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Vibes for Walt: Walt Dickerson, R.I.P.

Walt DickersonDrummer Andrew Cyrille, who made some of his earliest recording dates with vibraphonist Walt Dickerson, passes along this sad news via the Jazz Programmer Listserv:

To all concerned:
I was asked to inform you of the regrettable death of vibraphonist Walt Dickerson, by his beloved wife, Elizabeth. Walt passed away on May 15 from cardiac arrest. He was 80 years of age and lived in Willow Grove, PA.

In sympathy, Andrew Cyrille

I first came to Dickerson through my interest in Andrew Hill–the pianist appeared on what some consider to be Dickerson’s finest album, To My Queen. Determined to snap up and listen to every early date of Hill’s, Dickerson To My QueenI ended up falling in love with the darkly spry sound of the vibraphonist he was accompanying. (Lionel Hampton’s vibes usually put me in mind of a showbizzy nightclub’s bright stage lights; Bobby Hutcherson’s tended to evoke existential 1960s smoke; Dickerson’s conjured a quick, expectant walk along a shadowstruck city sidewalk after the gig was over). I’ve always marveled at how quiet and lustrous Dickerson’s vibraphone playing was; rereading Francis Davis’ liner notes to the late-1990s reissue of Impressions of a Patch of Blue (a quartet treatment of a Jerry Goldsmith score for a 1965 Sidney Poitier social-message flick, featuring Sun Ra taking a rare turn as sideman) gave me insight into part of how that sound came about:

Dickerson’s first step upon buying a new pair of mallets is to strip away their fur; he then soaks the exposed rubber tips in a mineral solution to get a sound he describes as “plush,” though paradoxically, it is also hard. His use of smaller mallets, gripped closer to the tip than is the custom for vibraphonists, allows Dickerson extraordinary speed on the bars, and because he uses his motor and damping bar so sparingly (if tellingly), he vibrates less than any other vibraphonist. The tradeoff is a lack of volume commensurate to Dickerson’s lack of vibrato, and this is surely one of the reasons why he steadfastly refuses offers to work as a sideman, why he has never featured a horn in his own groups… and why he now mostly plays solo on his frequent trips to Europe and Japan. He is one of only a handful of improvisers whose instrumental style amounts to a free-standing musical conception.

I’m mostly familiar with (and can swear by) Dickerson’s early-1960s Prestige New Jazz albums, although the Goldsmith soundtrack referenced above is very good (and not the only time that Dickerson recorded with Sun Ra), making fine, brooding use of rather slight material. (Dickerson made a similar album, Jazz Impressions of Lawrence of Arabia, that I’m still hoping to track down some day.) For further reflection, check out Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches’ invaluable post on Dickerson, which includes a musical track from Dickerson’s 1977 solo tour de force Shades of Love, as well as a two-part interview conducted with the vibraphonist in 2003. Derek Taylor’s 2000 One Final Note piece offers an in-depth retrospective on the New Jazz albums. Dickerson, whose discography stops at 1982, certainly wasn’t “underrated” by those who knew his music, but he was sadly underheard, even though much of his 1960s and 70s catalogue has been in print for the past few years–and though I’ve long wanted to do a show about him, I regret that such a program hasn’t come to pass yet. Farewell and thanks to another hidden hero of the jazz world.

NOTE: some sources give Dickerson’s birth year as 1931, but Andrew Cyrille’s message would seem to indicate that he was born three to four years earlier. Joshua Jackson’s WBGO blog tribute gives a birth date of April 16, 1928, which would have made Dickerson 80 when he passed away.

UPDATE: Tenor saxophonist and online jazz wordsmith Jim Sangrey reflects insightfully on what made Dickerson’s music special.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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