Wilson, Theodore Shaw [Teddy] (1912–1986)

By: Vivian Elizabeth Smyrl

Type: Biography

Published: January 1, 1996

Updated: August 3, 2020

Teddy Wilson, jazz pianist, was born Theodore Shaw Wilson, in Austin, Texas, on November 24, 1912. He was the second son of James and Pearl Wilson. In 1918 the family moved to Tuskegee, Alabama, where Wilson's mother worked as a librarian and his father taught English at Tuskegee Institute. Wilson studied piano and violin at the institute; he also played the E-flat clarinet and oboe in the school band.

Wilson attended Talladega College for a year, but moved to Detroit in 1929 to earn his living as a musician. He played in a band with Speed Webb in the Detroit area from 1929 to 1931. In 1931 he moved to Chicago, where he had the good fortune to play alongside Erskine Tate, Louis Armstrong, and Jimmy Noone. He joined the Benny Carter band in 1933 and made several recordings. Wilson's big break came in 1936, when he began touring with Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. This trio was one of the first interracial groups to perform in the United States. Though crowds cheered Wilson on the bandstand, he still had to stay at the "colored" hotels. Between 1935 and 1939 he also performed with soloists from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands, as well as with vocalist Billie Holiday. During this time he recorded on the Brunswick label.

He formed his own band and worked with CBS studios in the 1940s and 1950s, and he taught piano at the Juilliard School of Music from 1945 to 1952. He also appeared in The Seven Lively Arts and in the movie The Benny Goodman Story (1956). Wilson brought to jazz an elegance and sophistication that it had not previously enjoyed. He drew elements from Fats Waller, Earl Hines, and Art Tatum, blending and refining them into his own unique sound. His subtle and disciplined style provided an effective contrast when he accompanied artists like Billie Holiday, who usually sang just outside the beat. Characteristics of Wilson's music included short, single-note phrases, tenth chords in the left hand, and a wonderfully provocative use of dissonance. His talent at improvisation enabled him to produce intricate counterpoint lines that complemented whatever soloist he was performing with.

Wilson rejoined Benny Goodman's group for tours of Scandinavia in 1952, England in 1953, Australia in 1960, and Europe in 1965; several trips to Japan in the 1970s; and a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1982. He died on July 31, 1986, in New Britain, Connecticut, after a lengthy illness. He was buried in Fairview Cemetery in New Britain. In 1993 Wilson was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

Austin American-Statesman, August 1, 1986. Charles Eugene Claghorn, Biographical Dictionary of Jazz (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice–Hall, 1982). Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (London: Macmillan, 1988). New Yorker, July 19, 1982. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.


  • Music
  • Genres (Jazz)
  • Peoples
  • African Americans

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Vivian Elizabeth Smyrl, “Wilson, Theodore Shaw [Teddy],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 27, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wilson-theodore-shaw-teddy.

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January 1, 1996
August 3, 2020

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