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A Subtle and Thoughtful ImproviserCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1998
Bishop, WalterWalter Bishop, Jr played with Charlie Parker in the bebop era, and went on to establish a lengthy career in his own right. He took up piano as a child, encouraged by his father, Walter Bishop, a songwriter from Jamaica whose biggest hit was "Swing, Brother, Swing". He became part of the emerging modern jazz scene in the city in post-war years, when the bebop movement was in full spate, and was much influenced by Art Tatum, a friend of his father's, and, more directly, by the example of the quintessential bebop piano stylist, Bud Powell.
His style drew on elements from the pre-bop harmonic strategies of Tatum and Errol Garner, which he was able to incorporate within the harmonic and rhythmic demands of the bop idiom. He played with drummer Art Blakey in the late Forties, and joined Charlie Parker's band for a time in 1950.
His initiation into that band took place in strange circumstances, when he was brought in to replace the white pianist Al Haig for a tour of one-night stands in the south, where carrying a racially mixed personnel was still likely to cause trouble, especially for a predominantly black band (Parker, a lover of both brinksmanship and the put-on, famously passed off his trumpet player, Red Rodney, as an albino negro on the same tour).
Bishop also recorded with Parker for record producer Norman Granz. He worked with a number of other eminent leaders in the 1950s, including Miles Davis (he was part of the trumpeter's group in 1951-3), bass player Oscar Pettiford, and trombonist Kai Winding. He did not escape the endemic heroin addiction rife among jazz musicians in that period, however, and his career went into virtual abeyance in the second half of the decade.
He was able to kick his habit by its end, however, and re-appeared on the scene. An association with trombonist Curtis Fuller announced his return in 1960, and he formed his own trio in 1961, and made his belated debut album under his own name with the group that year. He led his own bands throughout the decade, and recorded a number of albums, as well as touring with vibes player Terry Gibbs in 1964.
He studied at the Juilliard School of Music with Hall Overton in the late Sixties, then moved to Los Angeles, where he continued both to study and to perform, working with the group Supersax and trumpeter Blue Mitchell, among many others. He began to teach, both privately and in local colleges, in 1972, and continued to do so until his return to New York in 1975. He published a book on jazz theory, A Study in Fourths, in 1976.
He worked with the Clark Terry Big Band in 1977, and continued to lead his own groups, mainly in New York, but with occasional forays further afield, including Europe. He resumed teaching, this time at the University of Hartford, in the early 1980s, and appeared solo in a recital at Carnegie Hall in 1983. He continued to record, both as leader and with others, into the present decade.
Bishop's standing with other musicians was always greater than with the jazz public, and he remained something of an underrated figure. He was a subtle, thoughtful improviser who rarely resorted to cliches in his harmonic explorations, and was equally at home in adventurously executed uptempo bop excursions and in his always sensitive treatments of romantic ballads.