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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'