by Dee Dee McNeil – Jazz Journalist

Koch Jazz

Diane Witherspoon, vocals; (1948 – 2016) Cedar Walton, piano (Jan 1934 – Aug 2013); Tony Dumas & John Heard, bass; Billy Higgins, drums (Oct 1936 – May 2001).

One of the recorded gems in my collection of music is my dearly departed friend and vocalist, Diane Witherspoon. She is celebrating the music of Cedar Walton with lyrics supplied by brother and sister songwriting team, John & Paula Hackett. It was recorded when Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins were both alive and still making magic on the bandstand. Thankfully, we still have bassists, Tony Dumas and John Heard on Earth. These gentlemen made up the dynamic group of musicians who gathered together in the studio to support Diane Witherspoon’s stellar recording session. It was 1999 and Diane was home, performing in Southern California, after an extensive international tour.

However, Diane Witherspoon wasn’t originally from California. In fact, she was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota and was one of nine siblings. Her first solo performance was at age nine with her church choir. As a fledgling songbird, she was listening to the recordings of Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan and was also inspired by her older sister, Ms. Shirley Witherspoon, who sang with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. Another relative (her second cousin) was popular blues vocalist, Jimmy Witherspoon. But jazz was Diane’s musical direction. In 1972, she relocated to the Bay Area of Northern California, where she rubbed musical shoulders with iconic musicians like Bobby McFerrin, John Handy and Calvin Keys. Then she moved to Southern California and was mentored by jazz saxophonist, producer and composer, Teddy Edwards and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, as well as another late, great reed man, Frank Morgan. It was during this period that the popular singer learned to mimic a horn and developed an ear for saxophone players and the desire to scat sing. While living in Northern California, she also developed a friendly relationship with the brother and sister songwriting team of John and Paula Hackett. They were busy writing lyrics to pianist and composer, Cedar Walton’s incredible music. That’s how Diane became interested in interpreting those songs.

“I met Cedar Walton through John and Paula Hackett. They gave me several of his tunes to learn, and to sing their lyrics. We went to hear Cedar and Billy Higgins at Milestones jazz club in San Francisco. I got the opportunity to sit in and sing with them and Cedar was so impressed that he decided I would be great recording his tunes. Billy Higgins concurred,” Diane recalled during an interview promoting the Koch record release and an album they called, “You May Never Know.”

Like many jazz singers who are unsigned with a major record label, for nearly four decades Diane Witherspoon made her living travelling worldwide and performing in a variety of countries. She released a total of seven albums. She also spent time as a vocal coach and educator, both at home and overseas.

Now, as I listen to this musical masterpiece featuring Diane Witherspoon’s lovely vocals caressing the challenging melodies of Cedar Walton and interpreting the lyrics of John and Paula Hackett, I remember the ease and purity of her voice. She always brought honesty to the stage and to her lyrical interpretations. I admired Diane’s style and grace. Her repertoire was inspiring and she seemed to enjoy challenging herself musically. We were often late -night buddies on the computer, playing Internet games with each other. After the gig, that was my way of winding down at two in the morning, and she was the same.
When she moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, didn’t see Diane anymore, but we sometimes talked on-line. Although this popular songbird made her flight from Earth back in 2016, her unforgettable music lives on. Since this is Black History Month, I wanted to celebrate both Diane Witherspoon and Cedar Walton. As I listened to them blend talents on this one-of-a-kind CD release, it’s easy to recognize the legacy they have left us. If you can find it, this recording is worth a place in any jazz aficionado’s collection.

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Back in the 1980’s, there was a popular jazz club called Café Lido located in Newport Beach, California and owned by Joe Sperazzo and his wife. Newport Beach is a ritzy Southern California community that caters to a wealthy, upper-echelon crowd. I used to work there quite often with the Dwight Dickerson Trio and one thing that always thrilled us was when some of our outstanding jazz musicians popped in to support the music or just to hang-out. Cedar Walton was often in our audience. I always felt humbled to be performing in front of such an iconic jazz composer, pianist, recording artist and internationally celebrated hard-bop performer. Plus, he was just a down-to-earth, nice guy. Over the years, I’ve found that most jazz musicians are unpretentious and, in general, they’re pretty laid-back.
Cedar Walton was born a few weeks after Christmas in Dallas, Texas on January 17, 1934. Someone once said that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Cedar Walton’s mother was a respected and aspiring concert pianist and became his initial piano instructor. She noticed her son’s talent early in life and took him to several jazz performances including great jazz geniuses like Nat King Cole, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum. These historic jazz pianists became Cedar Walton’s major influences.

His educational path took him from Dillard University in New Orleans to the West coast of the country, where he enrolled at the University of Denver, majoring in composition. Here, while pursuing a degree in music education, Cedar concentrated on arranging for various instruments. This came in handy when he joined the historic Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger group. In 1955, Cedar Walton left Denver, driving cross country to New York City with a friend. Although NYC welcomed the young and talented Walton with open arms, the United States government scooped him up in their draft. He wound up in the army and stationed in Germany where he met Leo Wright, Don Ellis and Eddie Harris. Discharged after two years, he quickly returned to the East Coast and in 1958 became the piano player on Kenny Dorham’s album, “This is the Moment!” That’s when his whirlwind career began to bloom. He joined a jazz-tet led by Benny Golson and Art Farmer from 1958 to 1961. This was followed by his pianist-arranger gig with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. At that time both Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard were in the group. He recorded with a long list of notable jazz men while working as a contract pianist for the Prestige Record Company. Cedar recorded with two of my favorite jazz saxophone players; Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. For a short while, he was musical conductor for Abby Lincoln and arranged and recorded with Etta James in the 90’s when she did a tribute album featuring songs of Billie Holiday for RCA. That production won them a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Walton’s composition skills were admired by all who knew him and many have become jazz standards that are recorded time and time again. Songs like “Bolivia”, “Holy Land” and “Ugetsu” are often recorded by jazz musicians, as well as tunes like, “Firm Roots” and “Cedar’s Blues”. Freddie Hubbard was the first to record his popular, “Polar AC”.

In January of 2010, Cedar Walton became another distinguished inductee to the National endowment for the Arts Jazz Master list. He made his transition on August 19, 2013 in Brooklyn, New York, but will never be forgotten.

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