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Monday, Sept. 9, 2013

David Hazeltine Honors Cedar Walton, Jazz Great

How the late jazz pianist left his mark on the entire Milwaukee jazz scene

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At 4 a.m. on Aug.19, David Hazeltine received a text saying that his friend and mentor Cedar Walton, a giant of jazz piano, had passed away at age 79.

Walton’s name doesn't readily elicit a spark of recognition, but among jazz players, especially in New York, he was the man. Hazeltine was hip to the great pianist for a very long time. Long before he relocated to New York, he had been working out Walton's solos since age 14 and would bring Walton’s tunes to rehearsals and gigs here in Milwaukee. As time went on, Hazeltine’s love for Cedar's music influenced all his exceptional students, including Mark Davis, Lynn Bernstein (Arriale), Rick Germanson, Steve Einerson and others. All of them studied piano with Hazeltine in Milwaukee, and all of them carry some of Walton's DNA with them.

“It was a big shock when I first heard him,” says Hazeltine. “I remember thinking ‘So this is what you have to do to be good?’ He was the most melodic piano player ever. All of his improvisations are as melodic as horn players. There are a lot more flashy players, but I think that Cedar was the most melodic and most in control of the language. He was very disciplined and in control, and he kept that going throughout his career. Cedar always maintained this high level of excellence.

“As I've gotten older,” Hazeltine continues, “I seen how this music is something you have to keep at in order to maintain a level of integrity. Cedar maintained that all the way up to the end, perfectly.”

When Cedar’s bassist called Hazeltine to play at the wake, he readily agreed, though it was hardly under the circumstances he imagined.

“When we got there, to St. Peter's Church, there was no piano, just a plastic synthesizer with the worst sound ever,” he recalls. “This is all in front of Cedar’s open casket and we're all crying, trying to fix the thing but it was impossible. I could only play in the top octave. I knew Cedar was in there laughing at me. We performed three times at the service, all in tears, but it was very uplifting and therapeutic. It wasn't really religious; it was more about the spirituality of music. The reverend spoke a lot about music and musicians, saying how Cedar will never be gone. He's in our hearts, he's in our minds, he's in our ears… and he's on vinyl!”

Pointing to his heart, Hazeltine says, “You can't get that stuff out of here.”

So what’s the current state of the Walton/Hazeltine/MKE connection? It's still strong. Hazeltine has a live record date at the NYC club, Smoke, at the end of September. He has written some songs for Walton and will dedicate the date to him. But first, he will be in Milwaukee, previewing his Smoke session material at The Jazz Estate for three nights this weekend. 

When asked about being the link between Walton and Milwaukee, Hazeltine downplayed his role, saying that Cedar's gift was more about a passing down of values. He said that one of the great values was effortless swing, but also, humility. “Cedar never got so famous that he stopped keeping up his craft. Whatever success you may have, even lack of success—it works both ways—don't forget that you sometimes don’t hear of some of the best players. Hearing those musical voices in my head like Buddy Montgomery and Cedar—the voices of quality, not the voices of fame—will always be my guiding principle.”

David Hazeltine plays the Jazz Estate Sept. 12-14 at 9:30 p.m.