Many critics consider Teddy Wilson one of the greatest jazz pianists of all-time. Influenced by Earl Hines, he later developed a style all his own. His early recordings were percussive and forceful, but as he matured his technique became graceful, almost elegant. He was a gifted artist who used the full range of his instrument to his advantage. His recordings with Benny Goodman’s trio and quartet during the 1930s are considered classics.
Wilson studied music at both the Tuskegee Institute and Alabama’s Talladega College. He worked in Detroit and Toledo, Ohio, with Speed Webb and Milton Senior before moving to Chicago, where he played with the likes of Erskine Tate, Eddie Mallory, Clarence Moore, Jimmy Noone and Louis Armstrong. He traveled to New York in 1933 to join Benny Carter’s orchestra, the Chocolate Dandies. After Carter disbanded the following year to take a position as arranger with Goodman’s band, Wilson worked with an all-star group led by Red Norvo and with Willie Bryant’s band, where he stayed into 1935. He met Goodman that year and in 1936 was asked to join the bandleader’s trio, which also included drummer Gene Krupa. Lionel Hampton joined soon after, making it a quartet. Wilson became the first African-American publicly featured in Goodman’s line-up.
During his time with Goodman, Wilson put together several small groups for recording sessions. These sessions featured such artists as Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Nan Wynn, Helen Ward, and Harry James. Wilson left Goodman in 1939 to form his own big band, which included such top musicians as Doc Cheatham, Ben Webster, Rudy Powell, and Hal Baker. Thelma Carpenter provided vocals. Wilson’s subtle style failed to win over audiences, however, who often complained that his orchestra sounded “too white.” He disbanded the group after only a year and formed a sextet that played regularly at the Cafe Society in New York from 1940 to 1946.
After 1946, Wilson worked mostly as a soloist or in a trio. In 1946, he became a staff musician for CBS radio and operated his own music school. He taught at Juilliard in the early 1950s, becoming one of the first jazz musicians to do so. Reuniting with Goodman occasionally, he traveled with the King of Swing on his 1962 tour of the Soviet Union. He also toured with his own orchestra in 1957. Teddy Wilson passed away in 1986.