Days gone by: December 1946, Wilber, Dick Wellstood, Johnny Glasel, Charlie Trager, Eddie Phyfe. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.

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.

Two parts of an intimate session at Smalls in 2012 with Ehud Asherie and Pug Horton as well here and here.

And a particular prize: a two-part 2015 interview session (thanks to Pug!) here and 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!  

8 responses to “MR. WILBER, THE SAGE

  1. Joe Boughton (Jump Records, Jazz at Chatauqua, Allegheny and more) simply said to me, “Bob Wilber is a genius.” Tom Hustad, author “Born to Play”

  2. Girish Trivedi

    Super musicians the whole lot and greatly much appreciated text.



  3. Sam McKinstry

    I first heard Bob Wilber in person with the WGJB at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, then several times at the Nairn Jazz Festival, again in Scotland. Although I was conscious he was getting very old, I was much saddened to hear today that he has gone.The man was brilliant, his brains looking out of him and permeating his music through immense instrumental technique and phenomenal melodic improvisations that also depended on his huge heart and outstanding creativity. His sense of rhythm was infallible, metronomic and his jazz was just so hip and swinging. We are lucky he chose music, as I imagine he could have reached the top in any field he fancied, so able was he.

    Soprano Summit was just amazing, with Davern’s inventive, swooping lines complementing if never surpassing Wilber’s contributions, which I preferred for their musical logic. And then there was the composition and the film arrangements, with no other practising contemporary traditional jazzman I can think of having so much musical range and scope.

    As a fumbler with th clarinets and saxophones myself, he was a Titan to me who could make his talk and lift the heart while lesser mortals ‘feebly struggled, while they in glory shone’, to adapt slightly an old hymn. My hope is that he is literally shining on his horn now!

    Profound thanks, Bob. You are unforgettable and enriched my life!

  4. Sonny McGown

    Dear Michael,

    While it may seem to you like a necrology, your tributes are much more informative and accurate than most obituaries. Your links serve to demonstrate and amplify Bob Wilber the man and his genius. I know that you put a great deal of thought in your posts and take pride in their veracity. Thank you for your diligence.

    I was extremely fortunate to see to see Bob Wilber on many occasions with multiple bands including his Sextet with vibraphonist Lars Erstrand (at Charlie Byrd’s Jazz Club), the Worlds Greatest Jazz Band, The Bechet Legacy, several Repertory Recitals at the Smithsonian Institution and foremost Soprano Summit and the later Summit Reunion. At this point I must say that Soprano Summit with Marty Grosz and their various top flight bassists and drummers qualifies as one of the greatest Jazz combos of all time. Clearly they were unique and truly innovative. Clarinet duets in Jazz go all the way back to the 1920s yet Davern and Wilber gave that format new significance with varying reed instrument combinations and original arrangements. Sadly, they are both gone now, however there can be no doubt that their numerous recordings will live on as an integral part of Classic Jazz History. That said, like Kenny Davern, Bob Wilber holds a similar stature simply based on the merits of an entire musical career. Rip Robert Sage Wilber.

  5. A creative artist beyond category.

  6. Roger Strong

    Sad to hear about the passing of Bob Wilber. I never did get to hear him in person but have always enjoyed his music from ‘The Wildcats’ onwards. I believe that Soprano Summit and Summit Reunion will live on as the music gets to be appreciated more and more. I enjoyed Bob’s book ‘Music Was Not Enough’. He was a most consistant jazz musician and always gave his utmost to whatever he did.

  7. Oh yes, we were very young! Bob’s band was known informally as the Scarsdale (kids)Gang. . A friend of mine (we were both at Dalton). dated Wellstood & I dated Johnny Windhurst.Ordinarily, the drummer was Denny Strong, Trager was the organizer,, Glasel studied w/ Hindenmuth @ Yale.and went on to become Pres. of Local 802. Bob was in an Army Band and like several others made it in the music business.
    Sorry to hear of his death.


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