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Dick Twardzik 30/4/31–21/10/55

Dick_TwardzikTomorrow evening it will be exactly 60 years since the pianist and composer Dick Twardzik was found dead in his room at the Hôtel de la Madeleine on the Rue de Surène, in Paris’s 8th arrondissement. He was on tour in Europe with the Chet Baker Quartet, and the previous night they had played at the Club Tabu, where they were joined by the great Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin. After returning to the hotel in the early hours, they were due to reconvene at 4pm for a recording session at the Pathé-Magellan studio. When, after an hour, he hadn’t showed up, a search party went back to the hotel and his body was discovered. A heroin overdose had killed him. He was 24 years old.

Twardzik was a prodigy. Born in Boston, the son of two artists, he had studied with Madame Margaret Chaloff of the New England Conservatory of Music, a renowned teacher who is better known to jazz fans as the mother of Serge Chaloff, one of the great post-war baritone saxophonists. Serge and Dick would play and record together. And share a heroin habit that eventually killed the other man, too.

By the time Twardzik was 21, he was good enough to play with Charlie Parker. You can hear the results on Boston 1952, a Parker album compiled from radio broadcasts recorded at the Hi-Hat Club and released on the Uptown label a few years ago. Symphony Sid Torin, the radio show’s announcer, can’t get the young man’s name right, but listen to the wonderful inventiveness of the piano solo on a relaxed “Don’t Blame Me”, to the way he spins out his double-time lines, shaping them so beautifully, allowing them to float and curl and wind before moving into a passage of contrapuntal and parallel lines, followed by the lightest of block chords. By that time, he had already been using heroin for three years.

After Bud Powell, he might have become Parker’s most stimulating keyboard partner, if they’d both lived and been given time to develop their partnership. Twardzik’s ear and imagination, and his knowledge of modern classical music, would surely have appealed to Bird, and might have inspired an escape from the bebop cul-de-sac into which Parker was heading by the time of his own death in 1955.

But that’s speculation. What we know is that Twardzik made a brilliant set of trio recordings for the Pacific Jazz in October 1954, half a dozen tracks first issued as one side of an LP called Trio which he shared with the group of Russ Freeman, his predecessor as Baker’s pianist, who had brought him to the attention of the label’s boss, Dick Bock. The tracks, with one addition, were later released by themselves as The Last Set. There are three standards — “Round Midnight”, “I’ll Remember April” and “Bess You is My Woman” — along with three of his own compositions, all of them immediately striking, and not just for their titles: “Albuquerque Social Swim”, “Yellow Tango”, “A Crutch for the Crab”. They’re as full of playful character and unexpected twists as those of Herbie Nichols — a comparison that also strikes Alexander Hawkins, the English pianist, who is a student of such matters and a confirmed Twardzik fan. Thinking you might like a break from my views, I asked Alex for a few words. Here’s some of what he sent me:

For me, he fits squarely within that magical clutch of pianists from mid-century who are just so wonderfully sui generis (Monk, Powell, Hope, Nichols, and a few years later, the likes of Hasaan etc). I think it naturally comes out most clearly in his compositions; and to me it’s extraordinary to reflect that we can get such a strong sense of a radical original from so few works. However, it’s also fascinating to listen to him play standards: his arranger’s touch was such that he could make such a ‘standard’ standard as “I’ll Remember April” all his own – in the way he mysteriously stalks the notes of the first eight bars of this over the swinging drums, I hear a weird pre-echo of Misha (Mengelberg) and Han (Bennink).

I love the headlong intensity and clarity of purpose, despite such knotty compositions: in this I hear a real kinship with Bud Powell (“Glass Enclosure”, etc). There’s also clearly an affinity with Bartok, Hindemith, and so on; and I hear elements of Bernstein and Sondheim, too. I can also hear a possible line through to early Cecil Taylor. In the way both composers graft together different melodic/rhythmic strands, I hear some deep similarity with (especially pre-Unit Structures) Cecil: in particular, I’m thinking of the session which produced ‘Pots’, ‘Bulbs’, and ‘Mixed’, and also tunes like ‘Excursion on a Wobbly Rail’. I also hear a kinship with Cecil in the love of contrary motion figures.

The historical context also fascinates me too: just like with Bird, Hasaan, Nichols – where on earth could this music have gone had he lived? It’s so much at the vanguard of what seemed possible at the time that trying to put oneself in contemporary shoes as far as possible and hearing the future directions is completely baffling, and as such, deeply inspiring as a player and composer.

After Twardzik arrived in Le Havre on the liner Île-de-France on September 13 with the rest of Baker’s rhythm section — the bassist Jimmy Bond and the drummer Peter Littman — and met up with the trumpeter, the band began their tour at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (supported by the Tony Crombie All Stars!) and continued through Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France. There were 10 concerts in all, several of which were recorded and are available on various bootlegs. In Paris on October 11 and 14 they also recorded the nine tracks — eight compositions by Bob Zieff, a friend of Twardzik’s from Boston, and one by the pianist himself — that would make up one of the most remarkable small-group records of the 1950s.

Zieff’s cool little pieces have wonderful beatnik titles: “Rondette”, “Mid-Forte”, “Sad Walk”, “Pomp”, “Brash”. Perfectly balanced and slightly formal modernist mechanisms, they’re clean-lined but unpredictable, absolutely devoid of any hint of cliché (jazz or otherwise), stretching the musicians — particularly the trumpeter and pianist — in interesting ways without inducing contortions. It’s no surprise to discover that Gil Evans later became a fan of the composer, and a terrible shame that he was destined to remain in obscurity. And Twardzik’s tune, “The Girl from Greenland”, is typically intriguing and memorable.

Issued on the Barclay label in France soon afterwards, this set is still available and is, I’d say, essential — not just for itself, but also because it represents the last view we would ever get of a great talent taken away, like so many others, by a plague that is still with us, and still taking lives.

* If you want to know more, I warmly recommend Jack Chambers’ excellent biography, Bouncin’ with Bartok: The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik, published in Canada by the Mercury Press in 2008, from which the photograph is taken. There’s also an interesting CD of Twardzik’s home rehearsal recordings called 1954 Improvisations, all variations on standards, released by the New Artists label in 1990. Recordings of the Baker Quartet’s concerts in Cologne, Amsterdam and elsewhere are available on various bootlegs.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike browne #

    brilliant stuff
    an album with Chet Baker is on you tube

    October 20, 2015
  2. Mick Steels #

    One of the more illuminating posts, I remember a perceptive review of “The Last Set” by Jack Cooke where he suggested the paramount influence on Twardzik was Tatum – suppose that applies to most pianists though.

    October 20, 2015
  3. Nicely said, Richard. We need reminders of Twardzik’s gifts because the evidence he left is such a small trove. Thanks for mentioning my book. Though Amazon says it is OP and will sell you a used one for big bucks, I can tell you it is alive and well:

    October 21, 2015
    • Glad you enjoyed it, Jack. I was very pleased when your book appeared a few years ago. Like you, I’ve been listening to Twardzik for a long time. All best.

      October 21, 2015
  4. Richard Harris #

    A really balanced and respectful piece. No-one can know what his future would have been based on so few recordings but those that exist were truly impressive. The same could also be said of Herbie Nichols. And all credit to Chet Baker that he picked up on him and featured him. Baker too often gets such a simplistic press.

    October 21, 2015
  5. Richard, your columns continue to make me feel equally ignorant at my own lack of knowledge and the xcited by all the new artists you introduce me to.

    Just to offer my best wishes for the Berlin Festival, I hope you have a great and enjoyable time. It must be quite something to pull together. Best of luck. Andrew

    October 21, 2015
    • Thank you, Andrew. Much appreciated. I hope all is well at the gallery.

      October 21, 2015
  6. Matthew Wright #

    Great piece Richard and a timely reminder. Links quite rightly with Cecil Taylor who mentions in Spellman’s “Four Lives in the Bebop Business”, “this white cat, Dick Twardzik……and when I went back in 1955, 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 while they were playing Garner chords. He was like the white pianist power up there.” Complements about pianists not always forthcoming, but we can detect a certain respect here I think.
    And thanks too, Jack Chambers, for your book – filled in a great many gaps in a far too short life.
    Ray Smith left me his original Pacific Jazz “Last Set” LP, knowing how much I like Twardzik. I shall now put it on – not that an excuse is needed.

    October 22, 2015
  7. played a lot with Dick in Boston in 1954…took a while to get with, but after i dug what he was doing, it was great. and like nothing else going on in those days. moved back home to NYC in 1955, and was working at the Metropole with Rex Stewart. Steve Lacy was in the band, and invited me to go down to 98 Sheriff St. in very lower Manhattan, walk twelve blocks from the subway and climb five flights of stairs with the bass, and jam with his harmony teacher, Cecil Taylor. Quite an efferverscent experience during which i remember recognizing many similarities with the music i had been playing with Twardzik the year before. i certainly had no knowledge that they had known each other in Boston in the early 50s, until i read AB Spellman’s book.

    October 23, 2015
  8. Simón Crosby-Arreaza #

    I came across his name while looking through the personnel on Bird’s Boston 1952 album. Thanks so much for this, great writing and valuable information.

    April 10, 2018

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