On July 17, 1959, Frank O’Hara, shaken by the news of Billie Holiday’s death, wrote a poem, “The Day Lady Died.” In the last two lines, he remembers leaning against the bathroom door at the Five Spot, a jazz club in the East Village, “while she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.” Seldom has the power of jazz performance been conveyed with such speed and grace. Holiday and Waldron, her pianist, are having a conversation so quiet and so intimate that listening to it feels like eavesdropping. I have always loved this poem for what it reveals not only about Holiday’s stagecraft, but also about her affection for Waldron, who accompanied her from 1957 until her death. Holiday and Waldron were close friends as well as collaborators. Waldron helped her write the autobiographical ballad “Left Alone,” an account of romantic desolation that she never had the chance to record. He had known of Holiday’s addiction, but, as he put it, “Lady Day had an awful lot to forget,” and his debt to her was incalculable. She taught him the importance of a song’s lyrics: Words, as much as notes, could lend themselves to musical improvisation. The magic she worked with them rubbed off. To listen to Waldron is to feel as if he is speaking to you, and only you, because he never forgets the lyrical content of a song.
Waldron was 33 when Lady died. He would live another 44 years, but for many jazz fans he would always remain Holiday’s accompanist. He frequently recorded her songs, spoke of their friendship in interviews, and insisted that if she had moved to Europe, as he did, she would have lived a much longer life. Waldron’s devotion to her memory reflected not only his love for her, but also the knowledge that he had been given a second chance: Four years after her death, he survived a near-fatal nervous breakdown after a heroin overdose. He experienced his survival as a rebirth, but was left with a piercing sense of life’s fragility. “When you take our life span and measure it against eternity it is only a small dot,” he wrote. “In this time we must realize, if possible, our fullest self potential.”
Waldron used his time well, creating one of the most distinctive bodies of work in postwar music. He wrote hundreds of songs, most famously “Soul Eyes,” a lush 32-bar ballad dedicated to John Coltrane (who liked it so much that he recorded it no fewer than three times). Waldron had a big sound and loved the resonances of his instrument, but he worked almost exclusively in small-group settings, preferring their chamber-like intimacy to larger, brassier ensembles. The best way to hear him is either in a duet with one of his favorite partners (his recordings with the saxophonists Steve Lacy and Marion Brown are especially memorable) or by himself.
Waldron was a lifelong student of classical piano—he often played sonatas for pleasure, and recorded pieces by Chopin, Brahms, Satie, and Bartók—and he brought a classical sense of form and introspection to his solo work. Two long-out-of-print solo-concert albums—The Opening and Meditations—were recently reissued, and they bear witness, in different ways, to the dark, wintry beauty of Waldron’s art. The Opening, a fiery 1970 concert at the American Cultural Center in Paris, features six original compositions, mostly based on ostinatos—vamps that Waldron plays over and again—with small but engrossing variations in tempo, dynamics, timbre, and rhythmic articulation. (One is called “Of Pigs and Panthers,” an allusion to the war back home between the police and the Black Panther Party.) Meditations, recorded two years later at a jazz club in Tokyo, is a more contemplative affair, bookended by two of Waldron’s best-known pieces on solitude, “All Alone” and “Left Alone.”