Teddy Wilson (1912-1986)

Teddy Wilson in 1940
Teddy Wilson in 1940
Photo from the William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress, Public Domain (CC0)

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Orchestral pianist, violinist, conductor, composer, and arranger of the Swing to Bebop eras, Teddy Wilson was born Theodore Shaw Wilson on November 24, 1912, in Austin, Texas. He and his brother Gus Wilson, however, were reared on the campus of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), Alabama, as his father, James Wilson, was chairperson of the English department, and his mother, Pearl Wilson, was the Library Director.

Teddy Wilson began classical piano studies in Tuskegee at seven. He began playing the violin in the sixth grade and continued it along with oboe and E-flat clarinet throughout high school. Later, he was the pianist for the school’s military band. Wilson studied music for one year at Talladega College, less than 100 miles north of Tuskegee, but moved to Detroit, Michigan, at 17 years old in 1929. There, he heard the 20-year-old pianist Art Tatum performing jazz in a Detroit nightclub. They bonded, and he began his professional music career. Wilson received a union card and played with percussionist Speed Webb’s road band from 1929 to 1931. Later that year, he joined Louis Armstrong’s band before going to Chicago to work in the Gold Coast club. A year later, Wilson married pianist Violet Irene Armstrong Smith Kitchings from Muncie, Indiana, on August 1, 1932 (first of three marriages).

In 1933, Wilson became a member of Benny Carter’s Chocolate Dandies, and from 1935 to 1939, he was a member of the Benny Goodman Trio in New York City, thus being the first African American to be featured with the nationally known ensemble during the Jim Crow era. However, Wilson stayed in all-black hotels when the Benny Goodman Trio toured the country. During this period, he made a series of records featuring singer Billie Holiday, including “The Way You Look Tonight.” He also collaborated with Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald.

In 1939, Wilson formed Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra and conducted the Teddy Wilson Music School for Pianists. From 1945 to 1952, while a staff musician at CBS Radio 58, he taught annual summer classes on jazz piano improvisation at the Juilliard School in New York. In the 1960s, he was a Musical Director for The Dick Cavett Show.

Wilson appeared in films, including Hollywood Hotel, in 1938 and 1955. He played himself in Hollywood’s Benny Goodman Story. He rejoined the Benny Goodman Trio in 1952 and toured Asia, Australia, and Europe. The tour included a performance at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. Wilson returned to the U.S. to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1982.

Teddy Wilson was the father of bass player Theodore Wilson and Steven Wilson, a percussionist with whom he created a musical trio in New Jersey.

A recipient of numerous awards and accolades, Wilson received the Golden Esquire Award for his piano accompanying Billie Holiday singing “The Man I Love.” He received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

Teddy Wilson, who contributed to over 400 albums, died of stomach cancer in New Britain, Connecticut, on July 31, 1986. He was 73. He was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in Vista, California, in 1993.