Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

HONORING JOE WILDER, THREE WAYS

JOE WILDER

When I learned that the magnificent musician and lovely man Joe Wilder had left us, I wrote this:

I’ve learned this morning (May 9, 2014) from his friend and co-author Ed Berger that trumpeter and jazz pioneer Joe Wilder has died.  He leaves a huge hole in the world.

There was a flurry of false information back in February, and I spread what was erroneous bad news, but now it is sadly true.

Joe was not only a shining example to other musicians; he shone for us all. He was a gentleman in the way the word is no longer used: someone whose concern for his fellow human beings was strong.  He expected men and women to treat each other kindly — he did this as a matter of course — and he was shocked when it didn’t happen.

He was the very model of grace — and I mean a quality that goes beyond simple politeness.

We met first at an outdoor concert in 1981 where I took some photographs of the band.  Later, through a fan of Joe’s, I obtained his address (this was perhaps ten years later) and we entered into correspondence about the photos and some tapes of him he had not heard.

Those letters were precious documents — evidence of how that gentle man faced even the most mundane things.  Later, when I had the privilege of meeting him in person, his kindness and good humor was immense: the Beloved and I cherish a chance meeting with him on the street outside Birdland, where our collective delight was memorable. We weren’t simply thrilled to meet Joe Wilder — let me make this clear — he made us feel as if we were his dearest friends, and the memory of that chance encounter warms me now.

I will let others tell Joe’s stories — a particular friend, Ed Berger, has done and will continue to do that, superbly here. And happily Joe lived long enough to celebrate his ninety-second birthday among friends and to see that book published.

Instead, I will present some of his music that I was fortunate enough to capture.  Joe lives on in our memory, not only for his brilliant warm sound, his elegant capers on trumpet and fluegelhorn, but as a model of how to live: with kindness, compassion, awareness, and amusement.  These videos are from 2010, late in his playing career.

and here is an early masterpiece:

Thank you, Mr. Wilder, for being.  You came to us on February 22, 1922, and gave generously of your self every day.  I write these words with sorrow and send love to your family.  But I think of you with joy.

And Joe was far too modest a man to present himself as a model of how others should behave, but I think if we had him in our thoughts as an embodiment of loving action, he wouldn’t mind.

JOE WILDER cover

Some time after this sad posting, I had the good fortune to read Ed Berger’s book about Joe, JOE WILDER AND THE BREAKING OF BARRIERS IN AMERICAN MUSIC: SOFTYLY, WITH FEELING (Temple, 2014) which I commend to you with enthusiasm:

Trumpeter Joe Wilder was admired and loved as musician and man. The new biography by Edward Berger, aptly titled, embodies Wilder’s deep gentle spirit, unlike many new biographies that document and magnify their subject’s flaws. Berger and Wilder met in 1981 and they worked on this book for nearly a decade. Wilder’s gentle presence is evident on every page, and the book is not a showcase for his ego (unlike some other biographies); rather, this book is a loving embodiment of teamwork between two mature individuals with a great respect for accuracy. Not all the stories are gentle — the book has a number of studies of focused unkindness and unfairness — but the book itself is not a settling of old scores.

The biography has three intertwining stories. One is Wilder’s growth as a musician, from his childhood in Pennsylvania to being one of the most respected trumpet players in the world, with associations with everyone from Lionel Hampton to Gunther Schuller, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Alec Wilder, Rudy Van Gelder, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Alec Wilder, Benny Carter, Ernie Kovacs and a hundred more. In his recollections of six decades as a professional musician, we observe jazz changing from a popular dance music played everywhere to a rarefied phenomenon in clubs, parties, and festivals. However, it is more than a listing of gigs and concerts, more than a series of anecdotal protraits. Joe was a rare individual, and the book properly lingers on his early life and development as a person, joyous, playful, but ultimately serious about his own place in the world and about the professionalism of his art..

The second strand is Wilder’s unheralded part in the long struggle to have racial equality in the United States. His stories (and Berger’s careful research) of discrimination and legalized abuse – personal and institutional – are painful. When we reach 1980 in the book and it is evident that the struggle is coming to a close, it is a relief.  In my encounters with Joe — he would not have wanted to be called “Mr. Wilder” more than once — he was down-to-earth, friendly, enthusiastic, welcoming, someone who did not draw lines between Musician and Listener, someone who made friends. But he had a deep and serious need to be treated fairly. Being taken advantage of — on the stand or off — infuriated him, and he told stories of being treated badly by musicians and non-musicians with a mixture of polite rage and astonishment.  A fair man, Joe simply could not understand why others would be anything but.

And the third is a sweet chronicle of Wilder himself, a delightful man: genuine, humble, witty, compassionate, “Mr. Social,” as one of his daughters calls him. He emerges as a remarkable man, who would have been so if he had never played a note: sensitive to injustice and ready to act against it, but a gracious, kind person.

Berger’s writing is worthy of his subject. The biography might make one feel as if Wilder is close at hand, fully realized. Berger’s research is superb but never obtrusive; his prose is understated yet effective. The book offers rare photographs (Wilder was also a fine photographer, seen in later decades with at least two cameras when not playing), and a discography full of surprises. Joe Wilder has been wonderfully captured in these pages, this loving, accurate portrait. All through these pages, I wanted to telephone Joe and congratulate him, even to say, “Have you read this wonderful book about you?  It is just like you; it sounds just like you!”  Reading it was a bittersweet affair: Joe is there for the ages, for people who never got to hear him in person or to share a word with him, but the book was so evocative that it made — and makes — me miss him all the more.

The third part of this tribute is yet to come.  Joe’s family, friends, among them Ed Berger and Warren Vache, have planned a memorial service for Joe — to be held on September 8, 2014, at St. Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan, begining at 6:30 PM.

I hope to be there, without video camera, and I expect there will be a line of people waiting to get in. When I asked Ed who would be playing there, he sent this very sweet pointed answer — very much in the spirit of the man who is being honored:

We all agreed not to announce the musicians in advance.  We want people to come because they want to remember Joe Wilder, not because their favorite musicians are appearing for free.  But, as you can imagine, those participating will be quite a stellar assemblage!

The one person we yearn to see there won’t be there, but we will certainly feel his presence in the stories and music that his friends and family share with us.

May your happiness increase!

SWINGTIME AT THE LIBRARY with LAURA WINDLEY and the MINT JULEP JAZZ BAND

I haven’t had a librarian say “Shhhhhh!” to me since junior high school, so I know that stereotype might be long gone. But it’s lovely to see a library expand into sweet, swinging music, as it does here.

The wonderful musicians are the warm, easy singer Laura Windley and the Mint Julep Jazz Band: Lucian Cobb, trombone; Paul Rogers, trumpet; Aaron Hill, alto sax and clarinet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor sax and clarinet; Ben Lassiter, guitar; Aaron Tucker, drums; Jason Foureman, string bass. They perform the magical time-travel of bringing a 1938 Cotton Club show with an Ellington small group to the library in Greensboro, North Carolina (videos shot by Our State magazine). I’m very happy to see and hear this, and I am sure you will like it / them, too.

SWINGTIME IN HONOLULU:

ROCK IT FOR ME:

and a rollicking instrumental invention (I think of the John Kirby Sextet in its 1943-44 guise plus gallons of coffee) called MIAMI BOULEVARD:

And here is the band’s website. If they come to the library, what could prevent them from coming to you?  Or the reverse.

May your happiness increase!

MELLOW and DIVINE: LEON OAKLEY and CRAIG VENTRESCO at CAFE DIVINE (June 15, 2014)

The final three duet improvisations by the masterful Leon Oakley, cornet, and Craig Ventresco, guitar, at Cafe Divine (1600 Stockton Street, San Francisco), recorded on Sunday, June 15, 2014:

SATURDAY NIGHT FUNCTION:

AFTER YOU’VE GONE:

MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND (with a particularly lovely rubato verse):

Leon and Craig will be back in their chosen spot on Sunday, July 20 — making their way, tender and brave, through the worlds of music.  Divine for sure. And the pizza was delicious.

May your happiness increase!

(CAFE) DIVINE INSPIRATION: LEON OAKLEY and CRAIG VENTRESCO, IN LIVING COLOR (Part Two: June 15, 2014)

Good things happen at Cafe Divine (1600 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California) — the food and the North Beach ambiance — but for me the best things happen on the third Sunday of each month, when the Esteemed Leon Oakley, cornet,and Craig Ventresco, guitar and banjo, improvise lyrically on pop tunes and authentic blues for two hours.  I posted four performances from their satisfying June 15, 2014, session here. I was taught as a child to share . . . so here are five more beauties, in living color both in the view and the soaring improvisations.

STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE (with Craig on banjo, delightfully):

BLUES IN F (nothing more, nothing less — evoking Joseph Oliver):

MARGIE (that 1920 lovers’ classic):

And two songs that make requests — one spiritual, connected to Bunk Johnson and Sidney Bechet, LORD, LET ME IN THE LIFEBOAT:

and one secular — I think of Pee Wee Russell with TAKE ME TO THE LAND OF JAZZ:

Which they do.  More Divine Music to come.

 May your happiness increase!

(CAFE) DIVINE INSPIRATION: LEON OAKLEY and CRAIG VENTRESCO, IN LIVING COLOR (Part One: June 15, 2014)

Have you been? I refer to the hot chamber music sessions created by Maestro Leon Oakley and Professor Craig Ventresco — improvising on classic themes — held at Cafe Divine, 1600 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California, on the third Sunday of each month.

Here are the first four of a dozen treats — in living color visually as well as musically:

SOMEDAY SWEETHEART:

A SHINE ON YOUR SHOES:

I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU:

MOONGLOW:

May your happiness increase!

FRIDAY NIGHT SWING SESSION AT CAFE BORRONE: CLINT BAKER, LEON OAKLEY, ROBERT YOUNG, BILL REINHART, SAM ROCHA, TOM WILSON, RILEY BAKER (June 13, 2013)

We didn’t dream it.  It happened last Friday night at Cafe Borrone (1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, California) — exalted swing time-travels thanks to Leon Oakley, cornet; Robert Young, alto and soprano saxophone; Clint Baker, guitar; Tom Wilson, string bass; Bill Reinhart, banjo; Riley Baker, drums — a 1937 Fifty-Second Street group transplanted south and west.  The evidence, please.

A good tune to jam on, and one Charlie Christian knew well, ROSE ROOM:

SEPTEMBER IN THE RAIN was the first song played at Eddie Condon’s Third Street club, and the one Ed Polcer chose to close the midtown incarnation, forty years later:

Delighting in the sound of that floating rhythm, a nod to Count Basie and SWINGIN’ THE BLUES:

And a sweet homage to Mister Strong, the wellspring, with THAT’S MY HOME:

After a brief break for nourishment and friendly conversation, the band reassembled itself — with Clint shifting over to trombone and Sam Rocha joining on guitar.

Louis was still on everyone’s mind with BYE AND BYE:

Robert Young sang his own regional lyrics to AVALON:

Blues from that exalted meeting of Django and the Ellingtonians, SOLID OLD MAN:

More Louis (and why not?) with BIG BUTTER AND EGG MAN:

Memories of Wild Bill Davison, who loved to play BLUE AGAIN:

Care for some Hot Five?  Not only ONCE IN A WHILE:

ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, with an unexpected reference to someone who is rich in music:

Magic. (To say nothing of the sweet-natured staff at Cafe Borrone, the good food and drinks — a wonderful experience and place.)

May your happiness increase!

LARGER THAN ANY TEXTBOOK

I opened a jazz-history textbook the other day, and was struck once again by the packaging of the music as a chronologically-unfolding procession. Each “style” is afforded a chapter. World musics lead to ragtime, to Bolden, to Louis, Henderson, Ellington, Lester, Bird, Miles, Coltrane, Ornette, and “the future of jazz.”

Implicit in this survey, since “progress is our most important product” in this contemporary landscape, is the idea that the music began in simplicity (acceptable because they didn’t know any better) and added on new densities of harmony, rhythm (all to be applauded).

I find the idea that New is an improvement on Old distasteful, but I will leave that for now.  (By the same token, I do not automatically think Old = True, and New = Corrupt.)

What fascinated me so much in this textbook was the presentation of The Great Innovators.  The “Stars,” if you will. I am proud of what others might call unrestrained admiration for Louis Armstrong — a love perhaps bordering on idolatry. I feel the same way about Jack Teagarden, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and a hundred others. But this book made clear that when the New Innovator came to town, everyone tried to play or sing like him / her, so immense was their powerful artistic identity.

The Innovators, to be sure, affected musicians with seismic force. Rex Stewart wrote of hearing Louis with Henderson that he, Rex, tried to not only play like Louis but affect all things Louis-like.

But we see in Rex’s case, that imitation very quickly becomes a subtler thing, and that Rex absorbed from Louis certain shadings and approaches that fit into his own conception of what he was meant to do and be.

There is, of course, the other example: the Innovator comes to town, the critics go wild, the fans bow down — but some musicians say, “That is not for me at all,” and keep developing their own sounds in a sweetly defiant individuality. Pee Wee Russell is very much aware of Benny Goodman; Miff Mole knows about Jack Teagarden; Pete Brown lives in the same city as Charlie Parker . . . but Russell, Mole, and Brown go their own ways.

All this is meant only to suggest that the creative improvised music we love is too large, too organic, too fluid to be compressed into a forward-moving history textbook.

May your happiness increase!