November 29, 2012

The Jackie Robinson of Jazz: Teddy Wilson

Teddy Wilson

Bebop And Beyond

By Armand Lewis


n every field, someone is the first to accomplish something. For instance, George Washington was the first U.S. President, the Wright Brothers were the first to fly in a self-powered aircraft, and Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to be integrated into Major League Baseball. In popular music, the first African-American musician to break the color barrier and perform on stage with an otherwise white group was born one hundred years ago on November 24th.

Theodore Shaw “Teddy” Wilson was born in Austin Texas in 1912. Taking up piano at age eight, by age fourteen he was captivated by jazz pianists like Earl Fatha Hines, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. Later, after his first year of college music theory, Wilson decided to become a professional musician.


Making his way to Chicago, Wilson found work with Louis Armstrong’s band and with clarinetist Jimmy Noone. Wilson’s first major break came in his late teens, when he landed a job substituting for piano legend Earl “Fatha” Hines on Hines’ Chicago radio show when Hines was away on the road. It was during one of these broadcasts filling in for Hines that Teddy Wilson caught the ear of the legendary record producer John Hammond.

Over the course of a 55-year career in music, John Hammond discovered and nurtured the careers of recording artists ranging from Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and Count Basie in the 1930s to Aretha Franklin, George Benson and Bob Dylan in the 1960s. Hammond would later discover Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan — when Hammond himself was in his seventies.

Aside from music, Hammond (a Caucasian) was a crusader for racial integration. He also felt that integrating entertainment could pave the way for integration of the entire society. At the time, public venues were strictly segregated, both in the audience and in the acts on stage. Black acts may perform for white audiences, but there were never mixed race music groups or integrated acts on stage.

Hammond had been quietly trying to put together an integrated stage band for a number of years and upon meeting Wilson in 1933, Hammond felt he had found the right man for the job. Hammond would later write that he felt Wilson had “not only the talent to make it in any surroundings, but the mental and emotional equipment to do so.” With this in mind Hammond called up his brother-in-law Benny Goodman.

On records, where the public generally did not know who was playing behind the leader, there were often integrated bands. As such, Hammond recorded Goodman and Wilson together in studio on several occasions, including some early Billie Holiday sessions. Goodman and Wilson found an instant musical rapport, which, while remarkable on records, was literally magical in live performance.

But Goodman was somewhat reluctant to hire a black pianist for his touring band. Goodman was just becoming successful and was not sure if breaking the color barrier on stage would hurt his career. However, his musical rapport with Wilson — along with the constant prodding from Hammond and Chicago concert promoter Helen Oakley — convinced Goodman to take a chance.

On April 12th, 1936, Teddy Wilson became the first African-American performer to play with an otherwise white group when Goodman debuted his new trio featuring Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa on stage during a Chicago concert. The performance was a big success — such a success that Goodman made the trio a standard part of his shows from then on.

Shortly thereafter, Goodman would expand his trio into a quartet by adding African-American vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Taking Goodman’s lead, white bandleader Artie Shaw
hired Billie Holiday for his band in 1938. Other white band leaders soon followed, including Charlie Barnet, who hired a young black singer to front his big band — 23-year-old Lena Horne.

Later in 1938, Hammond was approached to book the entertainment at Café Society, which (when it opened in New York later that year) was to become the first integrated nightclub in the country. Club owner Barney Josephson made it clear that at Café Society, both the acts and the audiences would be fully integrated. Hammond seized the opportunity, instal-ling Wilson and Wilson’s own group as the house band.


Though Café’ Society’s inte-gration policy did not result in a flood of mixed acts and integrated audiences throughout the country, by this point, the color barrier had been permanently broken. Teddy Wilson would go on to teach at Julliard and play concerts around the world.

Over a 40-plus-years career, Teddy Wilson would also record extensively for all the major record companies as well as many jazz and independent labels. Many of Wilson’s best recordings are still widely available, including Benny Goodman: Carnegie Hall Concert 1938 (Sony Legacy), Lester Young and Teddy Wilson – Pres and Teddy (Verve) and the solo recording, Teddy Wilson – With Billie in Mind (Chiaroscuro).

Elegant, sophisticated and quietly confident in both himself and his music, Teddy Wilson was the right man at the right time for the right job.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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