In tribute to the incredible musical legacy of Cedar Walton (1934-2013) I am currently preparing a series of my Top 10 lists. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share a personal anecdote of how a seemingly innocuous encounter with him shaped my life.
In 1992 I was 18 and moderately familiar with his music, but hardly a connoisseur. That summer, soon before leaving for college, I jumped in a car with two of my musical buddies, saxophonist Jimmy Greene and trumpeter Noah Bloom, and headed up from CT to Northampton, MA. Cedar was playing there at the Iron Horse with Eastern Rebellion, the band he had co-led with Billy Higgins since the mid-1970s. This incarnation (their last, as far as I’m aware) featured saxophonist Ralph Moore and bassist David Williams. I was excited, but hardly expecting anything revelatory.
But revelatory I got. I’d never seen “Smilin’ Billy” before, and his interplay with Cedar blew my mind. The tunes were great, the arrangements were great, and in general I had two sets of music that filled my ears with concepts and sounds that have been part of my consciousness and musical conception ever since. It was one of those nights so vivid that I can still remember exactly where we sat.
But the real life-changing moment came in a casual moment during the set break. We teenagers flocked to Cedar and, being young and naïve enough to ask such questions without self-consciousness, asked him if he had any advice to offer to young, budding musicians like us. In a scene etched in my mind he contemplated for a moment and said “stay on the path.”
After a brief pause, he explained that we may face obstacles (or we may not), but if and when we do we just have to persevere, get back on the path, keep moving forward and never give up. That, he said, is the formula for becoming successful. I soaked that in for a few seconds before he excused himself to go change out of his sweaty shirt.
That fall, when I got to college and hit roadblocks instantly, I found a marker and a fairly large piece of cardboard and wrote STAY ON THE PATH and put it up on my wall. Several times a day I looked at the sign, thought of Cedar’s words of wisdom (after all, he was Cedar freaking Walton, the gravity of which became increasingly apparent to me with each passing month of my jazz studies, so who the heck was I to second-guess his advice?) and dug in a little harder in finding the resolve to get back to work. This philosophy (essentially the equating of persistence and success) became so central to my world-view that I thought of Cedar less and less often as the one who planted that seed, although by that point I was thinking of him more and more often as a musical influence.
I got to hear Cedar play a good many times, but one such occasion was intimate enough that I was able to go up to him and re-tell the story. He chuckled and said “well, that sounds like something I would say.” It was a characteristically down-to-earth response, and I’m glad at least that I was able to communicate his impact on me while he was still with us. Rest peacefully, Maestro, and rest assured that I have remained on the path ever since that night and have no plans to diverge from it anytime soon.