Obituary: Walter Bishop Jnr
Wednesday 28 January 1998
Working with Charlie Parker, an alto saxophonist of genius, usually combined the highest and lowest point of a man's life at the same time. Thus it was with Walter Bishop.
Parker, universally known as "Bird", may not have introduced Bishop to drugs, but it's a safe bet that he reinforced Bishop's habit. Many of the most inventive musicians of Parker's generation died in their musical prime from drug abuse. When Parker had been a heroin addict for more than 15 years and suffered the resultant illnesses, he said to Bishop, then his pianist, "I go to this heart specialist and give him $100 and he treats me but it don't do no good. I go to this ulcer man and give him $75 to cool my ulcers out and it don't do no good. There's a little cat in a dark alley and I give him $5 for a bag of shit - my ulcer's gone, my heart trouble is gone. Everything is gone."
Bishop was a disciple and friend of the pianist Bud Powell. While Bishop had talent, Powell, like Parker, was a genius and, like Parker, he killed himself with heroin. Addiction took seven years out of Bishop's life in the Fifties. His musical development stopped, but restarted when he fought back and cleared himself of the problem.
"The years with Bird would have been the best period in my life if I hadn't been addicted," he said. "I just got to the point where music was nothing more than the means to support my habit. My progress stopped - and I could have learnt so much then. At first, when I'd be under the influence, it seemed to inspire me to practise and create. But this was a deception, as I found out after about a year. The more addicted I became, the less I practised or did anything new. All I was enthusiastic about was getting high."
Before his dependency Bishop had made a flying start as a jazz pianist. He was encouraged by his father, a Jamaican songwriter whose song "Swing, Brother, Swing" had been recorded by Billie Holiday with Count Basie. One of Bishop senior's best friends was Art Tatum, and both Tatum and Nat "King" Cole were strong influences on the young Bishop's playing. He was swept up in the crucible of Bebop development when he left the army in 1947 and worked then in bands led by progressives like Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Oscar Pettiford, as well as with Parker.
Bishop recorded for Miles Davis in 1951 with a band that included Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. He joined Parker at the end of the year when the altoist was booked to tour the Deep South. Bishop replaced the white pianist Al Haig in Parker's quintet because the South would not tolerate a mixed- race band (the trumpeter in the band was the white Red Rodney, but he posed as a black man under the name of "Albino Red"). Bishop played with Parker for three years, from 1951 to 1953, and appeared on many classic Parker records, notably "Au Privave" and "Star Eyes".
Bishop committed himself twice to the rigorous Lexington Hospital in Kentucky for addiction and, when his second jail sentence for drug offences finished in 1958, decided, "If I had to stay out of music to stay clean, I'd stay out." He took a job in a plastics warehouse, wrestling with 300- pound barrels. His self-confidence returned and after a year he returned to music.
He led the Monday night jam sessions at the New York jazz club Birdland throughout 1959 and worked with the groups of Allen Eager, Kai Winding and Philly Joe Jones. After a lengthy collaboration with the trombonist Curtis Fuller he finally put together a trio to play at the Cafe Bohemia in 1961 and with it made the first recordings under his own name. He replaced the English pianist Victor Feldman in Cannonball Adderley's Quintet in 1962 and the same year worked with another English virtuoso, Tubby Hayes, in Washington. He visited Stockholm for a season at the Golden Circle in 1964 and on his return joined the Terry Gibbs Quartet. He also worked with his own trio, often adding extra horns when he recorded.
Bishop resumed his musical studies and in the late Sixties moved to Los Angeles, where he taught at local colleges and continued to play with a trio. He worked and recorded with many other bands, including Supersax, before returning to New York in 1975. He wrote a book on jazz theory, A Study in Fourths (1976). He joined Clark Terry's big band and quintet in 1977 and toured Switzerland as a soloist in 1979. In the early Eighties he began teaching at the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, and in 1983 gave a solo concert at Carnegie Hall.
He continued to play and record throughout the Nineties.
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