by W. Kim Heron
“I am a tenor player in the tradition of Newk, Trane, Dexter, maybe ... although I don't sound like any of them singularly, maybe an amalgamation of them all, but more like myself than anyone else.” That was the way Donald Walden summed up his style. Walden was all about the concept of standing on the shoulders of giants and reaching higher still. And helping others to do the same.
His death on Sunday, at age 69, leaves a hole in the jazz community as large as his talent and his endeavors. His musical tributes to the jazz standard bearers were wonders to behold. He was an arch scholar of the music of Thelonious Monk, for instance, and could talk about having spent time soaking up the essence of the man first hand in New York during the early ’60s. That was before he moved back to the city that had been his home since childhood. And he shared that first-hand knowledge as one of the definitive Monk scholars, whether he was dealing with a single tune or an all-Monk program.
He likewise paid homage to Trane; a career highlight was a salute to Charlie Parker at the 1990 Montreux-Detroit Jazz Fest that featured a chorus, conductor Coleridge-Tayler Parkinson, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles McPherson, Barry Harris and Walden himself. More recently, there was a salute to Tadd Dameron — recorded live at Bert’s on Broadway and released in 2003 on Walden’s Emanon Records. That album, Focus by the Donald Walden and the Detroit Jazz Orchestra — another expression of his jazz activism, by the way — ranks with the best of the too-few tributes to the bop-era composer and bandleader.)
That’s not to say that Walden was just a preservationist. No sixtysomething would launch a new band and dub it Free Radicals if not to underscore that he was looking forward as well as back.
Like some of the most important of his peers formed in the far-more-supportive jazz world of the ’50s and early ’60s, he took to new roles in the following decades. During the 1980s, his New World Stage in Harmonie Park was an institution that helped fill the void left by the fading club scene. Detroit musicians and out-of-towners alike took to the stage there. (Memo to the civic boosters out there: Locate the next Walden and help bring jazz back to that corner of downtown!) He later took his voice and experience into academia, finishing up as a tenured professor at the University of Michigan. But the university posts only institutionalized the kind of mentoring and teaching that he’d been doing for a long time. (For instance, Geri Allen, Regina Carter, Bob Hurst and Rodney Whitaker, to name some notables, all came through his Detroit Jazz Orchestra.)
Back in February an appreciative sold-out crowd came out to hear him at Arturo’s for a celebration of his career and his life by the Societie of Culturally Concerned. When I mistakenly referred in MT’s pages to the event as a “fundraiser” for Walden’s long battle with cancer, his wife, Marsha, and the Societie’s Kenn Cox both contacted me to say, in no uncertain terms, that the error detracted from the event — because Walden was one of the jazz musicians who’d reached the plateau where he didn’t need, “a pity party,” as Cox put it in a letter. The event was all about the pride in his achievement, as Marsha put it when she called. (The item was corrected on the Web immediately after Marsha’s call, corrected in print the following issue.)
Walden spoke and played with a vigor that day that left some of those who heard him caught off guard as news of his death spread. But, in fact, there was no way to be braced for the loss of a voice as vital as his.
Private services are being held Saturday at Haley Funeral Home in Southfield, followed by a 5 p.m. jam session in his honor at Bert’s on Broadway in Eastern Market.
Coincidentally, some his admirers were already planning a small tribute as part of First Annual Tenor Summit being held Saturday at Cliff Bell’s downtown. In addition to the more traditional solo-trading standards, saxophonists Steve Wood, Chris Collins and Andrew Bishop (plus a rhythm section of Scott Gwinnell, Paul Keller and Sean Dobbins) planned to play a Bishop piece titled “Walden’s Ponds.” (See PDF of the sheet music)
Here’s what Bishop said earlier today in an e-mail about Walden and the piece:
Donald was a great teacher and great inspiration to me. He was always very encouraging of all the musical directions I was exploring. "Walden's Ponds" was written last fall — I guess I was thinking about all the piles of music he had laying around his office: original transcriptions of Monk, Andrew Hill and Bud Powell. He was also obsessed with symmetry in the music of John Coltrane. Those two things — the piles of music, or "ponds", and a beautiful graphic he had of Coltrane's symmetrical divisions of the musical octave — inspired this short tune dedicated to him. My biggest regret is that I planned to send him a recording and a copy of the tune.
You can go to Walden’s site you can hear his rendition of the Tadd Dameron classic “If You Could See Me Now.”
The late great Mr. Walden at his New World Stage..
(MT Photo: W. Kim Heron)