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Teddy Wilson - The Elegant Black American Swing Jazz Pianist

Theodore Shaw Wilson (usually called "Teddy Wilson) was a master of the Swing era, a definitive jazz pianist with an elegant, sophisticated style. He was one of the biggest jazz names in America and was also one of the first colored musicians to collaborate with other white musicians and make prominent public appearances.

Teddy Wilson sitting at piano surrounded by other musicians

Early Life 

Wilson was born on the 24th of November, 1912 in Austin, Texas. Both his parents were accomplished educators. The whole family soon moved to Tuskegee when his father was appointed as the head of the English department at the renowned Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His mother also became the head librarian.

Wilson continued his elementary and secondary education in Alabama along with his older brother Gus. Soon, the brothers started taking music lessons, initiating with piano and violin and subsequently moving on to clarinet and oboe. In 1927, at the age of 14, Wilson got his first taste of jazz via gramophone records. The brothers listened to Frankie Trumbauer, Bix Beiderbecke, and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and were immediately hooked. Teddy’s mother, however, was strict on the education front and made him graduate from Talladega College. After a year spent studying music theory, he was finally allowed to join his older brother in Detroit.

Musical Journey 

The Wilson brothers joined Speed Webb's band, where Teddy played the piano and Gus was on trombone. The legendary Louis Armstrong was also a part of the group. Next, Wilson joined Hines's Grand Terrace Cafe Orchestra as an understudy of Earl Hines. In 1930, he moved to Ohio and joined Milton Senior on a combo. They soon became close friends. And they were both regular at after-hours private parties and local clubs. In 1932, he moved to Chicago and started collaborating with different bands under Jimmie Noone, Eddie Mallory, and Erskine Tate. He even became a member of Louis Armstrong’s orchestra and spent several months recording and touring with the group. In 1933, he tied the knot with Irene Edie, a composer, and pianist.

In 1935, he became a part of the Benny Goodman Trio, where Wilson accompanied Goodman and Gene Krupa. They were later joined by Lionel Hampton, becoming the “Benny Goodman Quartet.” They started performing during the interval of other shows. They also became one of the first racially integrated groups to perform together in the history of American music. During this time, John Hammond, a wealthy music critic and record producer, who was a major player in the New York jazz scene came into Wilson’s life. He was thoroughly impressed by his performances for “Grand Terrace Ballroom,” and also received glorious recommendations from Benny Carter and Earl Hines. The very first day they had an agreement, Hammond ushered him into a studio recording session with the “Chocolate Dandies.” In New York, Teddy’s musical career quickly gained traction. He joined Willie Bryant’s orchestra after the Carter group was disbanded, and also acquired a steady flow of studio work. He also landed a gig at the “Famous Door” on 52nd Street.

In 1935, Hammond also introduced Wilson to the Brunswick Corporation, where the latter started recording the swing arrangements of contemporary chartbusters. The jukebox trade was blooming and so did Teddy’s reputation. He collaborated with Billie Holiday, Helen Ward, and Lena Horne in different hit projects and also played alongside contemporary swing greats like Ben Webster, Red Norvo, Charlie Shavers, and Lester Young. In 1939, he created his own band, followed by a sextet based at Café Society. His political attribute led to the nickname of “Marxist Mozart,” as he raised money for the Russian War Relief through several benefit concerts. He also headed the Artists’ Committee that helped elect Benjamin J. Davis as a member of the New York City council. For the next 6 years, he continued recording for Brunswick and also landed deals with Columbia Records. After 1950, he added Verve Records to his resume. Hammond’s influence duly paid off, and critics often state that he truly put his whole weight behind Teddy, which was also down to their judicious relationship. Wilson later praised Hammond’s sophisticated musical acumen and thanked him for introducing him to New York’s cultural scene.

During his later years, Teddy settled in the suburban Hillsdale area of New Jersey. He also married thrice and spent the rest of his life performing with pick-up groups and as a soloist. He also created a trio with his sons Steven Wilson and Theodore Wilson Jr. In 1986, he passed away after suffering from stomach cancer at the age of 73. He was buried at the  Fairview Cemetery in New Britain.

Recognitions and Usage in Popular Culture

  • In 1937, Wilson composed the track “I’ve Got a Heartful of Music” for the movie “Hollywood Hotel.” He acted in the movie. 
  • In 1937, he acted in the movie titled “The Benny Goodman Story” 
  • In 1943 and 1946, he acted in the movies “Something to Shout About,” and “Swingtime Jamboree.”
  • In 1945, he collaborated with bebop pioneers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in a one-off session. It was organized by vibraphonist Red Norvo.
  • In 1946, he performed in the short film “After You've Gone.”
  • In 1951, he appeared in the TV series “Sure As Fate.” 
  • He was the music director in the “Dick Cavett Show.”
  • In 1955, he created a soundtrack for the movie “Allen in Movieland.”
  • In 1979, the Berklee College of Music awarded Wilson an Honorary Doctorate of Music. 
  • He acted in the movie titled “Goodman Pianist.” 
  • In 1999, his singing of “The Sheik of Araby” was used for the comedy “The Story of Us.” 
  • In 2002, his performance of “I’ve Got the World on a String” was used for the Hollywood blockbuster “Catch Me If You Can.”
  • In 2003, his singing of these four numbers; “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Easy to Love” was used for the movie "Anything Else."

A Swing Prince

Wilson was the most famous jazz pianist in the Swing era, mostly due to his exploits with the “Goodman Trio.” His artistry was more profound in small-group settings while working with underneath vocalists. He was equally adept as a soloist or working with big bands, but the real magic was evident when he was accompanied by vocalists. He also had the sheer force of talent that enabled him to be the perfect foil for bebop musicians. What they created was virtuosic and revolutionary. His effortless airy style - his right hand churning out long-lined melodies and ornaments, as his left set out the harmonies unobtrusively, all with the lazy elegance and exemplary sense of an artist who had all the time in the world to set the tempo.

His transitions from swing to bebop were effortless, and are used as a basis point by modern jazz pianists. Although his early recordings felt somewhat forceful and percussive, he thoroughly matured over the years into a graceful and gifted genius who knew how to utilize the full range of his instrument to his complete advantage. He showed us how melodies can pirouette and glide with a refined delicacy, albeit with a touch of blues. Teddy Wilson exemplified a sense of order, precision, and polish. He knew how to make great swing bands swing, which was not just impeccable, but irresistible.


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