Obituary: George Wallington

Giacinto Figlia (George Wallington), pianist and composer, born Palermo Sicily 27 October 1924, died New York 13 February 1993.

ONE of George Wallington's first jobs was to play at a supermarket opening. He was paid with a hot dog. Fortunately such musical barter didn't persist, and from 1940 until the late Fifties he wa one of the busiest jazz pianists in New York.

His family was Sicilian and he was introduced to opera and the classics early in life. His father taught him solfeggio (sightsinging) and the lessons of his youth in classical piano had a strong influence on his later jazz work.

Wallington first heard jazz on New York radio and listened to great players like Count Basie, Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacy. 'But it was hearing Lester Young with Basie that got me interested in jazz and made me want to learn the style. I started playing little clubs and dates with friends. Then I started playing around Greenwich Village and got a job at a club called George's where I played for Billie Holiday.' As he spread his net wider in the search for work he found himself playing opposite Liberace in Philadelphia.

But Wallington was to be a New York musician, and he was there when Charlie Parker first arrived from Kansas City. The combination of Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at that time in New York drew many young musicians into the crucible of bebop which they fired up. Wallington was one of the gifted young white pianists - the others were Al Haig and Dodo Marmarosa - who were able to get a grip on what was essentially a black music. Black musicians, outraged at the way the Goodmans, Dorseys and Shaws had exploited what they, the black musicians, saw as their own music, tried to keep bebop to themselves. It is a testimony to Wallington's outstanding virtues that Gillespie hired him for his first bebop group, which played on 52nd Street in 1944. Wallington's way of playing was like that of the black pianist Bud Powell, but the two men had arrived independently at the style.

'Dizzy used to take me to his house and we'd play and he showed me his songs. Then he and Oscar Pettiford started the band at the Onyx. Charlie Parker was supposed to join us but he couldn't get a cabaret card. Anyway we had Don Byas, then Lester Young. Billie Holiday used to sing with us sometimes and Sarah Vaughan used to come in too.

'I don't know if we thought of what we were doing at the Onyx as something historic, but we did know we were doing something new and that no one else could play it.'

Wallington was then much in demand with the black players, and Parker used him on a (never- issued) recording he made with strings for Norman Granz.

He wrote 'Lemon Drop', an early be-bop anthem with a nonsense scat vocal part. Among those who recorded the song were Woody Herman and Gene Krupa: over a million records of it were sold. Another composition was 'Godchild', which Miles Davis recorded in 1949 with his classic 'Birth of the Cool' band.

In the later part of the decade Wallington worked with the bands of Parker, George Auld, Allen Eager and Kai Winding.

In 1952 Gerry Mulligan called from Los Angeles to ask Wallington to travel out there. Wallington declined and the Gerry Mulligan pianoless quartet was caused by default. Mulligan kept the formula for decades.

Wallington visited Europe briefly in 1953 to tour with the Lionel Hampton orchestra - the only time he ever played with a big band. The band was full of young talent, including the trumpeters Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones. Hampton's wife fired the band's singer Annie Ross and left her stranded in Paris, promising to send Ross a ticket to return to the States. She didn't and Ross stayed in Paris for two years. Wallington felt she had been badly treated and resigned in protest.

Young talent continued to gravitate to Wallington and in the middle Fifties he had a regular quintet of rising stars - the trumpeter Donald Byrd, the altoists Jackie McLean and Phil Woods, the bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Arthur Taylor.

Wallington left the music business suddenly in 1957, although he continued to play privately.

Following much interest in his work in Japan and the appearance of his old recordings there, he returned to the studios in 1983 to make his first recordings in 25 years. His work proved to be as good as ever, and he was invited to play at the Kool Festival in 1985, but this was the sum total of his comeback.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada