Born Malcolm Earl Waldron on August 16, 1926 (some sources say 1925), in New York, NY; died on December 2, 2002, in Brussels, Belgium. Education: Bachelor of arts degree in composition, Queens College, City University of New York, late 1940s.

Mal Waldron is perhaps best remembered as the composer of the jazz standard "Soul Eyes," a ballad both he and saxophonist John Coltrane recorded in 1957. In more than 60 years of recording and performing, however, Waldron accompanied such jazz stalwarts as Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Kenny Burrell, Art Farmer, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, Donald Byrd, Gene Ammons, and Art Farmer. His resumé also includes a stint as house pianist at Prestige Records, where he accompanied some of the most groundbreaking and influential jazz musicians of the late 1950s on some of their most important work, including Charles Mingus's Blues Roots and Pithecanthropus erectus, Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin, Max Roach's Percussion Bitter Sweet, Abbey Lincoln's Straight Ahead, and Eric Dolphy's Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot. He also distinguished himself in duets with Steve Lacy, George Haslam, Chico Freeman, Andrew Hill, Jackie McLean, and Marion Brown.

As a bandleader, Waldron recorded extensively throughout his career, releasing albums on nearly every major jazz label of the late twentieth century, including Prestige, Savoy, Impulse!, New Jazz/OJC, and Enja. His 1969 album Free at Last was the inaugural release on Manfred Eicher's ECM label. His piano playing drew heavily from the bop influence of Thelonious Monk and much of his music featured simple repetitive motifs within a narrow framework, but he was equally adept at free jazz. Upon his death, Steve Voce wrote in the Independent, "Waldron lived his life at the forefront of jazz, always in the vanguard and always playing for himself and making few concessions to his audience. He wasn't concerned with swinging and often played without any rhythm section at all."

While most sources cite Waldron's date of birth as 1926, others claim that he was born in 1925. Waldron himself explained the discrepancy by arguing that he was attempting to retrieve one of the two years he spent in the Army in the 1940s. His first musical training was as a classical pianist, which he began when he was eight years old. According to International Herald Tribune writer Mike Zwerin, "As a child in the borough of Queens in New York, Waldron's classical teacher would shout 'stop it!' as though in pain when he made up his own variations to sonatas: 'It's not legal,' the teacher said. 'You're breaking the rules.' When he grew older, Waldron understood that in jazz, on the contrary, playing something the same way twice was 'illegal,' and he thought, 'This is more like it.'" Waldron switched to alto saxophone but eventually gave up the instrument. "I made some money with the alto," he told the Independent, "but I was never a big star. When I first heard Charlie Parker I decided to go back to the piano. I took the alto to the nearest hock shop. I had much more technique on the piano and was halfway able to keep up with Bud Powell, which was a lot closer than I got to Charlie Parker."

Waldron was drafted into the Army in 1943, where he spent two years training cavalry horses in New York. Whenever he could arrange it, he traveled into the city to listen to live jazz in such clubs as Minton's Playhouse. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in composition at Queens College, City University of New York. He made his professional debut in 1950 as a member of Ike Quebec's combo at Café Society in New York City. After playing with a series of R&B groups that included Big Nick Nicholas, Waldron returned to jazz. In 1954 he began playing regularly with jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus. Waldron played with Mingus's Jazz Composer's Workshop and Jazz Workshop at, respectively, the 1955 and 1956 Newport Jazz Festivals. In 1956 he led his own five-piece band, which included Gigi Gryce and Idrees Sulieman. He supplemented his income and burgeoning drug dependence by performing as the house pianist at Prestige Records from 1956 to 1958, recording with such artists as John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Gene Ammons, Ray Draper, Herbie Mann, and Donald Byrd.

In 1957 Waldron began a stint as pianist in Billie Holiday's band. He continued to play with her for more than two years until her death in 1959. In a BBC interview quoted in the London Times, Waldron gave his impression of Holiday: "I didn't see that period of her life as a tragedy. She was very funny, told jokes, saw humour in everything, and although her voice was not as it had been before, she adapted brilliantly to what she had left to work with." After her death, he went to work with Abbey Lincoln, composing and playing on her classic 1961 album Straight Ahead, which featured compositions by Waldron, Monk, and Max Roach combined with politically themed lyrics by Langston Hughes, Holiday, and James Weldon Johnson as well as saxophone performances by Coleman Hawkins and Dolphy.

Despite his nearly debilitating drug habit during this period, Waldron composed, performed, and recorded prolifically on several other classic recordings of the era, including his own 1961 release, Quest. Moving into a new medium, Waldron also composed the soundtrack for the film Cool World, released in 1963. Chuck Berg described the work in his Oxford Companion to Jazz essay, "Jazz and Film and Television," as one of first "efforts to maximize jazz's improvisatory dimension ... in which trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie sails above a provocative score by Mal Waldron."

In 1963, Waldron suffered a collapse that sources alternately ascribe to drug abuse or nervous exhaustion. "The whole set-up in America was very, very, very bad," Waldron told Zwerin. "The police would stop the musicians and search us as we came out of the clubs after work. We had to turn our pockets inside out. After awhile, the musicians thought ... well, if you have the name you might as well have the game. Eventually, I overdosed. I couldn't remember my name. My hands were trembling. I couldn't play the piano. I needed shock treatments and a spinal tap to bring me back."

Afterward, he had to relearn his compositions by listening to his own recordings. According to John Fordham in the Guardian, "The collapse was so profound that he relearnt his craft, and recast it in an even leaner and more deliberate mould. He also became increasingly amenable to free jazz and ways of improvising independently of chord sequences." In 1964 Waldron composed the music for the Marcel Carne film Trois chambres à Manhattan. He moved to Europe the following year, going first to Paris then settling in Munich in 1967, the same year he composed the music for Herbert Danska's Sweet Love, Bitter Love.

Waldron traveled to Japan for the first time in 1970. He eventually became one of the country's best-selling jazz artists and composed the soundtrack to the 1986 film Tokyo Blues, directed by Haruki Kadokawa.In 1995 he composed a piece commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Japan entitled "White Road, Black Rain."

In 1986 Waldron was filmed for the concert movie Mal Waldron and Friends: Live at the Village Vanguard. By now a firmly entrenched expatriate, Waldron recorded the first album released on the German label ECM Records as well as the fourth album released by the German label Enja. Although he loathed trans-Atlantic flights because they forbade smoking, Waldron returned to the United States for a series of successful recording sessions with Woody Shaw in the 1980s. According to Fordham: "The music showed him at his most determinedly minimalist, building solos out of hypnotically minuscule variations."

It wasn't just the long flights that bothered him, though--America's increasing hostility toward smoking in public also kept Waldron out of the country. He did, however, travel frequently to England to record and compose with baritone saxophone player George Haslam, with whom he released the 1995 duet album Two New. In 1997 he was the subject of the documentary Mal, in which he performed and discussed his lengthy career. He died of cancer in December of 2002 in Brussels, Belgium, where he'd settled in the 1990s. Jazz fans and writers alike mourned his passing and hailed him as a jazz musician schooled in bop, crediting him with expanding the genre's boundaries in the 1950s and 1960s.

by Bruce Walker

Mal Waldron's Career

Professional performing and recording debut with Ike Quebec, 1950; worked with Charles Mingus, 1954-56; played Newport Jazz Festival with Jazz Composer's Workshop, 1955; became house pianist at Prestige label, 1956; composed jazz standard "Soul Eyes," 1957; accompanied Billie Holiday, 1957-59; member of Eric Dolphy Booker Little Quintet, 1961; recorded Quest, 1961; composed music for Abbey Lincoln's Straight Ahead, 1961; composed and performed soundtrack to film Cool World, 1963; composed music for film Trois chambres à Manhattan, 1964; moved to Europe, 1965; settled in Munich, 1967; released Free at Last, ECM label's first release, 1969; composed music for film Tokyo Blues, 1986; featured subject of Belgian documentary Mal, 1997.

Famous Works

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

This biography of M. Waldron is useful; it's informative, minimalist and devoid of adjectives. I learned about Waldron's film scores, and now will hunt for those films. I wish there was more information about the documentary, Mal.