In 2003 I celebrated my 18th Birthday at the Jazz Standard with Buster Williams, Jimmy Cobb, and Cedar Walton.
I had just moved to New York a few weeks before (in late August) so I didn’t know very many people; and since my parents had just dropped me off a few weeks earlier, it was too soon for them to return and visit me. I had very briefly met Buster and Cedar both that past year at the Jazz in June festival in Norman Oklahoma, so when I saw they were playing at the Standard on my birthday I thought it was a sign that I should be there. I made reservations for every set, every night (3 nights and 2 sets each night, I think) and even asked for a specific table right next to the piano.
To see those three musicians in person was a dream. To be in New York, to be hearing Jazz legends, to be 18! I was in heaven. I can VIVIDLY remember the songs they played and even some of Cedar’s solos.
On the night of my birthday, during the set, a waiter brought a chocolate cake to my table. It read “Happy Birthday Champian”. At first I thought it was from my parents (who knew I was there), but then I looked up at the stage and Buster winked at me while Cedar wished me Happy Birthday.
They were so kind to me that weekend. I remember Cedar sitting on the piano stool during one of his breaks just talking to me. I was just a kid from Oklahoma, but that weekend Cedar, Buster, and Jimmy all treated me like a person, a musician, and even a friend.
I could tell you you how I admired Cedar’s music – studied it, transcribed it, practiced his tunes – but I would like to tell you how I admired him as a person. He was always honest with me; never balked at telling me what was what or who was who. He was generous with his time and encouraging to me as a young musician. I saw him many times (as many as I could), and his music inspired me each and every time, as did his spirit.
As I look back at my memories of my hero, I can see that the way he inspired me the most was by being himself. He was an individual. Unique. When you hear Cedar Walton play the piano, you know immediately it is Cedar Walton. He was unabashedly himself.
I will miss him very much.
Cedar Walton passed away on August 19. You can read the NY Times Obituary here.