The Troy Street Observer

April 30, 1931: Pianist Dick Twardzik Born

On April 30, 1931, pianist and composer Dick Twardzik was born in Boston. His was a story of great promise and a sad ending.

Photo of Dick Twardzik
Dick Twardzik, photo by Nick Dean, from the cover of Trio, PJ-1212

Growing up in suburban Danvers, Dick Twardzik started piano at age nine and studied classical music for seven years. He liked Art Tatum and Bud Powell, but also Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. He sat in for the first time at a Melody Lounge jam session when he was 17. That’s when Herb Pomeroy first met him, and said even then that “harmonically he was a combination of the most advanced bebop of the day and 20th-century classical music.”

Twardzik spent the early 1950s touring with Serge Chaloff’s small group, and working around Boston with Pomeroy, Charlie Mariano, Joe Gordon, and the other leading players of the day. And unfortunately, like Chaloff, Twardzik used narcotics.

Twardzik rejoined Chaloff in 1954 for the Fable of Mabel sessions. “Mabel,” Twardzik’s composition, marked a step forward for its writer, and critics have pointed out its varying tempos and abrupt transitions, use of dissonance, and approach to harmony. At the time, though, Teddy Charles drubbed the record in his Metronome review: “This record should never have been…The only guy who makes it throughout is Dick Twardzik,” who “wrote well and played better,” and whose solos were “inventive and daring.”

In October 1954, Twardzik recorded four jazz standards and three original compositions for Pacific Jazz Records, most of which were released in 1956 on the LP Trio, which garnered a four-star Down Beat review. The standards were wonderful, but it was his own three tunes, “A Crutch for the Crab,” “Yellow Tango,” and “Albuquerque Social Swim,” that are Twardzik’s crown jewels.

You know the rest. Chaloff entered a drug rehabilitation program and was successful, and at his urging, Twardzik entered the program, too. Twardzik was healthy and confident when he joined Chet Baker’s group for a European tour in September 1955. But the demons caught up to him again, and on October 21 he died of a drug overdose in a Paris hotel room.

Twardzik was only 24, and it’s hard not to ask “what if.” Chet Baker, then at the height of his own popularity, would have showcased Twardzik as both composer and performer. And after that? He had been studying harp at the New England Conservatory, and perhaps he would have been the first bebop harpist. Perhaps he would have followed an adventurous path, as did his mentor Jaki Byard. Or given his deep knowledge of classical music, perhaps Twardzik would have been a leader in the Third Stream movement just then developing. One thing is for certain, he would have traveled far beyond his bop beginnings, and he might have become as distinctive as Bill Evans. We can only wonder.

Here is “Yellow Tango,” but “Crab” and “Albuquerque” are also on YouTube and I recommend you seek them out.

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