Theodore Shaw "Teddy" Wilson (November 24, 1912 – July 31, 1986) was an American jazz pianist from the swing era. His sophisticated and elegant style graced the records of many of the biggest names in jazz, including Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
Teddy Wilson was a marvelous pianist whose music was filled with elegance, ease, swing and inventiveness. Wilson was the quintessential swing pianist, his fluid style making him equally at ease in big band and small combo settings. His playing was easy to appreciate but never monotonous or plain. Wilson combined various elements from existing styles to form a very personal way of playing that would, at the same time, become the model for many imitators. Wilson was a gentleman of jazz and an ideal candidate for early racial integration through his participation in the Benny Goodman ensembles.
Teddy Wilson was born in Austin, TX. Six years later, he would move with his family to Alabama. He came from a very educated background, his father being a professor and his mother a librarian. Wilson studied piano and violin at Talladega College. After working with Speed Webb in Detroit (1929), he moved to Chicago and joined Louis Armstrong, then Benny Carter's Chocolate Dandies in 1933. In 1935 he joined the Benny Goodman Trio (which consisted of Goodman, Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa, later expanded to the Benny Goodman Quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton on vibraphone). The small group performed during the big band's intermissions. By joining the trio, Wilson became the first black musician to perform in public with a previously all-white jazz group.
In the 1930s and 1940s he recorded fifty hit records with various singers such as Lena Horne, Mildred Bailey and Helen Ward, including many of Billie Holiday's greatest successes. During these years he also took part in many highly regarded sessions with a wide range of important swing musicians, such as Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Shavers, Red Norvo, Buck Clayton and Ben Webster.
Wilson formed his own short-lived big band in 1939 and then led a sextet at the “Cafe Society” from 1940 to 1944. In the 1950s he taught at the Juilliard School. Wilson can be seen appearing as himself in the motion picture The Benny Goodman Story (1955).
Wilson lived quietly in suburban Hillsdale, NJ in the 1960s and 1970s. He performed as a soloist and with pick-up groups until the final years of his life. Teddy Wilson died on July 31, 1986, in New Britain, CT.
While some musicians are known for their one-sided idiosyncrasies, traits that would normally be considered abnormal or even problematic but work in their case and make them special, Teddy Wilson plays in a way that makes him the paragon of the swing pianist—combining key elements from several sources into a flawless style. According to Wilson himself, he drew inspiration from both Fats Waller and Earl Hines, thus bringing together the steady beat of stride and the light rhythmic agility of Hines. Additionally, Art Tatum’s speed and extreme sophistication left their mark on Wilson, though Wilson’s music is more simple and straightforward, without ever being plain. Teddy Wilson was a hot pianist and band leader, a subtle but sensitive accompanist of blues and jazz singers, and a perfect member for Benny Goodman’s “chamber jazz.”
Like Erroll Garner after him, Teddy Wilson influenced countless jazz pianists and even pianists whose only aim was to create entertainment music. But, like Garner, Wilson was a genuine artist and he would always remain miles above his many imitators.
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