Tag Archives: Joe Wilder

ECUMENICAL PLEASURES: TERRY WALDO’S GOTHAM CITY BAND at FAT CAT (August 14, 2016) PART ONE: TERRY WALDO, CHUCK WILSON, JIM FRYER, JAY LEONHART, JAY LEPLEY

In my adolescence, I read every jazz book on the shelves of the very well-stocked suburban public library.  I didn’t understand everything I read (when one reads Andre Hodeir’s harsh analysis of, say, Dickie Wells’ later style without having the musical examples at hand, it is an oddly unbalanced experience) but I absorbed as much as I could, from Rudi Blesh to Barry Ulanov and beyond.

I remember clearly that some of the history-of-jazz books (each with its own ideological slant) used diagrams, in approved textbook fashion, for readers who needed an easy visual guide.  Often, the diagram was a flow chart —

Blank-flow-chart

Sometimes the charts were location-based: New Orleans branched out into Chicago, New York City, Kansas City (as if the authors were tracing the path of an epidemic).  More often, they depicted “schools” and “styles”: Ragtime, New Orleans, Dixieland, Chicago jazz, Early Big Bands, Stride Piano, The Swing Era, Fifty-Second Street, Bebop, Modern . . .

Sectarian art criticism, if you will.  You had different dishes for New Orleans and Modern; you didn’t eat Dixieland on Fridays.  And you had to wait two hours before going in the water. It also supported mythic constructs: the earliest jazz styles were the Truth and everything else was degenerate art, or the notion that every new development was an improvement on its primitive ancestor.

The critics and journalists loved these fantasies; the musicians paid little attention.  Although you wouldn’t find Wingy Manone playing ANTHROPOLOGY, such artificial boundaries didn’t bother George Barnes, Joe Wilder, or Milt Hinton (the latter eminence having recorded with Tiny Parham, Eddie South, Clifford Brown, and Branford Marsalis).

Happily, the musicians are able to assemble — in the most friendly ways — wherever there is a paying gig.  No one has to wear a t-shirt embossed with his or her allegiance and stylistic categorization.  Such a gathering took place on Sunday, August 14, 2016, in the basement of 75 Christopher Street, New York City — known in the guidebooks as FAT CAT, although there are many variants on that title.

fatcat-2__large

The leader and organizer of this ecumenical frolic was Terry Waldo, pianist, ragtime scholar, vocalist, and composer.  For this session, his Gotham City Band was Chuck Wilson, alto saxophone; Jim Fryer (the Secret Marvel), trombone and vocal; Jay Leonhart, string bass and vocal; Jay Lepley, drums.

And here are four examples of the good feeling these musicians generated so easily.

DIGA DIGA DOO:

MEMORIES OF YOU (starting with Terry’s elaborate homage to its composer, Eubie Blake):

EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY (with a funny, theatrical vocal by Terry):

OLD FASHIONED LOVE (sung by the romantic Jim Fryer):

Once again, this post is dedicated to the inquiring scholar from Bahia, who sat to my left and brightened the room.

More to come.

May your happiness increase!

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“HAVE YOU TRIED THE ELEPHANT BEER?”: INSPIRED STORIES: “JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS,” by MONK ROWE with ROMY BRITELL

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe, photo by Val DeVisser

Monk Rowe is a jazz musician — saxophonist, pianist, composer, arranger — and he has a day gig at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, as the  Joe Williams Director of the Filius Jazz Archive there.  The Archive will be twenty-one in 2016, and it is indeed remarkably adult.

So far, Monk has conducted video interviews with more than 325 musicians, ranging from the great forbears (Doc Cheatham, Eddie Bert, Kenny Davern, Jerry Jerome, Ray Conniff, Joe Williams, Milt Hinton) to the living legends of the present and future (Nicki Parrott, Kidd Jordan, Sherrie Maricle, Bill Charlap, Holly Hofmann, Maria Schneider).  And excerpts from those interviews, thematically and intelligently arranged, now form a compact yet impressive book (with a brief foreword by jazz eminence Dan Morgenstern) whose title is above.

JazzTalesCover

A friend at Hamilton sent me a copy of the book some weeks back, and I have been slow to write about it — for two reasons.  One, the semester got in the way, unforgivably, and two, I was often making notes and laughing so hard that I couldn’t read much at a sitting.  But my instant recommendation is BUY IT.  So those of you who want to skip the evidence can zoom to the bottom of this post. Others can linger.

A brief prelude.  I am immensely in favor of oral history although it cannot replace the best analysis or aesthetic criticism.  I wouldn’t give up Whitney Balliett, Martin Williams, Gary Giddins, Anthony Barnett, Frank Buchmann-Moller, Manfred Selchow, or John Chilton . . . the list goes on and I know I am leaving two dozen worthy writers out.  But what wouldn’t we give for a ten-minute interview with Tony Fruscella, Frank Teschemacher, Jimmy Harrison, Herschel Evans, Eddie Lang, Jimmy Blanton, or Buster Bailey?  True, some musicians were and are shy or not always able to articulate much about the music, but others — as we know — are born raconteurs, sharp observers, comedians, anthropologists.  Their stories, no matter how brief, are precious.  Two pages by Clark Terry where he speaks of being beaten by Caucasians because he was a “Nigerian” while in Mississippi — and then being rescued by another group of Caucasians — say more about race relations in the United States than twenty hours of PBS footage could ever do.

The material is organized thematically, enabling the reader to hear, for instance, stories of life on the road from Kenny Davern, Lanny Morgan, and Phil Woods. Then there are sharp observations — one can almost hear the rimshot that follows.  Dave Pell calls Stan Getz “the greatest dressing room player that ever lived.”  Stan Kenton stops his band from swinging too much and says, “This is not Basie.  This is Stan Kenton.”  Bobby Rosengarden talks about Toscanini, Joe Wilder about punctuality, Dick Hyman and Bucky Pizzarelli about life in the recording studio.  Keter Betts, as a high-school student, is bought lunch by Milt Hinton; Jean Bach explains the Ellington habit of “seagulling”; Sherrie Maricle recalls her metal clarinet.  Dan Barrett gives advice to young musicians.  Randy Sandke talks about the perils of thinking.  Karl Berger talks about his conducting; Kidd Jordan deconstructs a song’s title.  And there’s a historical perspective covering nearly a century: we hear Doc Cheatham talk about Ma Rainey, then Jerry Jerome describe the first Glenn Miller band — all the way up to the present.

It’s an enthralling book.  And since Monk Rowe is a professional musician, his interludes and commentary are more than useful; his questions are on the mark. Other writers put themselves into the dialogue merely to say, “Well, Dizzy always used to say to me,” but Monk is a gracious interpreter rather than a narcissist.

To find out the story of the elephant beer and the priceless answer, visit Monk’s JAZZ BACKSTORY blog here  and scroll down to the bottom of the page.  Then you can read the rest of Phil Woods’ words and — by the way — find out exactly what Dizzy Gillespie said when presented with the key to the city of Syracuse, New York.

JAZZ TALES FROM JAZZ LEGENDS is available here through Amazon.  And the proceeds from the book support the Archives.

NEWS FLASH: Monk is going to be teaching a free online course on jazz, starting February 2, 2016: details here.

May your happiness increase!

BEAUTIFULLY POLISHED BRASS

Here’s something good.

And another taste:

CHRIS HODGKINS CDI don’t ordinarily like surprises, because so many of them feel as if someone has crept up behind me and popped an inflated paper bag to watch me suddenly soar up to the ceiling — but the most lovely surprise is meeting someone new and finding out that (s)he has deep joyous talents you’d never known of before.

Such a person is trumpeter / composer Chris Hodgkins.  In fairness, I’d already heard Chris play (on recordings only, alas) and admired him as a thoughtful lyrical trumpeter — someone who admired Louis, Ruby, Brownie, Humphrey Lyttelton, without imitating a phrase.  And I hear the same kind of tenderness I always heard in Joe Wilder’s playing.  (In the interest of accuracy, I will note that I first heard and wrote about Chris a few years ago here.

The two YouTube videos above offer music from the new Hodgkins CD, BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, which I celebrate here as an outpouring of sophisticated yet gentle Mainstream jazz.

I had the opportunity to write a few words for this disc, and they will serve as my enthusiastic endorsement:

Chris Hodgkins and friends do not have the international reputations they deserve, but they create endearing music that doesn’t reveal all its secrets at once.

Aside from two originals and the poignant BLACK BUTTERFLY, the repertoire suggests a formulaic Mainstream set that one might hear at a jazz party. But that narrow assumption vanishes once the music begins, for Chris, Dave, Erika, and Ashley offer serene yet searching chamber jazz, refreshing improvisations on familiar songs. (Although I suppose that SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE is now arcane to all but a few listeners.)

I delight in the delicately streamlined instrumentation, reminiscent of sessions by Ruby Braff and Warren Vache. Hearing this music, I am breathing in the light-hearted interplay, without the conventions of four-bar trades or ensemble-solos-ensemble. The players have created an airy, open music, full of pleasant wanderings but solidly grounded in melody and beating-heart rhythms.

And this music gladdens on many levels: a musician could analyze and admire subtle rhythmic displacements, chord substitutions, shifting textures. A casual listener would say, “What is that? That sounds beautiful,” and both responses would be true.

Chris is a master of his instrument. He can modulate from what Agatha Beiderbecke heard in her son’s playing, a “sudden perky blare,” to what Ruby Braff recognized in Lawrence Brown’s “a wonderful little cry.” I hear echoes of a grand tradition – everyone from George Mitchell to Clifford Brown and beyond – but Chris is himself throughout.

Emotionally warm music comes out of the emotions of the players – not only their love of sounds and textures, but a love for the people who have gone before and who have created personal art. On this CD, one hears everyone’s affection and admiration for the great ancestors, but Chris cites two people in particular.

One, his older brother, played trumpet, so Chris heard Louis and Morton and more, but, as he says, “When I was about 14 or 15, my brother said, ‘You don’t want to hear it, you want to play it!’ so he got me a trumpet from a second-hand shop and I never looked back.”

Later, Chris played with guitarist Vic Parker. “He was born in Cardiff, played in London before and during the war. In 1940 he worked at the Embassy Club in Bond Street playing accordion and double bass with Don Marino Barreto. He can be seen in Barreto’s band during a nightclub sequence in the musical film Under Your Hat. He came back to Cardiff and I used to work with him in the Quebec every Monday and Wednesday. We had a little duo, just playing standards, and he would sing in a Cardiff accent. When you’re young, you forget so much. You can be handed the keys to the kingdom and you don’t notice. Working with Vic was like that: he was in his late 60s then, one of the nicest guys you could meet.”

Chris has also played alongside Pete Allen, Rod Mason, Kathy Stobart, Humphrey Lyttelton (whose passionate influence I hear), Buddy Tate, and Wild Bill Davison.

Chris is also a wise generous leader, someone who knows that Being Out Front Always is hard on one’s chops as well as on band morale, so each performance makes his colleagues equals rather than subordinates. One of the most moving performances here is A NIGHTINGALE SANG IN BERKELEY SQUARE, an etude for piano and two double-basses, both celebration and elegy for wartime Britain, with death, romance, and endurance intermingled.

And those colleagues! Bassist Erika Lyons appeared on a BBC master class with Ray Brown, and studied with Buster Williams, Rufus Reid, and Hal Galper. Now she plays jazz festivals all over the world. Pianist Dave Price is a deep student of jazz piano from the Thirties to tomorrow, and he has worked with Tubby Hayes, Tony Coe, Nat Adderley, and Peanuts Hucko among many others. Bassist Ashley John Long is known not only for his work with Hans Koller, Bobby Wellins, Keith Tippett and others, but for his compositions for film, television, and the concert hall.

Together, they make BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD what jazz recordings should be, no matter what genre: warm, wide-awake, deeply personal.

If you go to the channel that Chris has created on YouTube, you can hear two more beauties from BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD and more lovely music.

The CD offers SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, A NIGHTINGALE SANG IN BERKELEY SQUARE, DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM, A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON, STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, SUNDAY, ANGEL EYES, LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, BLACK BUTTERFLY, JEEPERS CREEPERS, BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, ALMOST LIKE BEING IN LOVE, SWINGING AT THE COPPER BEECH, BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES, YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO, VP, JUST FRIENDS — and it’s beautifully recorded. Here you can find out more — including how to purchase the disc, which I do recommend.

May your happiness increase!

GOOD FEELINGS: DANNY TOBIAS, KENNY DAVERN, TOM ARTIN, JOHN BUNCH, JOHN BEAL, TONY DeNICOLA at the 2004 MARCH OF JAZZ

Hot jazz can be both leisurely and intense.  It doesn’t have to be too loud or too fast. And the best musicians do the neat trick of honoring their ancestors while sounding exactly like themselves.

New evidence of this — a swing session by masters, recorded in 2004 — has recently surfaced.  It comes from Mat and Rachel Domber’s (the team responsible for so much joy on Arbors Records) MARCH OF JAZZ in celebration of Kenny Davern’s birthday, and the noble, gently convincing participants are Kenny, clarinet; Danny Tobias, cornet; Tom Artin, trombone; John Bunch, piano; John Beal, string bass; Tony DeNicola, drums.

Kenny Davern is justly the most famous and perhaps the most missed person on stage, but I would like to draw your attention also to the cornet player.

Young Mister Tobias plays with easy lyrical grace.  When I first heard him a decade ago (as the trumpet with Kevin Dorn’s Traditional Jazz Collective at the Cajun) I was instantly a convert and fan.  At the end of the first set, I went over, introduced myself, and said, “You sound beautifully.  I guess you also like Buck Clayton and Ruby Braff, don’t you?”  He grinned, and we became friends.

Please enjoy, observe, and commit to memory:

JAZZ ME BLUES:

SUGAR:

and a most remarkable ALL OF ME, in a romantic tempo (the romance isn’t diminished by Kenny’s silent-film comedy gestures at the start):

I asked Danny what he remembered about this session:

I was delighted that Kenny got me on the event.  I remember being very nervous playing because in the hospitality room, on the top floor of the Sheraton Hotel the other musicians watched the stage via closed circuit TV.  I was, and am, in awe of the musicians who were in attendance that weekend. I remember talking to Bucky, Joe Wilder, Dave Frishberg, Bob Dorough, and many more. I had no idea what Kenny would call, and was relieved when he asked the audience if anyone had played “All of Me” yet that weekend?  He then turned to the band and said, “Nobody played it like this!” and counted off the slowest tempo I’ve ever heard for that tune.  It could have been painful but with Bunch, and Tony DeNicola it was pure bliss. Watching the video reminds me of how lucky I was to be able to make music with these masters. Kenny was so generous with me.  He would make me tapes of PeeWee, Joe Sullivan, Irving Fazola, Johnny Dodds, etc. When I heard the recording of “Who Stole the Lock?” I flipped out!  It was clear after listening to these records that Kenny incorporated these players into his playing. For example when he would soar into the final chorus on a gliss, I knew that he was channeling Fazola.  He would, after a gig, invite me to hear something in his car. Sometimes it was a rare recording of Benny Goodman playing tenor, or William Furtwangler conducting movement of a Beethoven symphony.

I miss Tony, and John Bunch, and Kenny.  But I feel good that I knew how good it was when it was happening and let them know I felt.

Danny Tobias is a modest fellow with a true subtle talent, and in these videos you can experience what many already know, that he is a master among masters.

And — as a postscript — it reminds me how much I and everyone who knew him miss Mat Domber. (Rachel, bless her, is still with us.)  I believe these videos were done by the faithful and diligent Don Wolff: bless and thank him, too.

May your happiness increase!

IN FULL STRIDE: DICK HYMAN and MIKE LIPSKIN at PIEDMONT PIANO (August 9, 2014)

Here are two masters of swing and stride piano with impeccable credentials — Dick Hyman and Mike Lipskin.  Together they’ve learned from and played with everyone from Teddy Wilson to Willie “the Lion” Smith to Willie Gant, Cliff Jackson . . . not forgetting Charlie Parker, Ruby Braff, Joe Wilder, and many others.  They played beautifully on wonderful instruments supplied by Piedmont Piano in Oakland, California, on August 9, 2014.  And the buoyant tune is LINGER AWHILE — which we did:

“Sweet, soft, plenty rhythm,” said Mister Morton.

And for the scholars in the audience, LINGER AWHILE — a favorite of pianists and  bands even today — was written in 1923 by Vincent Rose and Harry Owens:

LINGER AWHILEMay your happiness increase!

AMONG FRIENDS: MUSIC and WORDS for JOE WILDER (Sept. 8, 2014)

Joe Among Friends

Last night I spent a very touching and uplifting three hours in the company of people — many of whom I didn’t know and vice versa — united in one thing: we all loved the magnificent trumpeter and dear man Joe Wilder.

I don’t know the source of the saying, “The only thing wrong with funerals is that the one person you want to see is not present,” and that was certainly true in the filled-to-capacity St. Peter’s Church, but you could feel Joe’s gracious, easy spirit in every word and every note played.  The service was organized by Joe’s daughter Elin, Joe’s great friend and biographer Ed Berger, and the music was directed by Warren Vache.  Praise to all of them.

I couldn’t bring my video camera, so my notes will have to suffice.

I came to St. Peter’s early (I have been trained to this behavior by anxious parents, but often it pays off) and could see Russell Malone playing ballads for his own pleasure, including a soulful, precise DEEP IN A DREAM, then greeting Gene Bertoncini, who took up his own guitar.

Then the music changed to purest Wilder — MAD ABOUT THE BOY, CHEROKEE, and more.

It was clear that this was a roomful of dear friends.  Much hugging, much laughter, everyone being made welcome.  Although many people wore black or dark clothing, the mood was anything but maudlin.

Warren Vache quietly and sweetly introduced the first band: Harry Allen, Bill Allred, John Allred, Bill Crow, Steve Johns, Michael Weiss — and they launched into IT’S YOU OR NO ONE and then a medium-tempo CHEROKEE, full of energy and smiles passed around from player to player and to us.

We then saw a series of clips of an interview done with Joe (the source I copied down was http://www.robertwagnerfilms.com) — where he spoke of his experiences, both hilarious (sitting next to Dizzy in Les Hite’s band) and more meaningful (his perceptions of race).  What struck me was the simple conviction with which he said — and clearly believed — “I couldn’t have had a better life.”

Joe’s trumpet colleague from the Symphony of the New World, Wilmer Wise, told a few tales of the man he called “my big brother.”

Jimmy Owens stood in front of us and spoke lovingly of Joe, then took his fluegelhorn and played a very touching THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU (has Harry Warren’s song ever sounded so true?) ending with subterranean low notes, and an excerpt from NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I’VE SEEN.

Hank Nowak, another trumpet colleague (who met Joe at the Manhattan School of Music in the Fifties) spoke endearingly and then played a beautiful selection from Bach’s second cello suite — as if he were sending messages of love to us, with exquisite tone and phrasing.

Ed Berger told stories of Joe — whom he knew as well as anyone — and ended with some of Joe’s beloved and dangerously elaborate puns.

More music, all sharply etched and full of feeling: Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub duetted all-too briefly on TANGERINE; Dick Hyman and Loren Schoenberg played STARDUST, and were then joined by Steve LaSpina and Kenny Washington for PERDIDO.

Jim Czak told his own story, then read a letter from Artie Baker (swooping down gracefully at the end to give the letter to Joe’s daughter Elin);.

Jimmy Heath (who spoke of Joe as “Joe Milder”), Barry Harris, Rufus Reid, Gene Bertoncini, and Leroy Williams took wonderful lyrical paths through I REMEMBER YOU and BODY AND SOUL.

Jim Merod, who knew Joe for decades, was eloquent and dramatic in his — let us be candid and call it a lovely sermon — about his dear friend.

Wynton Marsalis spoke softly but with feeling about Joe, and then played a solo trumpet feature on JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE that (no cliche here) had the church in a joyous rhythmic uproar.

Russell Malone and Houston Person played ANNIE LAURIE with great sensitivity, just honoring the melody, and Russell created a delicate IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING; Rufus Reid and Kenny Washington joined them for IN A MELLOTONE. Ken Kimery of the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra spoke of Joe’s mastery and generosities. Warren Vache brought his horn in a wonderful duet with Bill Charlap on what he called “Joe’s song,” COME ON HOME, and then with Steve LaSpina and Leroy Williams, offered a quick MY ROMANCE.

Bill Kirchner took the stage with Bill Charlap to present a searching SHE WAS TOO GOOD TO ME.

It was nearing nine-thirty, and I knew my demanding clock radio (it shakes me awake at five-forty-five most mornings) had to be obeyed, so I stood up to go, as Warren was encouraging any musician in the house who hadn’t yet played to “jam for Joe” on SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.  Among the musicians he announced were Bria Skonberg and Claudio Roditi, and cheerful music enwrapped me as I walked out into the night air.

I am sorry I couldn’t have stayed until everyone went home, but I felt Joe’s presence all around me — in Warren’s words, a man so large that each of us could take a little of Joe with us always.

A pause for music. Something cheerful and playful — from 2010:

Now a pause for thought, whether or not you were able to attend the memorial service.

How can we honor Joe Wilder now that his earthly form is no longer with us?

We could purchase and read and be inspired by Ed Berger’s wonderful book about Joe, which I’ve chronicled here — SOFTLY, WITH FEELING: JOE WILDER AND THE BREAKING OF BARRIERS IN AMERICAN MUSIC (Temple University Press).

We could buy one of Joe’s lovely Evening Star CDs and fill our ears and houses with his uplifting music.

Or, we could act in Wilderian fashion — as a kind of subtle, unassuming spiritual practice.

Here are a few suggestions, drawn from my own observations of Joe in action.

Give more than you get.  Make strangers into friends. Never pretend to majesties that aren’t yours.  Fill the world with beauty — whether it’s your own personal sound or a (properly room-temperature) cheesecake.  Act lovingly in all things.  Never be too rushed to speak to people.  Make sure you’ve made people laugh whenever you can. Express gratitude in abundance.

You should create your own list.

But “Be like Joe Wilder in your own way” isn’t a bad place to start.

 May your happiness increase!

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!