel Carnels TROIS CHAMBRES A MANHATTAN (1966), and he stayed in Europe. Since 1967 Mal was living ln Munich (D), where Christian Burchard found for him a steady place.


In Europe, Mal Waldron soon established a formidable reputation. At first he worked in Paris (France) and Italy, and he toured all over Europe playing a lot of Festivals - in Poland, Hungary, Jugoslavia and DDR too. In 67 he often played with Dusko Goykovich's International Quintet, and he had a good deal of radio work. In Autumn 1967 Mal worked with Mal Waldron/Christian Burchard Quartet for the first time - at "Bubis Strohhalm" in Erlangen with George Mraz and Laco Tropp (Jazz Podium 1968:17). Christian Burchard soon found an appartment for him in Munich (he stayed there more then 35 years), `cause he was living in a cheap hotel in Cologne and organised  lots of concerts for that quartet in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. On drums sometimes Dieter Serfas, Makaya Tshoko, Ivor Thorpe, Barry Altschuh on bass Kent Carter, Reinhard Knieper, Hans Lengefeld, Lothar Meid and on the Munich gigs you could often hear Benny Bailey, Don Menza, Pony Poindexter, Leo Wright, Carmel Jones jamming with that group, there are some great live recordings for Bayerischer Rundfunk or Austrian Radio. Mal's musical search soon led him to play more free forms, when given the opportunity. With Dolphy in the early 60's he had his first encounters with free music. 1969 Mal Waldron won a JAZZ DISC SILVER AWARD in Swing Journal, the Japanese jazz magazine. A Japanese label had reissued one of Mal's early Italian records MAL WALDRON -ALL ALONE (Swing Journal I1969:2). This finally opened up the Japanese jazz scene for Mal. He first visited Japan in February 1970 and recorded TOKYO REVERIE and TOKYO BOUND - among his finest records. 1971 he returned and made a triumphant concert-tour sponsored by Swing Journal. During the early 1970' Mal Waldron recommenced his collaboration with Steve Lacy - since 1969 living in Paris. He worked with German group Embryo (founded by Christian Burchard in 69), playing electric piano to try out new musical expressions. He formed his famous Quintet/Sextet and toured Europe during mid - and late - . Since 1975 he toured in Scandinavia and Germany with Mal Waldron - Marc Levin Collaboration, etc. Soon he was touring almost all over the world - solo or in various settings, including some  reappearences in United States. Mal played on the "loft scene"  in New York 1975/76, and during the late 7o's he re-entered the New York jazz scene - and the musical activity of the United States (Down Beat, April 81). But he still wanted to live in Munich. The musical life of MAL WALDRON has been a search for musical freedom and progress (see excerpts from conversations on JOURNEY WITHOUT END) .He collaborated with Mingus, Coltrane, Dolphy & Booker Little at the times they made their most important "breaks". Since 1965 he has lived inEurope, but as a black artist naturally he has his musical roots and his background back in white America. Mal Waldron has lived and played through successive transitions from bop and Billie Holiday to new black music to free jazz and finally to his own free conversing music - in duos. But all the way through, he has been his own musician. You may see his music as his ever deepening response to his experience of life.

Rolling Stone USA jan 2003

Andrew Dansby 3.12.2002

He never achieved the same notoriety as Thelonius Monk, though the more introverted Mal Waldron shared that iconic pianist's combination of skill and daring. Waldron dedicated more than half a century of his life to jazz. As a sideman he accompanied a roster of all-stars including John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Jackie McLean and countless others. On his own, he let his cata1og do the speaking, with more than seventy recordings to his credit. Waldron died on December 2nd in Brussels after a brief illness. He was seventy-six.Born in New York City on August 16, 1926, Waldron got his start playing both piano, initially in a classical capacity. He graduated from Queens College and opted to pursue jazz. In the early Fifties he got his start with swinging saxman Ike Quebec. The middle and late portion of the decade found Waldron playing with two of his best-known leaders at contrasting stages of their careers. Waldron joined Charles Mingus' Jazz Workshop and can be heard on the famed bassist/composer's first outstanding recording, 1957's Pithecanthropus Erectus. And he also accompanied Billie Holiday in the years prior to her death in 1959. And in between he appeared on John Coltrane's classic recording of his own cornposition, "Soul Eyes. " As he did throughout his career, Waldron quietly went about recording his own sessions as a leader, along with hls slderman stints. Mal-1 (1956) andMal-2 (1957) found Waldron comfortable out front, funnelin original like "Bud Study"with standards) likeRogers and Hart's "Falling in Love With Love." Those two tracks perhaps best exemplify Waldron's angular style, that was equally inclusive with standards like the latter and a tribute to a bebop cornerstone with the former. Like Monk, Waldron's concise-yet-ragged edges were just too out to pass for straightforward bop.  

In 1961, Waldron played a two-week engagement with the ill-fated pair of Eric Dolphy and Booker Little at New York's the Five Spot. Three albums were issued from the performances, the first of which included one of Waldron's finest compositions, "Fire Waltz," which Dolphy would make a staple. Little would be dead of uremia at age twenty-three by autumn of that year, and just three years later Dolphy lapsed into a diabetic coma and died at thirty-six. In 1965, Waldron bid the U.S. adieu and moved to Europe, eventually settling in Munich. Waldron wou1d call Europe home the rest of his life, performing and recording there prolifically.

The next two decades were spent quietly adding to his output, including more then twenty releases in the Eighties. Stasis was never an issue, as Waldron would regularly collaborate with reedmen including Steve Lacey, George Haslam and others. He also issued Into the Light a beautiful and moody collaboration with vibist Christian Burchard in 1990. Waldron`s last release before his death was Riding a Zephyr, a collection of duets with singer Judi Silvano, for which he composed the music and she wrote accompanying lyrics.