Ask any musician, “Tell me about Joe Wilder,” and watch the warm smile that immediately emerges. He’s a rare being — generous in person and in his music, warm and caring, whether the horn is up to his lips or he’s chatting over lunch, in a cab, or at an airport. There’s no division between the public man and the private one: both are genuinely loving, open individuals.
I met him in person perhaps thirty years ago at an outdoor concert in Glen Cove, New York. Joe travels in the best company, so he was playing in a little band with Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Phil Bodner, and perhaps Bobby Rosengarden. And I’ve gotten to know him better by seeing him at Jazz at Chautauqua for the past six years. Joe never forgets a friend or a kindness, so although he knows thousands of people, he remembered me kindly.
I had heard Joe on records for a long time — the golden arching phrases of his Columbia records of the Fifties, the warm balletic phrases of his Savoy session, his more recent work for the Evening Star and Arbors labels.
But this was the first year I really accomplished what I’d hoped to do — catch Joe in performance with groups of his friends. And here are two examples of Mr. Wilder’s subtle magic — in company with Keith Ingham, piano; Frank Tate, bass; John Von Ohlen, drums — as he approaches two familiar jazz standards, making them brand-new by his delight in playing. Keith had his back to me, but he was grinning — and you can see the delight on the faces of Frank and John as well.
Joe’s style is a wonderful mixture of the singing embrace of a melody — great ringing “lead” playing that would point the way for a big band or a symphonic trumpet section — mixed with a dancing harmonic and rhythmic subtlety worthy of the great modernists that would be impossible to notate. Joe loves to play with what he’s given, and he is a born experimenter.
He took great delight in something that I’d written in CODA: that I could hear him in solos getting into what other musicians would think of as traps or dead-ends, and then getting himself out without creasing his clothes. His solos sound like the conversation of someone bursting with ideas whose straight-ahead expositions are always full of thoughtful, witty parentheses.
And you can hear his whimsical embellishment at work on these songs, as if he was constantly amusing himself by testing his artistic ingenuity: “Can I get this rapid-fire reference to THE CONTINENTAL in this phrase and get out again without messing up in relation to the rapidly moving chords under me? Wow, I can and I could! What’s next?” He’s always thinking while he’s playing, and his solos aren’t formulaic arrangements of familiar modules laid end to end.
Here he is, dancing around HAVE YOU MET MISS JONES:
And being the perfect gentleman escorting that SATIN DOLL:
By the way: did I mention that Joe Wilder was born February 22, 1922?
Don’t let the numbers fool you: he has the youngest and biggest heart I know — and he never closes it off to the music or to us.