I Remember You: Reflections on Cedar Walton, Marian McPartland and Other Jazz Giants

Cedar Walton. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cedar Walton. (Photo: Getty Images)

I always told myself I’d go see Cedar Walton, the great pianist who held court several times a year in jazz clubs throughout the city, most often at the Village Vanguard, that hallowed if claustrophobic room wedged into a basement in the West Village.

But this July, when I passed up an opportunity to see the man who played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the early 1960s and went on to have one of the most notable solo careers in jazz, I lost my chance for good, as did everyone else who’s never seen him. He died on Monday, at 79.

While Mr. Walton’s death didn’t come as a complete surprise, it felt especially acute in light of a number of recent deaths in the jazz world. George Duke, a fine and influential keyboardist, died just two weeks ago, at 67, and on Sunday, we lost the 97-year-old Albert Murray, an esteemed jazz critic who, along with Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis, helped found Jazz at Lincoln Center.

As jazz wends its way into its second century of existence, the passing of its elderly icons is becoming more and more common. There are, I should mention, just so this doesn’t sound too grim, more jazz musicians than ever, but this August in particular has been a tough month for fans of the music, even if it is an especially good one for seeing it live. (The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, for instance, featuring Jimmy Heath and Lee Konitz, to name two jazz veterans, takes place this weekend in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem.)

Just this morning, I woke up to a friend’s text informing me that the elegant English pianist Marian McPartland—who, for more than three decades, hosted NPR’s award-winning “Piano Jazz”—had died. Then, a couple of hours later, I came across an obituary in The New York Times of the jazz singer Jane Harvey, who died last Thursday at 88. Really? I thought. Some week.

Ms. McPartland happens to be one of my favorite musicians—I can’t tell you how many times her lovely show has lulled me to sleep at night. And I take comfort, as I’m sure many other fans do, in the fact that her music is well-documented, along with that of other musicians we’ve recently lost.

I also take comfort in the fact that Ms. McPartland’s passing, like Mr. Murray’s, doesn’t register as a tragedy, though it certainly wasn’t the first thing I wanted to hear today. Ms. McPartland was 95 and lived a full life in the way she saw fit—a worthwhile challenge for a woman in a male-dominated music.

Still, I never got to see her—or Mr. Duke, for that matter, who left us too early—in concert, which is something I regret.

US drummer Jimmy Cobb performs during th

Jimmy Cobb. (Photo: Getty Images)

So last night, when I went to the Vanguard with a couple of friends to see the drummer Jimmy Cobb—who plays there through Sunday with his trio—it felt particularly urgent.

(I always told myself I’d see Mr. Cobb too; he plays in the city quite often—as do so many musicians I’ve never seen; it’s expensive, seeing jazz, but it’s worth it—and I’d been putting it off for a while.)

Mr. Cobb is probably best known for playing with Miles Davis on the trumpeter’s 1959 record Kind of Blue, one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. (Listen to that cymbal hit at 1:32 on “So What,” the album’s opening track; it is exceptional.) Mr. Cobb has been on plenty of other good records too, as a leader and a sideman. Which is to say that he is a big deal, and at 84, he’s still going strong, even if his mind seems a little less agile.

“What day is it, Tuesday?” Mr. Cobb said, half-jokingly, as he sat down at his kit before a crowded room. “I don’t remember things anymore.”

He remembered Mr. Walton, though, whose passing he solemnly acknowledged at the beginning of an exquisite set. For the last song, Mr. Cobb played “Bolivia,” perhaps one of Mr. Walton’s most enduring tunes, and dedicated it to the late pianist too.

Mr. Cobb wore suspenders and a black baseball cap on Tuesday night—his standard ensemble—and he resembled a mechanic, which, by the way, is how he is at the drums. His style is equal parts delicate and forceful; there’s a lot of history in his hands.

His band played a couple of standards, including “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Willow Weep for Me,” along with some of Mr. Cobb’s own compositions. And at one point near the end of the set, Mr. Cobb began to introduce the next song, though it didn’t come to him as quickly as he’d have liked it to.

He paused for a moment, trying to recall the name of a composition he’d written. “What is it?” he said.

Finally, it popped into his head: “Remembering U.”

“See?” he said, teasing himself. “I can’t remember me.”

Don’t worry, Mr. Cobb. We will.