If you were to take all the talented pianists whose careers stretched from the Big Band days to the the Modern Jazz era and lay them end to end, they’d reach to — whoops. What I meant to say was that if you’re looking for one among them who was the very definition of a pro’s pro, you couldn’t go far wrong with Teddy Wilson.
As a soloist he could create dazzling and unforgettable performances, but he also left a lasting legacy by his many appearances with stars like Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holiday.
The Texas-born Wilson studied both piano and violin at Tuskegee Institute, but soon began to spend most of his time on the keyboard. When he began to work professionally in the early Thirties, he spent some time with legendary pianist Earl Hines and also appeared with Louis Armstrong. Eventually he moved on to a spot with a group that had a name that followed the custom of the times, but might seem odd to us now — the Chocolate Dandies, led by Benny Carter.
By the mid-Thirties, Wilson had joined up with Benny Goodman to form a trio with drummer Gene Krupa, a move that would prove to be one of his best. The relationship would continue for many years through various other configurations, including the addition of Lionel Hampton, making the trio into a quartet.
In the years leading up to World War II, Wilson formed his own band and cut some solid records backing Billie Holiday, but it eventually dissolved and he went back to doing what he did best — appearing as part of smaller combos, or even as a solo. For the next couple of decades, he was one of the busiest jazz musicians around, often again teaming up with Goodman and others. By the last decade of his life, he’d finally begun to slow down a little but right up until his death in 1986 he was still musically active.
Teddy Wilson’s keyboard work was always impeccable and supremely listenable. My favorites have always been his performances on old standards, songs like “Moonglow” or “On Green Dolphin Street.” For a stunning demonstration of his technique — still flawless even in middle age — watch the video below. Teddy Wilson — smooth as silk. (Note: video was later removed at source.)