Theodore Shaw Wilson, 24 November 1912, Austin, Texas, USA, d. 31 July 1986, New Britain, Connecticut, USA. Born into a middle-class family, Wilson grew up in Tuskegee where his parents moved to take up teaching posts at the university. He studied violin and piano at Tuskegee and later extended his studies at college in Alabama. In 1929, by now concentrating on piano, he became a professional musician in Detroit. He played in bands led by Speed Webb and others in the Midwest until he settled in Chicago, where he worked with Erskine Tate, Eddie Mallory, Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Noone. In the early 30s he played with Art Tatum, holding his own in duets, a feat of considerable distinction. In 1933 he was heard by John Hammond, who encouraged him to move to New York to play in Benny Carters band, and he also played with Willie Bryant. During this period in his career Wilson made a succession of outstanding records, with Carter in the Chocolate Dandies, leading small bands for which he hired the best available sidemen, and accompanying Billie Holiday on sessions that produced numerous masterpieces of jazz.
Back in Chicago he guested with Benny Goodman, made records with Goodman and Gene Krupa and, in April 1936, became a member of the Goodman entourage, where he was featured as a member of the Benny Goodman Trio. He remained with Goodman until 1939, usually playing as a member of the trio and later the quartet, before leaving to form his own big band. Wilson set high standards of musicianship, which militated against the bands commercial success, and it survived for barely a year. He then formed a sextet, for which he adopted similarly high standards, but fortunately this group attained a measure of success with long residencies and some excellent recordings. After a brief return visit to Goodman, Wilson worked in the studios, taught, toured and recorded over the next dozen years. By the 60s he had become a deserved elder statesman of jazz, a role which he maintained throughout the rest of his life, touring internationally as either a single or in small groups such as the Gentlemen Of Swing, in which he was joined by Harry Edison and Benny Carter.
Although the playing style Wilson adopted early in his career owed much to the influence of Earl Fatha Hines, by the mid-30s he was a highly distinctive performer in his own right. A naturally restrained musician, Wilsons fleet playing and the elegant poise of his solos (the latter a facet that was reflected in his personal demeanour), combined to make him an influential figure in the development of jazz piano. His influence is most directly noticeable in the work of Nat King Cole. His accompaniments to many of Billie Holidays classic performances were an important factor in the singers success. The quality of the setting he provided, especially on some of the earlier sessions when Holidays talent was still unpolished, are object lessons in their deceptive simplicity. The excellence of the arrangements, which aid the instrumental soloists as much as the singer, display his prowess, while his seemingly effortless obligato and solo contributions add to the quality of these timeless recordings. His performances with the Goodman trio and quartet are scarcely less important, providing a brilliantly intuitive counterpoint to the leaders playing. A noted stickler for quality, Goodman never failed to praise Wilson in a manner that contrasted strikingly with his often dismissive attitude towards other important musicians.
Wilsons big band was another musical landmark, although the bands failure to attain commercial success was something which still clearly rankled with its leader four decades after it had folded. The sextet of the early 40s, which included at times artists such as Benny Morton, Jimmy Hamilton, Big Sid Catlett, Bill Coleman, Emmett Berry, Slam Stewart and Edmond Hall, was yet another demonstration of his subtle and understated musicianship. Among important recording sessions in later years were sessions with Lester Young and Roy Eldridge in 1956, with Carter in Japan in 1980, and several outstanding solo albums. Although a shy and retiring man, Wilson had no illusions about his musical stature. Late in his life, when an interviewer asked who was his favourite pianist, he answered, with only a hint of a disarming grin, I am.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.