Teddy Wilson backed Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday—then became a star playing with Benny Goodman. He made history as one of the first black musicians to join a white band in public performances. Wilson’s understated, delicately-swinging piano style defined the Swing Era.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, pianist Dick Hyman (who took piano lessons from Wilson in New York) and vocalist Topsy Chapmanjoin The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band to celebrate Teddy Wilson's magic touch.
The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.
Wilson was born in 1912. As a young man trained in classical violin and piano, he got his first taste of jazz listening to recordings of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Earl Hines on a gramophone that belonged to a clerk in the campus drugstore at Tuskegee Institute where his father taught. Wilson had his first breaks in professional music in the early 1930s playing in Chicago with bands led by Jimmie Noone and Louis Armstrong.
Then late one night in 1932, the self-styled talent scout, jazz promoter and record producer John Hammond heard Wilson sitting in on a live broadcast from the Grand Terrace in Chicago. Hammond was so impressed that he fronted the cash to bring Wilson to New York to be a part of Benny Carter’s recording group, the Chocolate Dandies.
Hammond was behind the scenes everywhere in the 1930s, spotting unknown singers and musicians and pairing his favorites in concert dates and recording sessions. He soon adopted Teddy Wilson as one of his protégés. In 1935, Hammond brought two of his favorite ‘unknowns’ together in a New York recording studio. It was a winning combination of Billie Holiday and Wilson, who put together a group with Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman and Ben Webster.
The results were spectacular. They recorded four numbers on July 2, 1935, including the classics “Miss Brown to You” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” It was the first of many outstanding Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday recording collaborations.
As a founding member of Benny Goodman’s enormously successful small ensembles, Wilson became a star of the Swing Era. His 1936 concert debut with the Benny Goodman Trio at the Congress Hotel in Chicago was a landmark in civil rights history—it was the most high-profile appearance up to that time of black and white musicians performing together in public.
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