Everyone knows the origins of bop, of the Promethean Minton’s
set—of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian and Kenny Clarke—that
The first bop group ever to play
Figlia was born in October 1924 in
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
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
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 “
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 .
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
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
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
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.