Robert Sage Wilber, born in 1928, who never played an ugly or graceless note in his life, has left us. I first heard him on recordings more than fifty years ago, and saw him in person first in 1970 with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band. He was a magnificently consistent player — his time, his intonation, his creativity, his vital force, his melodic lyricism — and one of the world’s most versatile. He didn’t care to be “innovative” in the best modern way, but kept refining his art, the art of Louis and Bechet and Teddy Wilson, every time he played.
People who didn’t quite understand his masteries (the plural is intentional) thought of him as derivative, whatever that means, but even when he was playing SONG OF SONGS in the Bechet manner or WARM VALLEY for the Rabbit, he was recognizably himself: passionate and exact at the same time, a model of how to do it. And if you appreciate the jazz lineage, a man who performed with Baby Dodds, Tommy Benford, Kaiser Marshall, Joe Thomas, Sidney Catlett, Billy Strayhorn, Eddie Condon, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Ralph Sutton, Cliff Leeman . . . so deeply connected to the past while remaining fiercely active, has moved to another neighborhood. I send my condolences to his wife, the singer Pug Horton, and his family.
I was extremely fortunate to cross paths with Bob — not only as an admiring spectator of Soprano Summit, where he and Kenny Davern were equally matched — but as an admiring jazz journalist and videographer. He was not worried about what I captured: he was confident in himself and he trusted that the music would carry him. Here are some glimpses of the Sage in action, in music and in speech.
Rare photographs and music from 1947 here.
A session with David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band (2010) and Daryl Sherman here.
More than a decade ago, when I began this blog, I worked hard to keep away from the temptations of necrology — my joke is that I didn’t want it to be JAZZ DIES — but if I didn’t write and post something about Robert Sage Wilber, I’d never forgive myself. We will keep on admiring and missing him as long as there is music.
May your happiness increase!