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A pianist with a brooding, rhythmic, introverted style, Mal Waldron's playing has long been flexible enough to fit into both hard bop and freer settings. Influenced by Thelonious Monk's use of space, Waldron has had his own distinctive chord voicings nearly from the start. Early on, Waldron played jazz on alto and classical music on piano, but he switched permanently to jazz piano while at Queens College. He freelanced around New York in the early '50s with Ike Quebec (for whom he made his recording debut), Big Nick Nicholas, and a variety of R&B-ish groups. Waldron frequently worked with Charles Mingus from 1954-1956 and was Billie Holiday's regular accompanist during her last two years (1957-1959). Often hired by Prestige to supervise recording sessions, Waldron contributed many originals (including "Soul Eyes," which became a standard) and basic arrangements that prevented spontaneous dates from becoming overly loose jam sessions.
After Holiday's death, he mostly led his own groups, although he was part of the Eric Dolphy-Booker Little Quintet that was recorded extensively at the Five Spot in 1961, and also worked with Abbey Lincoln for a time during the era. He wrote three film scores (The Cool World, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, and Sweet Love Bitter) before moving permanently to Europe in 1965, settling in Munich in 1967. Waldron, who has occasionally returned to the U.S. for visits, has long been a major force in the European jazz world. His album Free at Last was the first released by ECM, and his Black Glory was the fourth Enja album. Waldron, who frequently teamed up with Steve Lacy (often as a duet), kept quite busy up through the '90s, featuring a style that evolved but was certainly traceable to his earliest record dates. Among the many labels that have documented his music have been Prestige, New Jazz, Bethlehem, Impulse, Musica, Affinity, ECM, Futura, Nippon Phonogram, Enja, Freedom, Black Lion, Horo, Teichiku, Hat Art, Palo Alto, Eastwind, Baybridge, Paddle Wheel, Muse, Free Lance, Soul Note, Plainisphere, and Timeless. In September of 2002, Waldron was diagnosed with cancer. Remaining optimistic, he continued to tour until he passed away on December 2 in Brussels, Belgium at the age of 76.
Malcolm Earl Waldron (August 16, 1925 – December 2, 2002) was an American jazz pianist and composer, born in New York City.
Like his contemporaries, Waldron's roots lay chiefly in the hard bop and post-bop genres of the New York club scene of the 1950s, but with time he gravitated more towards free jazz and composition. He is known for his dissonant chord voicings and distinctive playing style, which was originally inspired by Thelonious Monk.
Waldron played jazz on alto saxophone before piano, which he had intially wanted to play as a classical musician; the change occurred when he was a student at Queens College, New York. After obtaining a B.A. in music, he worked in New York City in 1950 with Ike Quebec, making both his professional public and recording debuts with the saxophonist. He worked frequently with Charles Mingus from 1954 to 1956. His own band, a quintet, was formed in 1956, feauturing Idrees Sulieman and Gigi Gryce. Waldron was Billie Holiday's regular accompanist from April 1957 until her death in July 1959. He played on numerous sessions for Prestige Records from 1956 to 1958. He often used his own arrangements and compositions, of which his most famous, "Soul Eyes", became a widely recorded jazz standard. In the early 1960s he played in Eric Dolphy and Booker Little's quintet.
In 1963 he had a major nervous breakdown brought on by exhaustion and a heroin overdose; Waldron recounted in 1998 that a lot of musicians felt that taking drugs was necessary for career progression. The police simply assumed they were all doing it:
The police would stop the musicians and search us as we came out of the clubs after work. We had to turn our pockets inside out. After awhile, [sic] the musicians thought ... well, if you have the name you might as well have the game. Eventually, I overdosed. I couldn't remember my own name. My hands were trembling, I couldn't play the piano. I needed shock treatments and a spinal tap to bring me back.
Waldron then had to re-learn his skills, reputedly by listening to his own records. His playing style re-emerged more brooding, starker and percussive, combining bebop and avant-garde melodies, and at times weaving repetitive melodic motifs using just a few notes over a drone-like accompaniment figure.
Besides performing, he composed for films (The Cool World (1963), Three Rooms in Manhattan (1964) and Sweet Love, Bitter), theater, and ballet. From the mid-1960s he spent a lot of time in Europe: Paris, Rome, Bologna, and Cologne, before moving permanently to Munich in 1967. In Europe at this time he played with other expatriates, including Ben Webster and Kenny Clarke. He became popular in Japan, first playing there in 1970. From 1975 he made visits to the U. S., mostly playing solo piano from the late 1970s to early 1980s. Other formats included: a quartet with Joe Henderson, Herbie Lewis, and Freddie Waits; another quartet with Charlie Rouse, Calvin Hill and Horacee Arnold; a trio with Hill and Arnold; and a duo with Cameron Brown.
He performed and recorded extensively throughout Europe and Japan in his later decades, regularly returning to the United States for bookings. His 1969 album, Free at Last, was the first ever release on the ECM label. In 1973, he collaborated with the German avant-rock band Embryo on an album of four somber, laid-back instrumentals titled Rocksession (released on the German label Brain Metronome records).
Through the 1980s and 1990s he worked in various settings with Steve Lacy, notably in soprano-piano duets playing their own compositions as well as Monk's. Waldron moved to Brussels in the 1990s. After some years of indifferent health, Waldron, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. He continued to perform until his death on December 2 of that year, in hospital in Brussels, due to complications resulting from the cancer. He was 76.
Playing style 
Waldron had a unique yet instantly recognizable playing style. He finessed thick and rich chords in the lower bass register; although sometimes compared to Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk for his dissonant voicing, his emphasis on weight, texture and frequent repetition of a single and simple motif as opposed to linear and melodic improvisation gave a heavy and melancholic color to his sound. Considered somewhat of an avant-gardist, his solo style - which often produced more of a wall of sound than a line of melody - was in stark contrast to more traditional and technical players of his time. Waldron became something of an unsung legend for his uncanny ability to play very slow, deep and even disturbing ballads bordering on sorrow, while he himself would sit perfectly motionless, stoic and stolid at the piano, his face devoid of all emotion.
Personal life 
Waldron married twice and had seven children. His first wife, Elaine, occasionally sang on Waldron's recordings. Combining birthday celebrations with a tour, he took both families – ex-wife, wife, seven children (two with the first wife and five with second) and two grandchildren – on his three-week tour of Japan that coincided with his seventieth birthday. He could speak English, German, Japanese and French.