Cedar Walton died just after 03:00h this morning at his home in Brooklyn. He was 79.
By John Fordham at TheGuardian
Back in the day at Ronnie Scott's club in London, when artists were booked on the personal whims of the founding proprietors Scott and Pete King without much regard for the box office, the same performers would reappear year after year with the regularity of old friends turning up to reunions. One such was the pianist and composer Cedar Walton, who has died aged 79. Like almost all the regular favourites at Ronnie's in the Scott-King era, Walton was a class jazz act who could play intelligent, probing bebop and swing-based music in his sleep, but who refashioned familiar jazz traditions in his own ways.
Walton's engrossing performances might open on a brisk blues that would develop first in silvery, balletic treble melodies and build to chord-thumping climaxes. A swoony standard-song such as All the Things You Are could be unexpectedly delivered as a series of flinty, Thelonious Monk-like prods, or a familiar jazz vehicle like Lover Man might move from a subtly evolving repeated phrase through a shower of bright runs and trills to jubilant block chords.
But he was as creative a composer as he was a player. Walton's punchy, clever and shrewdly shaped originals – including Bolivia, Ojos de Rojo and Mode for Joe – became jazz standards. He was a much sought-after and prolific artist, participating in or leading more than 100 albums over a recording career that began in 1958.
He was born in Dallas and was taught to play the piano by his mother, Ruth, who also took him to jazz concerts by piano stars including Art Tatum. From his early years he showed a preference for composing his own pieces rather than practising other people's. From 1951 until 1954 Walton studied music and education at the University of Denver, and ran a local trio that got to accompany such illustrious visitors as Dizzy Gillespie. He was then drafted into the army, where he had the opportunity to sit in with Duke Ellington's orchestra, and to play with the trumpeter/composer Don Ellis and the saxophonists Leo Wright and Eddie Harris in the 7th Army band while stationed in Germany.
On his demobilisation and return to the US in 1958, Walton made his recording debut with the bebop trumpeter and vocalist Kenny Dorham, playing reservedly but supportively on the album This Is the Moment. The following year, Walton almost found himself involved in what was to become a jazz landmark – John Coltrane's Giant Steps –but though he played on the early takes at Coltrane's invitation, he was absent on tour for the final ones, and Tommy Flanagan took his place.
Walton was now in demand for the leading young bands practising the bluesy, viscerally exciting style called hard bop. He worked in the trombonist JJ Johnson's group from 1958 until 1960, and then alongside the trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson in the elegant Jazztet for a year. But in 1961, his most significant career choice presented itself, and he joined the drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers – the doyen of hard bop bands, with a gospelly energy that sprang directly from Blakey's volatile drumming.
Walton later maintained that playing with Blakey greatly sharpened his alertness and attentiveness as an accompanist as well as a soloist. But since the Messengers were an open and evolving jazz workshop that devoured new original material, this was also an opportunity for Walton the composer to blossom – and the presence of the trumpet virtuoso Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter in the lineup were added inspirations. Walton contributed such deviously lyrical themes as Mosaic and Ugetsu to Blakey's repertoire in his tenure from 1961 to 1964, years in which the Messengers were at their zestful best.
Walton then accompanied the vocalist Abbey Lincoln, recorded with the popular former Messengers trumpeter Lee Morgan, worked as a house pianist for Prestige Records, and participated in a tough bebop band with the saxophonists George Coleman and later Bob Berg that from 1975 took the name Eastern Rebellion. Walton was also a key member of the tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan's Magic Triangle group in the mid-70s, and though he touched on electric music and funk in the same decade, bebop and swing were closest to his heart and he soon returned to acoustic groups.
He frequently toured with a trio featuring the gracefully inventive Billy Higgins on drums, an inspiration that helped bring the pianist's uncliched improv phrasing to a new level of telling concision. He made magnificent recordings with lineups from duos to an 11-piece through the 1990s. But Walton also remained an open and willing partipant in other players' ventures, cannily shadowing the London vocalist Ian Shaw on the 1999 album In a New York Minute, and the UK sax/trumpet bebop partnership of Osian Roberts and Steve Fishwick on With Cedar Walton (2009). He was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010, and his last recording – The Bouncer, in 2011, for his trio augmented by sax and trombone – was a typically nimble canter through the old master's favourite kinds of jazz.
Walton is survived by his wife, Martha, and four children, Carl, Rodney, Cedra and Naisha.
• Cedar Anthony Walton Jr, jazz pianist and composer, born 17 January 1934; died 19 August 2013