Mal Waldron: “My Minimalism”
Kevin Whitehead

This article was originally published in the Dutch daily de Volkskrant in 1997, under a title which translates as “Homesick for New York Potato Salad.” 


BRUSSELS: Mal Waldron won’t live in Japan. He likes the place, the food, the culture, enough to think he was Japanese in a previous life. His second wife is Japanese, and they have five children together. He works there often. And he is a bit of a nomad, having crisscrossed Europe for 32 years.

But live in Japan? Forget it. He can’t even walk into his hotel lobby to buy the slim filter-tipped cigars he loves without being mobbed. Fans confiscate his cigar butts from ashtrays. For “two hours” after a gig he signs autographs and poses for snapshots with members of the audience.

The funny thing is, even in a country where he’s a celebrity, Waldron is known less for his own remarkable contribution to jazz – as minimalist avant la letter – than for his associations with musicians he worked with 40 years ago.

“I’m asked the same questions all the time.” He shoves an imaginary microphone at you. “‘What was John Coltrane really like?’ ‘Charles Mingus?’ ‘Eric Dolphy?’” And especially Billie Holiday. In Japan overly romantic jazz fans concoct fanciful stories about their heroes, Holiday in particular, some of which involve Waldron as more than her final accompanist.

–Is there any resemblance between the people you knew and the myths surrounding them?

“No resemblance. I just recognize the small core, the starting point.”

–Maybe you saw Billie Holiday stumble once ...

“And in the movie Diana Ross does it in every scene.”

The real Waldron keeps his private and professional lives separate, quoting the old Americanism, “You don’t shit where you eat.” He doesn’t like to work in his hometown, would prefer journalists not even mention what it is. (He reads a lot of spy novels. But he says it’s okay to say we spoke in Brussels [at his home].) In any case his professional life has been colorful enough not to need embellishing.

He was born in New York in 1925, played alto sax till he heard Charlie Parker. Waldron came of age as pianist in what his friend Steve Lacy once called paradise: New York in the ‘50s, where everything was possible. His big break came with Charles Mingus from 1954 to ‘57, the period when the bassist erupted in jazz, with albums like Mingus at the Bohemia and Pithecanthropus Erectus and, for Savoy, the piece “Getting Together,” forecasting things to come.

“Mingus said, ‘We just play: no key, tonality or rhythm, just listen to each other and make beautiful music.’ The others said, ‘What? What are you talking about Mingus?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ That’s when I found out free improvising could work, relating to other musicians’ emotions and sounds.

“It’s true, he could be very explosive when things didn’t go as he thought they should. But we got along fine. I saw that as my apprenticeship. I wasn’t going to match egos with Charles Mingus.”

Legend has it one reason Prestige Records made a lot of albums in the ‘50s was because junkies always needed money. On Friday afternoons, New York musicians would assemble at Rudy van Gelder’s studio across the river in New Jersey to record informal sessions for instant cash. Waldron was often de facto musical director; the multiple saxophones might include Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Gene Ammons, and more. Some sessions first issued under Waldron’s name came out later under Coltrane’s.

Waldron says this legend is true: “Producer Bob Weinstock would be banging on the bathroom door: ‘C’mon guys!’ And they’d say, ‘Cool it, Bobby.’ And yeah, I was one of the guys in the bathroom.” He laughs, as if it had all happened to someone else. “Those were not painful days. You just thought about music, got high, and played. It was a complete dream, and a big school. ‘Earn while you learn,’ that’s my motto.”

In 1963 he suffered a nervous breakdown, one effect of which was, he forgot what his playing sounded like. He listened to his old records to try to relearn his style. To judge by his later development, two such records might have been saxophonist Lacy’s 1958 Reflections, maybe the first Thelonious Monk repertory project, and an oft-reissued set of club recordings from 1961 with reed player Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Booker Little.

“But I never did recapture what I had before. My playing became more angular and solemn, where before it had been lyrical and fast. I played ballads slower, milking all the chords. That was the beginning of my ... minimalism. That’s not so far-fetched, to use that term. Because I was always economical. These shoes are ten years old. Back in the old days, when everyone else was out of drugs, I always had a little left.”


* * *


Mal Waldron is a distinguished looking man, who carries himself with such dignity he seems a few inches taller than he is. His hair is a striking silver bush, neatly cropped, his widow’s peak the prow of a ship under sail. He’s calm and moves deliberately. His gaze is intense but his eyes are merry. His conversation is peppered with little giggles that initially seem out of character, but are glimpses of the real Waldron. He’s as apt to make a little joke as he is to light up another cigarillo.

He left America in 1965. “I knew when I left I wasn’t coming back. It was a hectic scene. The police hounded all the musicians like they were drug addicts, searching you when you came out of a club. Marcel Carné asked me to write the music for his film Trois Chambres à Manhattan and asked if I wanted to do the music in New York or Paris. I said Paris. Later when I went back to New York for two weeks to do the score for Sweet Love, Bitter” – a movie based on Charlie Parker myths – “I never let my return ticket out of my sight.

“I stayed in Paris one year then I found out that was the only city in France where you could find a jazz club. I went to Bologna for six months, then six months in Rome, and found out in Italy you could only play in four cities. I went to Germany in ‘67, and found jazz clubs all over. So I stayed, 25 years. But when the Berlin Wall came down and the skinheads started acting up, the atmosphere changed. My children felt it too. So we left. In Belgium, everything is relaxed, you can speak any language and be accepted, and you see all shades of people from black to white on the streets.

“In America, if you’re black and a jazz musician, that’s two strikes against you. In Europe it’s just the opposite. I’m an exile from America – that’s how some people describe me – but being The Exile has certain advantages. Like, more money.” He was one among many jazz emigrants in those days. A number of musicians he worked with for long or short periods in the ‘50s – Lacy, Ben Webster, drummers Art Taylor, Ed Thigpen, and Tootie Heath – also opted for life in Europe. Often his bassist was ex-Ellingtonian Jimmy Woode.

Waldron has had a lot of gigs, and made a lot of records – made the debut albums for several labels: ECM, its JAPO subsidiary, Enja, and France’s Futura, and 11 more for Soul Note alone. His occasional reunions with Lacy, starting in the early ‘70s, are almost always rewarding; each is a strong stylist, frugal with notes, never in a hurry. As Mal says, he likes to milk every idea dry before moving on to the next one, as much to fix it in his own mind as the listener’s. “I still use two or three notes fully before moving on to a fourth. I still think less is more.”

His repetitive tunes are often modal, but the way his piano chords climb up and down a scale keeps the harmony from sounding too droney. Soloing or behind a horn soloist, he might play a series of eight or nine chords, in some hesitant but rhythmic pattern, then repeat it, then repeat chords two through eight, plus one or two more to extend the line, incremental development. There is motion, to be sure, but sometimes the forward thrust is so slow time almost seems to move backwards.

Since the ‘70s a few critics have heard an analogy with minimalism, but it was a surprise to hear Waldron endorse that connection. His version is way closer to gospel music than to Philip Glass. Even so, Waldron doesn’t worry about how such ideas reach him. They’re in the air, and if you empty yourself out, you can let that music in, and then play it on your instrument.

“Music is like taking a shower. Just let it wash over you, without worrying about where the water had been before.”

Still, some experiences made him especially sensitive to those vibrations. Composer Anthony Davis makes the excellent point there would be no minimalism without rhythm and blues. Waldron played early rock and roll on the road with guitarist Tiny Grimes in the ‘50s. “His band was called His Rockin’ Scottish Highlanders. He’d wear kilts on stage, and we’d try to look up his dress.” He also played with Lucky Millinder’s riffing swing-meets-R&B big band every night for dancers in Harlem. And then there were those sessions for Prestige, where the players might stretch two minutes of material to last half an LP side. Even on the grand scale, moving forward can seem like moving back.


* * *


Last summer at a festival in Antwerp, Waldron celebrated his birthday with guests from the old country: bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, singers Abbey Lincoln and Jeanne Lee. When it was over, they went into a studio to make his new CD Soul Eyes (RCA). Mal’s brooding piano makes a nice backdrop for singers. In the early ‘60s he’d worked with Lincoln as her accompanist, and with Max Roach, recording with them in 1961 on her album Straight Ahead and his Percussion, Bitter Sweet. (He’s also on Roach’s It’s Time and Speak, Brother, Speak!) On the new CD she sings Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” with honest pathos, and survives the inevitable comparison. Waldron’s collaborations with Lee are more recent, occasioned by her teaching in The Hague, but her own laconic delivery and unhurried gait makes her a good match.

The liner notes identify one more guest, labelmate Steve Coleman, as a younger favorite of Waldron’s, but he was all RCA’s idea. Had Waldron played with him before? “Never. I still haven’t.” The saxophonist overdubbed his parts on two pieces in a Brooklyn studio weeks later.

Waldron doesn’t look at Soul Eyes as a retrospective, although it revisits some of his durable tunes other folks made prominent: “Soul Eyes” (Coltrane), “Fire Waltz” (Dolphy) – Mal’s professional lyrics, sung by Lee – and “Straight Ahead” (for Lincoln, with her words). The idea-milking/minimal Waldron steps up on “Spaces” for trio and “The Git Go” with Joe Henderson added.

It’s all cozy if not spectacular. Mal makes no attempt to oversell it, not least because he dislikes interviews altogether: “To spend your time talking when you could be developing your music is a waste: bragging about what you did instead of thinking about what you will do.”

–Is there anything meaningful to say about Billie Holiday you haven’t said 50 times?

He thinks about it as he takes out another cigar and discards the empty pack. “No.”

–Do you hear any pianists who sound influenced by you?

“Yosuke Yamashita, ‘cause he told me so. And Cecil Taylor, who told me the same thing when I was playing at the Village Vanguard four or five years ago.”

Waldron recalls he hasn’t been back in the States since around then. He used to play one or another New York club a week or two a year – often using two opposing saxophonists on stretched out numbers, more echoes of Prestige jams.

“You can’t get good cornbread or New York-style potato salad in Europe, and I do miss them. I speak Italian, French, and German, but still when I hear English, my heart perks up. But America isn’t one of my favorite places because you can’t smoke there anymore, so I stopped going.”



Soul Eyes was never issued in the US.

In 2000, Mal Waldron returned to New York to play two nights with Steve Lacy at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse.


© 2022 Kevin Whitehead


> back to contents