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Bob Freedman on Dick Twardzik

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Following my post last week on pianist Dick Twardzik and his death in 1955 of a heroin overdose, I received an email from saxophonist and arranger Bob Freedman, who has worked with Maynard Ferguson, Sarah Vaughan, Grady Tate, Buddy Morrow, Lena Horne, Joe Williams, the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis band and many others. (For my earlier chat with Bob on Ferguson, go here). Bob sent along his recollections of Twardzik...

“In 1948, when I was 14, I joined the Tommy Reynolds band playing baritone saxophone, alto saxophone and clarinet. Dick Twardzik was on piano. He was a magician on the keyboard. One night we arrived at one of the seaside ballrooms where the piano was out of tune (as usual) and had a bunch of non-functioning keys. Dickie sat down and made the thing sound absolutely beautiful. Then I tried it and walked away after a few seconds of producing nothing but noise. [Photo above courtesy of Frank Galasso, Jr.]

“Dickie and I sort of gravitated to each other. He was 17 and became my jazz mentor. One weekend, he invited me to his parents house in Danvers, Mass., for a weekend. His parents lived in a large, old house that had been restored. It had some historic import, and they gave public tours there. At the house, Dickie introduced me to recordings by artists like Art Tatum (whose playing he could imitate magnificently), Bud Powell and many of the other bop pianists. He considered Jaki Byard to be in that upper class of performers.

“Dickie helped me understand some of what Charlie Parker was doing on the alto sax and taught me a few of Parker's licks, which I still use when playing or writing. I had my baritone sax with me and we jammed a lot. What an ear-opening adventure that was, having to find my way through his often erratic rhythmic figures and occasional no-warning key changes. Oh, yeah, we played All The Things You Are in the key of E!

“It's memories like these that I think about, blocking out the evil turn his life took later on with drug addiction. It's ironic that Dickie died while with the Chet Baker group because Chettie and I also had some good times together when we were young and in the 77th Army Band at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz. I guess Dick and Chet were both destined to burn brightly and then succumb to heartless fate. Both of those guys would talk to me about the evils of hard drugs and strongly advising against them. They both talked about how Parker, even though he was using, constantly tried to dissuade the younger players from going that route.

“Thinking back to the happier times there may have been a few clues that portended Dick’s later problems. One night during the Danvers weekend, we went into Boston to the Hi-Hat Club, my first time there. I don’t remember who was playing—I seem to remember it as a  famous tenor saxophonist with an aggressive style.

“Dickie had two or three beers at the club and when the evening was over he asked me to drive the car back up north to his parents' house. Of course I had no license and very little driving experience, but we made the trip safely with Dick coaching me on how to use the clutch, which I’m surprised I didn’t burn out entirely.

“When we got to the house, his parents were asleep at the top of the huge place. Dick stretched out on a coach and lit a joint. He had known a lot of the people who were at the Hi-Hat so I think maybe one of them had given it to him. When he finished the joint he just went into a really deep sleep. I tried hard to waken him because I needed his help to remind me how to get up to the guest room. The stairways were very dark and there were mannequins here and there dressed as Pilgrims or some other early settlers for his parents' tours. That was a scary climb. Somehow I reached my destination. 

“Anyhow, the fact that Dick seemed to be practically in a coma after smoking the joint might have been evidence forewarning that his system might be overly sensitive to drugs. He worked a lot with baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff, who was a heroin user at the time, and Serge certainly did have some demons that could have influenced Dickie’s state. Dickie also was closely connected with junkie drummer Peter Littman, whose attitude was much like that of Serge.

“I think another possible reason for Dickie's crash is that he, like Chet Baker, started off so positively, discovering and developing his talents that brought him innocent pleasure and seemed to impress those who heard him play. That stage lasted quite a while and the future (if either of them actually thought about the future) looked bright.

“As their popularity grew, they inevitably began to associate with other players who were into heavy drugs, and the hoard of hangers-on and dealers who are habitually drawn to new stars soon began to swarm around. Then there came the pressure of having their work get reviewed, in many (if not most) cases by people who were unable to understand the music and incapable of evaluating it. I can’t cite any specific reviews that Dickie got, but I do know that his extremely inventive style was often subject to editorial assassination, or at least to gross misinterpretation. [Click image above to enlarge]

“I will speculate that things like the earlier experiences, followed by the ups and downs of growing success, might have been capable of driving Richard and Chet gradually into using hard drugs, probably not too heavily at first, just to hide from the pain and maybe in a way feel more closely allied to some of the more well-established musicians. And then possibly they would seek each other’s solace, which could easily degenerate into mutual enabling and eventually drag them down until they were incapable of pulling themselves out of that pit.

“But keep in mind that what should be remembered is the marvelous treasury of musical accomplishments Chet Baker and Richard Twardzik bequeathed to this world. Thanks, you guys!"

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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