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Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend to these pages in his allowance of JazzProfiles re-publishings of his excellent writings. He is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horrick’s book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.
The following article was first published in Jazz Journal May 2014..
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THE FORGOTTEN ONES – DICK TWARDZIK
by Gordon Jack.
“Dick Twardzik along with Leonard Bernstein, George Shearing, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Ralph Burns and Keith Jarrett was one of the many students over the years who studied with Serge Chaloff’s mother - the celebrated Margaret Chaloff. His career though was to be tragically short (Tom Lord’s discography lists 15 sessions) and a year after recording his only date as a leader he died from a drug overdose in a hotel bedroom in Paris while on tour with Chet Baker.
He was born on the 30th. April 1931 in Danvers Massachusetts. (The town was formerly known as Salem Village where the infamous witch trials took place in the late seventeenth century). He started learning the piano at the age of six and in his teenage years developed a taste for Bartok and Schoenberg rather than Beethoven or Schumann. The Boston jazz community first became aware of him in 1948 when he sat in at the Melody Lounge and impressed Bob Zieff who was later to become another of his teachers, “His father brought him in… he scared a lot of the older musicians who were at the club. He was sounding like a mix of Bud Powell and Tadd Dameron while all the pianists were Teddy Wilson-ing.” Trumpeter Herb Pomeroy who worked extensively with him from the late forties said, “Harmonically he was a combination of the most advanced bebop of the day and 20th. century classical music.”
Serge Chaloff who was to become something of a mentor to Twardzik returned to Boston in 1950 after leaving Woody Herman’s band. He had just won the Downbeat poll as the nation’s number one on baritone and was working regularly at the Hi-Hat – “Boston’s smartest rendezvous from noon to early morning”. Incredibly popular he could fill any club in his home town and one evening he allowed Dick to sit in at another venue, the Red Fox Café. In a memorial tribute to the pianist published in Metronome magazine Serge said, “He amazed everyone at the session with his fluent and original ideas. He had a completely new approach to his piano playing and in the way he voiced his chords. Dick was about eighteen years old at the time.” Chaloff had been using Nat Pierce who soon left to join Woody Herman and in Twardzik he found an ideal replacement. Herb Pomeroy said many years later in an interview, “Dick and Serge were very close. Unfortunately part of their closeness was due to narcotics but they were also very close musically. Two very strong personalities.” On the subject of drugs, tenor-man Jay Migliore who was studying at Berklee and often worked with Twardzik said, “He wasn’t the usual addict. He was always on time. Always well dressed and always upbeat”.
BY now he had become part of a thriving jazz community in Massachusetts that also included Charlie Mariano, Varty Haroutunian, Ray Santisi, John Neves, and Jimmy Zitano. In 1951 Twardrzik was a member of the group Chaloff took on the road for bookings in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. As Jack Chambers says in his well researched biography Dick was very close to his family and kept in regular touch with postcards and letters, reporting in one missive that “Serge was reading Kafka”. They were staying in a cottage in Cape Cod and In the same letter he tells of listening to “Bird, Ernest Bloch, Alban Berg and Bela Bartok with Serge and his wife, Linda”. Over the next few months he continued working with Chaloff who said at the time, “I was glad to get away from the big band scene. Playing in a section you never get a chance to know many tunes thoroughly. Last summer I had a small combo in Hyannis and I must have learned as many as five or six new tunes a day. People would ask me for something and if I didn’t know it, I learned it”.
Chaloff dropped out of the jazz scene for a while in 1952 and early that year Twardzik was playing intermission piano in Boston’s HI Hat which is where he first met Charlie Parker. Their mutual love of Bela Bartok’s music and illegal substances led to a friendship that was to endure for the next three years. In December 1952 Parker was booked for a week’s engagement at the Hi Hat in a quintet with Twardzik, Joe Gordon, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes and a live broadcast introduced by Symphony Sid has been released on Uptown UPCD 27-42. Sid Torin had recently left NYC for Boston and his local radio shows on WBMS apparently reached, “All the way from the top of Nova Scotia to the tip of Cape Cod”. Parker who often played with Twardzik whenever he returned to Boston considered him to be a genius. There were though some difficulties with Mingus who apparently objected to some of Dick’s chord voicings. On one occasion when Parker introduced Twardzik’s mother from the bandstand, Mingus leaned over to the pianist and said, “If I were your mother I’d take you across my knee.” The sound quality while less than perfect is very acceptable but a better example of Dick’s residency at the Hi Hat can be found on Uptown 27.48 which finds him accompanying that dilettante of the tenor saxophone Allen Eager. While at the club he also worked with Zoot Sims, Lee Konitz, JJ Johnson, Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt but no broadcasts from those sessions have survived.
It was around this time that Twardzik started studying with the uncompromising modernist Bob Zieff and as a result of this relationship Chet Baker was later to include some of Zieff’s challenging compositions in his repertoire.
In December 1953 he made the surprising decision to join Lionel Hampton’s big band which had become something of a vaudeville show with a tap dancer, a comic act and three singers. One particularly memorable engagement took place at the Apollo in Harlem where Betty Carter had been added to the roster. Hamp introduced her to the audience as Betty Bebop and Dick was featured with the leader on a well received Stardust. The band then undertook a mammoth tour of the south billed as a “Triumphant Tour of Dixie” performing concerts in 30 cities in 39 days. Dick stayed for only four months. Unfortunately the band did not record while he was there which is a pity as it would have helped to raise his profile.
Returning home to Boston he immediately started working again with Serge Chaloff who was making another attempt to get his career back on track. In June 1954 Chaloff’s group with Twardzik and Charlie Mariano made a successful appearance at the Boston Arts Festival which also featured a traditional band led by George Wein and the Martha Graham dance troupe. A few months later Chaloff’s group now expanded to nine pieces recorded Dick’s magnum opus The Fable of Mabel - a highly original and complex chart in three parts (Mosaic MD4-147). Discussing it later the composer said, “The Fable of Mabel was introduced to jazz circles in 1951-52 by the Serge Chaloff Quartet. Audiences found this satirical jazz legend a welcome respite from standard night club fare.”
In October that year Chaloff and Twardzik shared the stage at Storyville with Chet Baker’s quartet who were the main attraction. Talking about the pianist Baker said, “The first time I heard him play I couldn’t believe it. He had somehow bridged the gap between classical and jazz.” Russ Freeman who was working with Baker at the time was similarly impressed when he telephoned Richard Bock of Pacific Jazz – “There’s a young guy here who plays piano like you wouldn’t believe. You have to record him.” A recording was scheduled at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey with Carson Smith and Peter Littman for what Jack Chambers rightly describes as, “The crowning achievement of Twardzik’s short career” (LHJ 10120).
Released under the title The Last Set, Dick’s only date as a leader is one of the most rewarding trio albums of the era. It includes some of his most advanced compositions like A Crutch For the Crab, Yellow Tango and Albuquerque Social Swim as well as fresh and original looks at ‘Round Midnight and I’ll Remember April. There is also a quite dramatic Bess You Is My Woman Now which is one of the earliest performances of the Gershwin classic in a trio context apart from two earlier versions by Teddy Wilson. For completists Lonehill has included approximately 40 minutes of a Twardzik practice session recorded at the home of Peter Morris, a friend who had studied with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh.
During most of 1955 Dick was to be heard at the Jazz Workshop at The Stable often in the company of Herb Pomeroy, Jay Migliore and Varty Haroutunian. The young Steve Kuhn (another of Margaret Chaloff’s students) often heard him there and he has been fulsome in his praise of Dick’s advanced approach to harmony, reflecting classical as well as jazz influences.
Chet Baker invited Dick to join his quartet for A European tour in late 1955 but he was not the first choice. Chet had already been refused by John Williams who told me some time ago that he would have loved to play with Baker as long as Peter Littman was not the drummer. Littman who worked with Baker until the end of 1956 had his own well known personal problems but his abilities as a drummer did not impress John at all. The leader insisted on keeping Littman who was very friendly with Twardzik anyway, so Dick got the nod.
Twardzik, Littman and James Bond boarded the Ile de France on the 7th. September. They were met at Le Havre by the leader who had flown to Europe earlier to spend time with his girlfriend Liliane Cukier in Paris. In recent years a number of recordings from their concerts have surfaced making welcome additions to Twardzik’s slim discography. The performance from Mainz, Germany a month before his tragic death is notable for the pianist’s delightfully baroque introduction to All The Things You Are, a routine he had perfected at the practice session mentioned earlier. At the same concert Walkin’ might be described as Runnin’ due to Littman’s tendency to rush the tempo. Dick quotes Tiny’s Blues extensively here which was a jam session favourite at the time. It has since acquired a new lease of life thanks to a lyric from Dave Frishberg which he calls Can’t Take You Nowhere.
Throughout their European sojourn, bass player James Bond had the additional responsibility of ensuring Dick Twardzik was available to perform because he had passed out more than once on the tour. Apparently this was caused by the purity of the heroin available in Europe which was quite unlike anything he had been using in the US. Something went very wrong however with the arrangement on the 21st. October 1955 in Paris. Lars Gullin who had been playing with the quartet was to record with them that afternoon. The musicians assembled and waited in the studio for Dick to appear. Unknown to them he had already been found dead in his room by the concierge at the Hotel de la Madelaine. According to Chet Baker, “Dick was bright blue, the spike still in his arm.” Charlie Parker had passed away earlier that year and his close friend and mentor Serge Chaloff was to die in July 1957.
Jack Chambers - Bouncin’ With Bartok. The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik. Mercury Press.
Vladimir Simosko – Serge Chaloff. A Musical Biography and Discography. Scarecrow Press.
James Gavin – Deep In a Dream. The Long Night of Chet Baker. Chatto & Windus.