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Cedar Walton, 79; worked with scores of major jazz performers

Cedar Walton was one of the most respected figures in jazz.

Gene Martin/HighNote Records

Cedar Walton was one of the most respected figures in jazz.

WASHINGTON — Cedar Walton — a pianist and composer who worked with almost every major jazz performer of his era, from John Coltrane to Art Blakey to Abbey Lincoln, and who was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master — died Aug. 19 at his home in Brooklyn.

His death, at 79, was confirmed by his record label, HighNote Records. The cause was not disclosed.

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For more than 50 years, Mr. Walton was one of the most respected figures in jazz. He shared the stage as a young man with singer Billie Holiday and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and continued to work until shortly before his death, inspiring younger jazz musicians, including trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Jeremy Pelt.

He appeared on more than 400 albums, including 60 as a leader, but Mr. Walton remained something of an overlooked master, acknowledged by people in the jazz world but little known to the wider public.

In 2006, jazz critic Will Friedwald called Mr. Walton ‘‘one of the best pianists and composers’’ ofthe last half-century and asked why the National Endowment for the Arts had not named him a jazz master, the highest honor for a jazz musician. Mr. Walton received the designation four years later.

At the piano, he had an unfussy, straightforward style that always sounded fresh. There was something reflective in his playing, which was filled with shifting chords that gave his solos the chromatic quality of a prism. He never seemed to strike the wrong note.

After becoming established in New York in the 1950s, Mr. Walton worked with the trombonist J.J. Johnson before joining the Jazztet, fronted by Art Farmer and Benny Golson.

From 1961 to 1964, Mr. Walton held the piano chair in one of the most influential incarnations of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, an ensemble that turned outmany jazz greats. Other members included trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and trombonist Curtis Fuller, along with Blakey on drums. Mr. Walton wrote the title track of one of the Jazz Messengers’ most renowned albums, “Mosaic” (1961).

Mr. Walton accompanied Lincoln, the singer, in the 1960s and later had a long association with vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Over his career, he continued to write, producing a series of compositions that are frequently performed, including “Bolivia,” “Firm Roots,” “Ojos de Rojo,” “Ugetsu,” and “Mode for Joe,” written for saxophonist Joe Henderson.

Cedar Anthony Walton Jr. was born in Dallas. Traveling musicians sometimes visited.

“I was only about 8, and I was supposed to be asleep,” he told the Dallas Morning News in 2002. “But when I heard this pianist, I was fascinated, totally mesmerized with his style. Man, I wish today I knew who that guy was, because after I heard him, I became a fanatic about music.”

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