Pianist Richard Twardzik remains one of the most tragic cautionary tales in the annals of jazz-- a gifted and original bop pianist on the precipice of international renown, he died of a heroin overdose at the age of just 24. Born April 30, 1931, in Danvers, MA, Twardzik was a classically trained child prodigy who studied under Madame Chaloff, the mother of the famed baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff; he began his professional career at 14 playing the Boston nightclub circuit, and later attended the New England Conservatory. While still in his teens, he also acquired the heroin addiction that would ultimately end his life.
Twardzik made his recorded debut on the December 1951 sessions that yielded alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano's Boston All Stars; the following spring, he appeared on an unreleased Serge Chaloff date, and in late 1952 backed saxophone giant Charlie Parker during an extended tour of the eastern Massachusetts region, performances later documented on such releases as The Happy Bird and Boston 1952.Twardzik's understanding of classical harmony and orchestral sensibilities infused his playing with an uncommon complexity and imagination, and as his reputation as a performer and composer grew -- buoyed in large part by a tour in support of vibist Lionel Hampton as well as his work on Chaloff's 1954 date The Fable of Mabel, highlighted by its Twardzik-composed title cut -- he signed to the Pacific Jazz label to record his own session as a headliner. Produced by Chet Baker Quartet pianist Russ Freeman and featuring bassist Carson Smith and drummer Peter Littman, the remarkable Trio was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack, NJ, studio on October 27, 1954, remaining unissued for over a year.
When Baker proposed an extended European tour to commence in the summer of 1955, his sidemen balked -- one by one they quit, but on his way out Freeman recommended Twardzik as his replacement. Baker agreed, adding him to a revamped lineup that also included drummer Littman and bassist Jimmy Bond. The drummer also suffered from heroin addiction, however, and Twardzik's habit only intensified as a result. He overdosed regularly, at least once on-stage, but nevertheless pulled himself together for an exemplary October 11 date at Paris' Studio Pathé-Magellan, later released by Barclay Records as Chet in Paris. Three days later, the quartet returned to cut the World Pacific release Chet Baker in Europe, which proved Twardzik's final studio session. A Stuttgart appearance alongside Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin followed, and on October 20 Twardzik made his final live appearance at Paris' Club Tabu.When the pianist failed to show up for rehearsal the next day, Baker sent Littman to check their hotel -- the drummer found Twardzik dead in his room, the needle still in his arm. Although Baker was not yet a full-blown junkie at the time of Twardzik's death, there is much speculation that he was with the pianist at the time of his overdose and fled the hotel room in fear -- given the mysteries still swirling about Baker's own death in 1988, it's unlikely the official chronology of Twardzik's final hours will ever be known. Pacific Jazz finally released Trio as half of a joint release with Freeman in late 1955; a handful of additional recordings have trickled into the market in the decades since. ~ Jason Ankeny