i didn’t know Dexter Gordon and never got to play with him, but he is nevertheless a significant part of this story for me.
i was most fortunate in being befriended and in getting to know the great Cedar Walton. Jazz Messenger supreme, inarguably he is one of the all-time hippest, slickest, classiest, most brilliantly soulful pianist-composer-arrangers in the history of Jazz. his name and sound are synonymous with this music. he’s one of the people who’s made the music what it is today.
i really blew it, royally, for each of my first two opportunities to speak with the man. my initial faux pas occurred at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, where i heard Cedar Walton many times, with his quartet, which included Bob Berg, Tony Dumas and Billy Higgins. also i heard Cedar at the Keystone Korner with the Timeless All-Stars, and on a special new year’s eve engagement by an inspired Jazz Messenger reunion: Eddie Henderson, Jackie McLean, Billy Harper, Curtis Fuller, Cedar, Dennis Irwin and Art Blakey.
when i finally gathered the courage to approach him it was probably 1979, so i was 16. on an intermission at the Keystone, Cedar was speaking with a very attractive young woman. i had blinders on to the fact that he was engaged in meaningful discourse, and just walked right up and interrupted ‘do you give lessons?’ – i didn’t even say excuse me or try to introduce myself, just the direct question and looking up at this man hoping for a safe landing.
‘oh… thank you!’ i said and walked quickly back to my seat. it still hadn’t hit me how clumsy and rude i’d been, all i could think was ‘i spoke to Cedar Walton!’
the next time i suppose went better but not by much. it was 1982 and i’d moved to New York a few months earlier. i wore my blue jeans to the Knickerbocker Cafe to nurse one glass of grapefruit juice from the bar all night which got me entre to stand right behind the piano and listen to the Cedar Walton and Ron Carter duo. they had made an album called ‘Heart and Soul’ and were playing much of the same wonderful repertoire and arrangements.
one of the songs they played that night, not on their duo recording, was the standard ‘Wonder Why’. i knew that i had an L.P. of the Jazztet playing the song, one of Cedar’s first recordings as a sideman, from 1959. ‘i’ll mention it to him’, i thought to myself in trying to get my opening line together, hoping for a reasonable excuse to speak with Cedar. really within it all, wanting to get to befriend him and ask him to somehow explain his musical wizardry to me.
i actually introduced myself like an adult, but i just wasn’t making a very good impression with the dirty jeans and self-maintained haircut. so i pulled out my ‘A’ material, ‘i heard you playing ‘Wonder Why’, i have the record of you playing it with the Jazztet, ‘Big City Sounds’.
‘i never recorded that song with the Jazztet’. ‘no, really’ bright boy continued, ‘i have the record, ‘Big City Sounds’, on Argo’.
for the second time, he responded succinctly ‘i never recorded that song with the Jazztet’. i could see that he was becoming annoyed. ‘thank you for the great music’. ‘you’re welcome’.
now here’s where Dexter Gordon helped my standing with Cedar Walton, and as i said earlier, i didn’t even know him –
the same year, i went to the Village Vanguard to hear Dexter Gordon’s quartet, and as was my way, i introduced myself and asked him if i could sit in. yes that was either very nervy or stupid, but i was far too insatiable to play with the real cats to even be afraid. ‘we’ll see how it goes, i’ll let you know’, said Long Tall Dexter to me in the kitchen at the vanguard. i bugged him more on the intermission. same stall from Mr. Gordon, which was graceful of him, when obviously i should have just been glad to be there listening, not pestering the giant to let me jam. but what he finally decided to do about me, proved to be a defining moment in my musical life…
at the end of his second set, i was sitting near the drums. anyone who’s been in the Vanguard know exactly where i’m talking about. Dexter, who was a physical as well as musical giant, comes over to me and he now knows my name – between me saying it each time i asked him if i could play with him, and the fact that Dexter had of course played with my namesake the great trombonist Bennie Green, he had my name in his mind, and he said in his deep voice ‘Benny Green, you want to play the piano?’ enunciating each word. i’m just looking up at him, shaking a little with nervousness (careful what you ask for) and slowly nodding my head.
‘well There It Is…’ says Dexter, motioning with his long left arm back towards the piano. everyone is still in the club. i walked up to the piano, trembling, and managed to play two tame choruses of a song Dexter had played earlier that night, ‘The End of a Love Affair’. i got up from the piano, ‘polite’ applause from the audience, and Dexter, who had stood there the whole time, let me know i was cool with him, ‘Benny Green, you’re gonna be aaaallright’.
Cedar was at the bar. i went once again to try to have a conversation with the guy who was probably my third childhood musical hero after Monk and McCoy Tyner. ‘say young man, you sounded good up there’. from then on, he treated me as a musician and encouraged me.
i asked Cedar for a lesson every chance i had. after repeatedly asking him over the years, once when we were both touring in Japan at the same time and met up backstage in Tokyo, Cedar offered, ‘let’s get together for that lesson you’ve been wanting. when will you next be in Los Angeles?’ he and his dear wife Martha lived on the west coast for a few years in the mid 1990’s. we made plans and he picked me up at the hollywood roosevelt hotel and drove me to his house – which was practically 40 minutes away! he didn’t charge me any money. ‘just watch my hands, and when you see me do something you want to ask me about, just stop me and say ‘that!’ and i’ll show you’. that’s just what we did. sweet Martha prepared broccoli rabe for us, but for some reason i had explained to Cedar earlier that i was going to need to leave soon to be back in L.A. for my show that night. Cedar then drove me all the way back, which meant 2 round-trips for him that day. then he and Martha came and hung out that night at my trio gig at the original Catalina’s bar and grill.
every time i’d see Cedar Walton after that occasion, he’d remind me of how i exited their home apparently oblivious the fact that Martha had actually cooked for us, that somehow he felt my action represented in effect that i was the artiste who was so self-absorbed that he couldn’t sit still for a home cooked meal. he would really let me have it and ‘lay into’ me if an audience of others were around. he’d retell the story to them – i couldn’t escape my history.
when Cedar passed, i phoned Martha. when i finally apologized for my blatant immaturity in having been oblivious to her spiritual and culinary offering on that day so many years ago, she just laughed and said ‘oh, but you were fasting. we understood!’ beautiful people. they really loved each other.
thank goodness for Cedar’s recordings. no one plays or writes so pretty and sexy as he, but we will bask in the light of Cedar Walton’s musical splendor forevermore. by nature of how he thought and lived, his music is forever fresh and filled with sunshine! we need his musical gift of everlasting pure joy and Love now and always, more than ever before.