The Jazz.com Blog
January 20, 2009 · 2 comments
The Eisenhower years, so Miltown-ized on much of the home front, were turbulent times for jazz. The revolutionaries of the early 1950s were themselves ushered aside by a new avant-garde before the close of the decade. Jazz was like one of those newspaper chess problems: move from bop to free in ten moves. Change was the byword, and it proved to be a cruel taskmaster. Even jazz stars who had perfected wondrous styles—Miles and Coltrane serving as the preeminent examples here—soon felt compelled to throw them overboard in pursuit of the next (and in itself transitory) new thing.
Yet the personal lives of the jazz elite were often even more tumultuous than the music itself. Critics and historians have danced around the issue of jazz and substance abuse, whitewashing and demonizing by turns, but a simple perusal of the names and dates on the tombstones tells you that something was seriously wrong with the masters of the art form during this era. Not everyone was a casualty, but even those who survived, often paid a price in other ways: time in prison, broken families, potential unrealized, financial security traded for a string of fixes.
In the midst of this, it is easy to lose track of Richard Twardzik. This pianist, dead at age 24, never lived to see the release of his first leader date on the Pacific label. It was almost a miracle that this material was issued at all. Pacific only had 22 minutes of Twardzik's music on hand, and needed to package it with trio sides by pianist Russ Freeman in order to fill up an LP album. Over the years, other recordings of Twardzik's music have become available, usually featuring him in a sideman role; but none of these projects is well known outside an inner circle of jazz devotees.
It would thus be all too easy to forget Richard Twardzik. . . except that his music is anything but forgettable. Even before he had come to the attention of the Pacific Jazz label, Twardzik had stirred up the jazz scene in Boston. "There was this white cat," Cecil Taylor later recalled, "Dick Twardzik . . . He had destroyed some Kenton people by playing like Bud Powell first and getting them all excited and then going into his, at that time, Schoenbergian bag." I agree with those who hear Twardzik's influence in Taylor's early recordings. Twardzik also earned the respect of Steve Kuhn, another student of Madame Chaloff's and a keyboard prodigy. Kuhn has commented: "I admired Twardzik very much, particularly harmonically. He listened to all the modern European composers and was quite advanced."
Herb Pomeroy, a Boston jazz legend in his own right, has noted the impact of musicians encountering Twardzik's music for the first time. "After Dick died," he recalled, "there were a number of musicians I would come in contact with who had never heard of him, or had heard of him but had never heard his playing. I would play the trio recording and they would have a look of disbelief on their faces. I mean, it moves you to tears."
Now Jack Chambers, a jazz critic best known for his two-volume biography of Miles Davis, has written the first full-length biography of the pianist, Bouncin' With Bartok: The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik, published by The Mercury Press. Chambers, who first heard Twardzik on record back as a high school student in 1956, has taken this mysterious figure from a bygone jazz era and brought him fully to life in the pages of this remarkable book.
Having spent a considerable amount of time myself researching the lives and times of departed musicians, I know how challenging a project of this sort is to complete. When a person has been dead for more than a half-century, firsthand accounts are hard to find. Informants, even if they can be found, often have faulty memories, and sometimes mangle the facts, sowing more confusion than clarity. And when the biographical subject in question was so young at the time of his death, and traversed as much ground—musical and geographical—as Dick Twardzik, the task only becomes all the more arduous.
Chambers overcomes all of these obstacles, and has uncovered a rich cornucopia of information on the pianist. He conferred with aunts and cousins, friends and acquaintances, commentators and colleagues. He tracked correspondence, followed up various trails, and puts together a complete account, satisfying both for its biographical rigor as well as the critical intelligence he applies to Twardzik's body of work.
This is the end of part one of Ted Gioia's article on pianist Richard Twardzik. For part two of this article, click here.