Knight's Music: Tim Marchman on George Wallington

09.25.2004 | Tim Marchman | Music, Unfairly Forgotten | 2 Comments

Everyone knows the origins of bop, of the Promethean Minton’s set—of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian and Kenny Clarke—that  lit New York on fire.  As mythic accounts usually are, it’s entirely wrong. 

The first bop group ever to play 52nd Street opened in January, 1944 at the Onyx Club, with a redoubtable cast.  Dizzy Gillespie led, with Don Byas on saxophone, Oscar Pettiford on bass and Max Roach on drums. At the piano was a Sicilian immigrant named Giorgio (or, as some accounts have it, Giacinto) Figlia. He went by the name George Wallington, and he was 19 years old.

Figlia was born in October 1924 in Palermo, and in 1925 his family moved to New York.  His father, an opera singer, enrolled him in music school, where he took the name George and earned the nickname Lord Wallington for his swell dress.

In 1940, just 15 years old, he left school.  He played in the neighborhood band of a Dutch immigrant named Kai Winding, who had not yet reinvented the trombone as an instrument for the jazz solo, and began gigging around the city, taking jobs in small nightclubs in Brooklyn and the Village.

All accounts agree that in 1943 he was playing in a trio at the Welcome Inn, a cellar club in the Village.  By one account, Dizzy Gillespie happened in one night; by another, a mutual friend, the trumpeter Jerry Hurwitz, had been talking Wallington up to Gillespie for some time.  Either way, Gillespie suggested some chord changes to him, and at some later point happened into the club and heard Wallington using them.

Gillespie was at the time stuck for a piano player.  Bud Powell, his first choice, was in the legal custody of the great trumpeter and Ellingtonian Cootie Williams, who would not let his charge take the job.  Dizzy needed someone, and Wallington—unbelievably, considering he had never heard either Gillespie or Powell play—fit what he was looking for.  A week after Gillespie hired him, Wallington was playing with four legends in a group that was to explode on the New York scene.  As Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt wrote,

Their music, with its jarring dissonance and abrupt rhythmic irregularity, was soon the talk of the street.  The new band, the first bop band to play together for a large audience, was almost immediately controversial and for several months the music was called “Fifty-second Street jazz.”  Musicians have described walking into the club between numbers, then listening open-mouthed as the band suddenly began playing something that as far as they could tell didn’t have any melody or harmony.  Soloists came in at completely unexpected intervals, everybody started playing together again; then they all finished together and sat down.  The band stayed for the next three of four months, attracting noisy crowds.

This isn’t the story everyone knows.  It gives preference to the clowning Gillespie over the archetypally tormented Parker, and involves the unfashionable Byas and Pettiford and the relatively obscure Wallington in the new New York scene.  But it is what happened. The group backed Sarah Vaughan on unreleased sessions; Byas left, and as Parker’s horn was in the pawn shop, Lester Young was recruited.  Aside from the Vaughan sessions, they never recorded.

By the time Wallington cut his first session in 1949, as a Gerry Mulligan sideman, Parker had cut all of his most famous sides for Savoy and Dial, Gillespie’s big band was playing Cuban bop, and the greatest Blue Notes of Powell and Monk were being studied by Parisian intellectuals.  Their impact was only beginning to make itself felt, and as the first assessments of the new music were made they were rightly assigned pride of place.  This left the contributions of hundreds of others, from Max Roach to Conte Condoli, to be sorted and placed in a hierarchy that has been debated but in some ways never fundamentally reexamined.  Had the Onyx Club group recorded, Wallington might well have been widely remembered like Al Haig, as a formidable player on some of the most influential sides ever cut.  But it wasn’t to be.

What did happen was stranger and in some ways more interesting; for a time, Wallington served as the Zelig of modern jazz.  In 1949, his composition “Godchild” became perhaps the signal anthem of the West Coast sound epitomized on Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool sessions. In 1951 he made his first significant record, a trio date with longtime Powell sideman Curley Russell and Max Roach. Over the next six years he would cut nearly 20 albums, many of them excellent and the best of them intensely brilliant.  Their story can be told just by his sidemen.  In 1951, for instance, he cut sessions for Savoy that featured a young bassist billed as “Baron Fingus”—Charles Mingus’ second small-group recording session.  In 1955 the legendary Rudy Van Gelder recorded Wallington live (the tapes were eventually issued as At the Café Bohemia) with Art Taylor and three young unknowns: Jackie McLean, Paul Chambers, and Donald Byrd, who would join the Jazz Messengers that December.  One side of that record is given over to compositions by McLean and Byrd.

It is a dizzying record.  Listening to McLean’s harsh, discursive play on his shifting and escalating opener “Snakes,” it’s easy to hear exactly how much Mingus’ compositions owed to the freedom he allowed players like McLean; the explosive drops and stop-time riffs of the chorus of his numbers will be immediately familiar to anyone who knows the groups Mingus was leading at this time. Wallington lays in the background, comping like Bud Powell at his most devious, and taking his solos with a similar intricate flair.  It’s canonical music, and a half-dozen records from the period are every bit as good: Jazz For the Carriage Trade, The George Wallington Trios, The New York Scene, and Knight Music for starters.

This last one might be the best way to hear exactly what Wallington could do.  It’s a showcase record, produced by Van Gelder with Teddy Kotick on bass and Nick Stabulas on drums; one side is Wallington originals (including “Godchild” in a spare rendition that frankly shames Miles Davis’ version), and the other, standards.  His playing on this record has a feel and a rhythmic sophistication similar to some of Bud Powell’s more coherent Verves from the same period, and I don’t give the praise lightly.

Wallington recorded this record in 1956.  The next year, he stopped recording entirely for 27 years, during which he ran an air conditioning repair company called Dr. Cool’s Clinic, became a championship skeet shooter, and spent great amounts of time as a radio ham.  In 1984, more or less out of nowhere, he returned to record three very good albums; nine years later, he died.

Utopians at one time believed that modern recording technology would make a perfect history of music possible.  When everything is preserved, they believed, nothing can be forgotten.  It is easy to be arrogant, and to think that what is worthwhile is preserved.  The corollary, that what is forgotten is worthless, is rarely considered.  At least the utopians were aware of how much had not been preserved, and of how much had been forgotten.  If the memory of a player, composer and leader of Wallington’s sophistication and prescience can disappear, anything can.



Great article on George Wallington. I have been a guest on Jazz from the Archives with Vincent Pelote the subject was George Wallington. I also attended the first session that was recorded at RCA studios and also the session that was recorded at the Bohemia by Rudy Van Gelder. I am the founder of Cenral Jersey Jazz Association, our first group of nominees will have George nominate a honor that he has bee denied for too long.
CAN'T SAY MORE THEM WHAT TIM MARCHMAN SAID ABOUTGEORGE WALLINGTON I AM IS BROTHER PETER AND I THINK THE MUSIC MEDA IS UN FARE TO MY BROTHER GEORGE WALLINGTON WAS A GREAT PIANO PLAYER.LIKE AOL RODIO I LISTING TO THEM EVERY DAY AND YOU CAN SEE WHAT I AM SAYING THEY PLAY ABOUT 30 OR 50 RECORDS OF BUD MONK DIZZY AND OSCAR PETERSON RED GARLAND AND CHARIE PARKER AND MILES DAVIS THEY ALSO PLAY MILES BIRTH OF THE COOL RECORDS ALL THE SONG ON THE RECORDING PLUS GODCHILD RECORDINGS EVERY DAY NEVER HEAR ONE RECORDING BY GEORGE WALLINGTON I HATE TO SAY THIS BUT AS YOU CAN SEE THEY ARE ALL BLACK ARTIST MOSTLY ON AOL RODIO STATION.
PETER FIGLIA JR WALLINGTON
03.24.2006 | UNCLE PETE

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