For some, my title may sound hyperbolic — a sideways glance at a Fifties science-fiction anthology. But it represents accurately the way I feel about Wilson’s best playing.
In a jazz landscape that occasionally seems dominated by the Coarse (showy playing and singing for effect), Wilson’s solo recordings seem the lyrical embodiment of delicacy. By that I don’t mean effete playing, a series of tiny gestures, the aural equivalent of someone hunched over the harpsichord keyboard, making almost no sound.
Wilson was clearly a definite player: his rhythms move; his single-note lines gleam; he swings from start to finish at any tempo. But he doesn’t come out in clown costume and wave his arms wildly for our attention. His lovely multi-layered playing is there for us, should we choose to give it our ears and hearts and minds.
Teddy Wilson was a man of astonishing gifts, although he offered them in the middle register; he was soft-spoken in person and in his playing. A YouTube benefactor named sepiapanorama has quietly been very generous — creating two videos that offer eighteen pearly Wilson solos from his great period. Here are the first ten “issued” performances:
and eight alternate takes:
For those readers who think, “Where did this music come from?” here is an answer.
In the Twenties and beyond, music publishers saw that there was a market for music books that would help you play more like Red Nichols, Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Miller, Art Tatum, Louis, and so on. You can find them on eBay. (I wish you good luck — both in the quest to find these books and then to absorb their knowledge.) Wilson had published one such collection in 1937 — a series of transcribed solos — but he then had the bright entrepreneurial idea of creating the “Teddy Wilson School for Pianists”: a business located in midtown Manhattan — probably simply an office where someone received checks and sent out packages.
What seems to have happened was that Wilson went into the Brunswick studios — the company for whom he was already recording — or stayed there after a Billie Holiday date was over — and recorded several solo improvisation on classic pop songs. They were not issued by the company for general purchase, but given a special yellow label. These 78s are now exceedingly rare.
One could become a student at the School (details unknown) and receive a record of, say MY BLUE HEAVEN and one other song — along with printed commentary on what to listen for in the performance. I once thought that complete transcriptions of the solos were offered, but have been told that I was misinformed. The School didn’t last long, but those chroniclers who champion the efforts of musicians, twenty years later, to form their own record labels and publishing companies, to take charge of their own economic destinies, should look to Teddy Wilson as an early prescient pioneer in this.
In the Seventies, I found a copy of a bootleg 10″ lp on the Jolly Roger label which contained Teddy Wilson performances I had never heard of before — WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE stands out in my memory — and I bought it. I then learned that the eight sides were from the School. Later, Jerry Valburn issued a Merrit Record Society of all eighteen sides, and even later they came out on three European CDs (Classics and Neatwork).
Some friends have suggested that Wilson “simplified” his style for the prospective students. I don’t know — these seem like incredibly complex recordings, and I think they would be difficult to imitate. For myself (a very amateurish pianist) I listen to and marvel at the apparent simplicities of Wilson’s melody statements — say, the first eight bars of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS — and think that these performances are marvels: intricate, delicate, beautifully crafted.
These sides make me very happy and I hope they do the same for you. And each one is the result of a long period of study, so try to listen to them one at a a time — otherwise they might become glittering Swing background music.
May your happiness increase.