Cedar Walton was drafted into the U.S. Army, and stationed in Germany, cutting short his rising status in the after-hours scene. While in the Army, he played with musicians Leo Wright, Don Ellis, and Eddie Harris. Upon his discharge after two years, Walton picked up where he left off, playing as a sideman withKenny Dorham (on whose 1958 album This Is the Moment! Walton made his recording debut), J. J. Johnson, and with Gigi Gryce. Joining the Jazztet, led by Benny Golson and Art Farmer, Walton played with this group from 1958 to 1961. In April 1959, he recorded an alternate take of “Giant Steps” with John Coltrane, though he did not solo.
In the early 1960s, Cedar Walton joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as a pianist-arranger for three years, on the same day as Freddie Hubbard. In this group, which also featuredWayne Shorter, he demonstrated a keen sense of arranging in originals such as “Ugetsu” and “Mosaic”. He left the Messengers in 1964 and by the late 1960s was part of the house rhythm section at Prestige Records, where in addition to releasing his own recordings, he recorded with Sonny Criss, Pat Martino, Eric Kloss, and Charles McPherson. For a year, he served asAbbey Lincoln’s accompanist, and recorded with Lee Morgan from 1966 to 1968. During the mid-1970s, he led the funk group Mobius. Walton arranged and recorded for Etta James from the mid 1990s helping her to win a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (RCA Victor) in 1994.
Many of Walton’s compositions have been adopted as jazz standards, including “Firm Roots”, “Bolivia”, “Holy Land”, “Mode for Joe” and “Cedar’s Blues”. “Bolivia” is perhaps his best-known composition, while one of his oldest is “Fantasy in D”, recorded under the title “Ugetsu” by Art Blakey in 1963. In January 2010, Walton was inducted as a member of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters. After a brief illness, Cedar Walton died on August 19, 2013, at his home in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of 79.