The lengthy career of this classic jazz saxophonist and clarinetist began in the American Midwest, and swing biographer John Chilton last sighted Albert Washington holding forth with a band in Guadalajara, Mexico, circa the late '70s. Washington's father was a guitarist who worked in Omaha prior to moving his family to Chicago. Young Albert, often reduced to an Al in credits, began playing piano in 1912 and switched to reeds several years later. His first teachers included O.K. Schnal and Natty Dominique, the latter credited with hipping him to the fine points of improvisation. Further influence came from one of the many musical families associated with the New Orleans jazz scene: Washington played both soprano sax and clarinet in Al Simeon's Hot Six while studying with Omer Simeon.
During the '20s he worked with such Chicago bands as Al Wynn's Paradise Night Owls, Detroit Shannon's band, and Louis Armstrong & His Stompers. One of his attributes was an obvious ease moving around the woodwind family, playing alto and tenor with Armstrong and then combining the tenor with the oboe upon joining Erskine Tate's reed section. Chicago continued to serve as his base in the early '30s. Following two years of touring with Armstrong, Washington moved to New York City and played with both Fletcher Henderson and Charlie Turner's Arcadians. The great pianist and singer Fats Waller assumed leadership of the latter combo by the mid-'30s and Washington stayed put. His compatibility with both Armstrong and Waller served the reedman well when he took part in the memorable Satch Plays Fats recordings in the '50s.
By then Washington had returned to Chicago and picked up a degree in music following studies in both piano and theory at Roosevelt University. He eased into a new career as a music teacher while keeping bandstand options open with leaders such as Floyd Campbell and Eddie King. Washington continued combining teaching in the Chicago public schools with gigging well into the '60s and '70s, his Windy City performing collaborators including Ben Branch, Russell Crider, Ged Hunter, and Big John Woodsit. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi