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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.