Cult Classic: Walter Bishop Jr-Coral Keys.

In 1971, Gene Russell and Dick Schory founded Black Jazz Records and later that year, the nascent label released their first release. This was Doug Carn’s debut album Infant Eyes. It was the first of twenty albums that the label released between 1971 and 1975.

Later in 1971, Black Jazz Records released their second release Coral Keys, the fifth album by forty-four year old pianist Walter Bishop Jr. By then, he had been a professional musician since he left school in New York. That was no surprise as he was born into a musical family.

Walter Bishop Jr was born in New York on October the ‘4th’ 1927 and grew up in Harlem. His father was the composer Walter Bishop Sr and he had passed on his musical genes to his son. 

Growing up, Walter Bishop Jr learnt to play piano and spent time with some of his musical friends who lived nearby. This included three future jazz musicians Art Taylor, Kenny Drew and Sonny Rollins. By the time he left high school, Walter Bishop Jr had already decided that wanted to embark upon a career as a professional musician.

Initially, he played in local dance bands and this was akin to his musical apprenticeship. However, things changed once Walter Bishop Jr was called up in 1945 to do his military service.

He served in the Army Air Corp and was based not far from St Louis. That was where he first heard bebop when visiting jazz musicians played on the base. This made a big impression on Walter Bishop Jr and would transform his career.

After his military service was over, Walter Bishop Jr was able to resume his professional career. By the late-forties he had returned to Manhattan and had developed his bebop style by playing in jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse. This was good experience, as he was about to encounter one of the giants of jazz, Art Blakey.

He asked twenty-two year old Walter Bishop Jr to join his band. However, he only spent fourteen weeks in the drummer’s employ. The pair were reunited a few years later and recorded together. A lot would happen before that happened.

In 1949, Walter Bishop Jr recorded with Milt Jackson and Stan Getz. Then as a new decade dawned he found himself working old friends and some of the biggest names in jazz.

This included Charlie Parker. Walter Bishop Jr joined his band and worked with him until 1954. He also found time to work with Oscar Pettiford, Kai Winding, the Kenny Dorham Quintet and Miles Davis between 1951 and 1953. The following year he was reunited with a previous employer.

Walter Bishop Jr rejoined Art Blakey’s band for a session and recorded eight tracks with him. They were released later that year on the Blakey album. By then, times were tough for one of jazz’s rising stars.

At the time, Walter Bishop Jr had become addicted to drugs. Sadly, this was not uncommon amongst jazz musicians as drugs were readily available in clubs and many became addicted to heroin. 

Things got worse for Walter Bishop Jr when he was arrested and imprisoned. This also led to the withdrawal of his New York Cabaret Card. For a jazz musician this was a disaster as he was no longer able to play live in the city’s clubs. 

In early May 1956, Walter Bishop Jr was asked to play on a Hank Mobley session. It became Mobley’s 2nd Message, which was released on Prestige on July the ‘27th’ 1956. 

During the second half of the fifties, Walter Bishop Jr converted to the Muslim faith and adopted the name Ibrahim ibn Ismail. This he didn’t publicise and he continued to perform and record as Walter Bishop Jr.

This included when he played on the sessions for Jackie McLean’s album Swing, Swang, Swingin’. It was recorded at Van Gelder Studio on October the ‘20th’ 1959, and released by Blue Note Records in March 1960. 

As the sixties dawned, Walter Bishop Jr continued to work as a sideman and he played on a number of sessions during 1960. This included Charlie Rouse’s album Takin’ Care of Business which was released later that year and Dizzy Reece’s Soundin’ Off which was released by Blue Note Records in October 1960. 

Walter Bishop Jr also played on Ken McIntyre’s Looking Ahead, Jackie McLean’s Capuchin Swing and Curtis Fuller’s Boss of the Soul-Stream Trombone which were all released in 1961.

During the first two months of 1961, Walter Bishop Jr had played on the sessions for Shorty Baker and Doc Cheatham album Shorty and Doc and The Magnificent Trombone of Curtis Fuller. Then on March the ‘13th’ 1961 he played on the Rocky Boyd Quintet’s Ease It. The following day, Walter Bishop Jr returned to Bell Sound Studio to record his first album as bandleader.

Speak Low.

He had made his professional debut as a teenager in the mid-forties and music had been his life since then. The thirty-three year old pianist made his way to Bell Sound Studio, New York, on March the ‘14th’ 1961 to record an album of standards with the Walter Bishop Jr Trio. He was joined by drummer GT Hogan and bassist Jimmy Garrison and they recorded six standards that became the post bop album Speak Low.

When it was released later in 1961 Speak Low was well received by critics. Many forecast a big future for bandleader Walter Bishop Jr.

Having released his debut album as bandleader, he returned to playing live and session work. Between October the ‘17th’ and ‘18th’ Walter Bishop Jr played on Gene Ammons’ Boss Soul! and Up Tight! Just a month later, on November the ‘13th’ he played on Kenny Dorham’s Inta Somethin’and this brought to an end one of the most important years of a career that had already spanned three decades.

In 1962, Stateside released A Pair of “Naturals”  which included contributions the Peter Yorke Orchestra and Walter Bishop Jr Trio. The bandleader must have hoped that the album would introduce his music to a wider audience. 

Despite having embarked upon a solo career, he continued to work as a sideman. Just like many jazz musicians session work augmented the income he made playing live and from record sales. In 1962, Walter Bishop Jr played on the sessions for the John Handy album Jazz. It was released later that year. However, after that, session work seemed to dry up for Walter Bishop Jr.


Two years after the release of his debut album as bandleader the new Walter Bishop Jr Group entered the studio. It featured drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassist Butch Warren who joined forces with bandleader and pianist Walter Bishop Jr. They recorded twelve track that were a mixture of standards and familiar tracks. These tracks became Summertime.

Later in 1963, Summertime was released by Cotillion Records, an imprint of Atlantic. It found the new Group flitting between bop and Bossa Nova on album that was well received by critics and hailed as a success. However, it wasn’t a commercial success and it was another five years before Walter Bishop Jr returned with a new album.

Over the next couple of years, Walter Bishop Jr concentrated on playing live. Session work had dried up and the only album he played on in 1965 was Sonny Stitt’s Broadway Soul which was released later that year.

Two years later, Walter Bishop Jr was asked to play on the sessions for Harold Vick’s album Commitment. However, it wasn’t released until 1974. By then, things had changed for Walter Bishop Jr.

During the late-sixties, he decided to return to college. When he left high school in the mid-forties he had embarked upon a career as a professional musician. With jazz no longer as popular as it once was, he enrolled at The Juilliard School and studied with Hall Overton. Later, Walter Bishop Jr would teach music theory in colleges in Los Angeles. Before that he would return to the studio.  


In 1970, the Walter Bishop Jr Trio returned with their sophomore album, 1965. The lineup featured drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassist Butch Warren and  they recorded sixteen tracks with producer Addison Amor. 

When 1965 was released, this latest album of bop was hailed as the finest album that the bandleader’s recording career. Walter Bishop Jr was back and would return with a new album in 1971.

Coral Keys.

Walter Bishop Jr signed to Gene Russell and Dick Schory’s nascent Black Jazz Records in 1971. They had founded the label to promote the talents of young African-American jazz musicians and singers. Their first signing was Doug Carn who had just released his debut album Infant Eyes. The second album the label released in 1971 was Walter Bishop Jr’s Coral Keys.

Coral Keys featured seven of Walter Bishop Jr’s compositions. Some of these he recorded with a quartet, and others with a quintet.

The quartet played on Coral Keys, Waltz for Zweetie, Track Down and Soul Turn Around. The lineup was drummer Idris Muhammad, bassist Reggie Johnson, Walter Bishop Jr on piano and Harold Vick who switches between flute, soprano and tenor saxophone. For the rest of the album the lineup changed.

For the recording of Our November, Three Loves and Freedom Suite Alan Shwaetz Benger replaced Idris Muhammad and trumpeter Woody Shaw was added to the band. This was the lineup that competed the recording of Coral Keys.

When Coral Keys was released later in 1971, the album wasn’t the commercial success that Walter Bishop Jr or the owners of Black Jazz Records had hoped. It was a disappointment for everyone involved with the album.

Record buyers had missed out on a groove-centric album that found Walter Bishop Jr’s band flitting between modal jazz, hard bop and post bop. Just like all good bandleaders, he’s not afraid to let the rest of the band shine. They grasp the opportunity throughout the album and showcase their considerable skills. 

This includes reedman Harold Vick on Coral Keys. Around Walter Bishop Jr’s piano he unleashes an exquisitely melodic soprano saxophone solo. This brings back memories of John Coltrane’s classic My Favourite Things. 

Elsewhere the band shine and this includes the rhythm section of drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist Reggie Johnson on the first four tracks. Then the addition of trumpeter Artie Shaw on the final three tracks adds a new dimension to the first album to be credited to Walter Bishop Jr.

On Coral Key’s he’s been influenced by his hero Bud Powell as well as Horace Silver’s classic Blue Note Records’ era as well as Les McCann, Ramsey Lewis and sometime Bobby Timmons, Gene Harris and Red Garland. All these influences shine through on Walter Bishop Jr’s Black Jazz Records’ debut Coral Keys.

Sadly, Coral Keys wasn’t a commercial success when it was released. It was the album that got away for Walter Bishop Jr and so did his 1973 album Keeper Of My Soul. The only Black Jazz Records’ releases that enjoyed a degree of success were Doug Carn’s quartet of albums. 

It was only much later when critics, cultural commentators and DJs rediscovered and revisited the Black Jazz Records’ back-catalogue that they realised just how important an album Coral Keys was. It was a groundbreaking album where Walter Bishop Jr and his quartet and quintet flit between and fuse musical genres on what’s without doubt one of the finest of his career. s

Walter Bishop Jr’s Coral Keys is a a reminder of one of one of the greatest American independent jazz labels of the seventies who always strived to released innovative albums that were ahead of the musical curve. 

Walter Bishop Jr-Coral Keys.

1 Comment

  1. Today, many people don’t know about Walter Bishop Jr. The life he had, from the army to music was amazing. Thank you very much for this information. Many people will get to know more about him. Keep sharing such useful information with us in the future also.

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