In Memoriam: Wallace Roney (1960–2020)

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Trumpeter Wallace Roney died Tuesday “due to complications of COVID-19,” according to his publicist.

(Photo: Courtesy Lydia Liebman)

Trumpeter Wallace Roney—a stalwart of New York’s straightahead scene whose career put him in the path of legends like Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter—died March 31 at the age of 59 due to complications from COVID-19.

“I am saddened to confirm that the iconic trumpeter and jazz legend Wallace Roney passed away due to complications of COVID-19 this morning just before noon,” publicist Lydia Liebman wrote in a press release. “The family is looking to have a memorial service to honor Wallace and his musical contributions once this pandemic has passed.”

The news of Roney’s passing prompted Shorter, a close friend and collaborator, to post a heartfelt note to his Twitter account: “The so-called last breath of life is the first breath of the continuity of an ultimate life process,” the note read, “which can be a total welcoming surprise, especially when a major part of Wallace’s recent endeavor was to reach for [the] so-called ‘unreachable.’ I am convinced he will discover that his reach will go far beyond his grasp ... .”

Roney, born in Philadelphia in May 1960, began playing the trumpet at age five, soon performing in a classical brass ensemble and taking lessons from bop legend Clark Terry. After moving to Washington D.C., he enrolled in the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where he and his then-partner Dawn Jones first crossed paths.

“He was an instrumental major and I was a vocal major,” Jones remembered. “One of the stories he liked to tell was how he would be in one of the classrooms practicing and I would come in, sit on a stool in the middle of the room and just listen to him.”

During that time, Roney would frequently visit New York to gig around the city; his first performance went down at Rashied Ali’s club, Ali’s Alley, in 1976, where the trumpeter sat in with drummer Philly Joe Jones. As critic and journalist Stanley Crouch remembered it for a New York Times profile of Roney, when he played, “the noise level in the club immediately dropped off, and those in the middle of conversations ... turned their attention to the bandstand. People in the back of the room came out to hear that horn.”

As news of his talent spread, Roney started picking up plum assignments, like working with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and with drummer Tony Williams, who graced Roney’s first LP as a bandleader, 1987’s Verses (Muse).

That first album set the stage for the rest of Roney’s career, both as a player of dazzling intellect and a sharp, resolute tone, and as someone who relished working with jazz musicians of a previous generation, as well as mentoring younger players. It all led him to a crucial moment in his career: working alongside Miles Davis. Roney was invited by producer Quincy Jones to help rehearse with Davis’ band at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival. Davis was so impressed by what he heard, he invited Roney to sit in for the live show. Roney also earned his only Grammy award paying tribute to his mentor on 1994’s A Tribute To Miles, which featured a band comprised of players from Davis’ past.

“Miles told me to stop listening to critics who said that I was a clone of his,” Roney recalled in a 2019 DownBeat profile. “He said, ‘I know what you’re trying to do. You keep doing what you’re doing. Because if you don’t, and [you] listen to them, they will be playing you, instead of you playing your instrument.’”

His work with Davis also helped open the door to signing with Warner Bros., a label for which Roney recorded a series of post-bop albums that included contributions from Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Buster Williams and Geri Allen, who was at the time married to Roney.

“He surrounded himself with great players,” Barney Fields, co-founder of HighNote Records, the imprint Roney recorded for beginning in 2004. “They didn’t show up because it was any little schmuck to get a pay day [from]. It was Wallace Roney, and they saw Wallace [as being] that good.”

On what would be Roney’s final album, Blue Dawn-Blue Nights, Kojo Odu Roney—the bandleader’s15-year-old nephew—played drums alongside veteran Lenny White. Roney’s penchant for cultivating new talent also put him in touch saxophonist Ben Solomon, who was a member of the trumpeter’s ensemble from 2011 until 2017.

“He would call me on the phone and we would talk about albums,” Solomon remembered. “He had all this insight into the music from his years of studying it and because he knew Miles, and he knew Wayne Shorter. I was just this random kid who played tenor sax. But he saw something in me that he liked.

Solomon continued: “His sound really had an impact on people. You could feel it when he started playing. You could feel the audience being drawn in, because his sound was so strong and expressive, especially on ballads. I’m going to miss hearing that sound next to me.” DB

Updated April 3.



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