Joe Wilder: Gentleman of Jazz

by on March 24, 2016 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, History

The San Diego Jazz Society Presented Joe Wilder and Marshall Royal

By John Lawrence

Joe WilderJoe Wilder was not only a magnificent trumpet player but a gentleman according to all who knew him. I had the privilege of presenting him and saxophonist Marshal Royal along with a local rhythm section composed of Mike Wofford, Bob Magnusson and Roy McCurdy at the Lyceum Theatre in 1990 under the auspices of the San Diego Jazz Society.

A CD was made of the performance which, unfortunately, is out of print. Joe helped to break down racial barriers on Broadway, radio, television and in classical music.

Wilder’s sense of propriety was legendary.

When Wilder was in Lionel Hampton’s orchestra in the early 1940s, fellow band members used to offer him a $10 bill if he would simply utter one four-letter word. Wilder never collected! A soft-spoken and stately man, he never appeared in public without a tie. He was a non-smoker and non-drinker. He was as impeccable in his playing as he was in his personal life. Classically trained, he had to face the reality that no African-Americans were being hired for symphony jobs in the 1930s and 40s. After auditions for symphony jobs, they were told, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

So he branched out into big bands. He played with the bands of Les Hite, Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford, Herbie Fields, Sam Donahue, Lucky Millinder, Dizzy Gillespie, Noble Sissle and Count Basie among others! On the road with the Hampton band in Iowa in 1946, Wilder and a fellow trumpeter were refused service at a Chinese restaurant in Des Moines. They stayed for hours and the following day did the same, manifesting passive resistance years before the sit-ins in the South.

He experienced many other outrageous displays of racism as did all other African-Americans during that period. Jim Crow was the prevailing attitude. Blacks had no rights to stay at public hotels or eat in public restaurants. According to Joe’s biography, “Softly, With Feeling” by Edward Berger, when Joe was working with Jimmy Gorham’s band:

Gorham’s band played an engagement at the all-white Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia for a lady who was throwing a party. “This was only the second time that a black band played in the hotel – my father happened to be in the band that first played there years earlier,” Wilder said. “And after that engagement, the white union local told the hotel that if they hired any more black bands, they would bar any white bands from playing in there.” But the hostess specifically requested Gorham’s band, which was a big hit with her guests. “During the intermission,” Wilder recalled, “she came over to compliment Jimmy and said with a deep Southern accent, ‘Mr. Gorham, I just wanted to tell you that my guests all enjoyed y’all’s music. Most of them have never heard a hot nigger band before!’ There was a silence in that band room, and then the guys started asking each other, ‘Did she say what I think I just heard?’ They lit into that woman to the point that some of us actually felt sorry for her because she didn’t actually mean to offend us.

Born in Philadelphia in 1922 into a musical family, he grew up in an integrated neighborhood and had both white and black friends. As a child he was featured on a weekly children’s radio program in Philadelphia: Parisian Tailors’ Colored Kiddies of the Air. He attended the Mastbaum School of Music which also produced other notable jazz musicians such as Lee Morgan, Buddy DeFranco, Red Rodney, Bill Barron and Ted Curson. Wilder interrupted his musical career when World War II came around. He was one of the first black marines.

Black Musicians Had to Deal With Racism, Especially in the South

joe wilder 2In his biography Wilder recounted a serious incident involving Illinois Jacquet when they were traveling in the South with Lionel Hampton’s band:

We were in Alabama, and Illinois was late getting to the station, and the train was getting ready to pull out. Illinois didn’t have time to run down and get his luggage and stuff into the black coach. So he just got on the first step that was open. He started walking through the white cars, and this conductor, who looked like the Kentucky colonel, hit him and said, “Boy, what do you think you’re doing back here?” Illinois said to him, “Who you calling ‘boy’?” and kept walking. The guy pulled out a pistol and followed him into the black coach. Illinois was talking back to him, and several of our guys who carried pistols stood up. Our road manager, who was a very nice red-haired Texan named Mack O’Connell, came into the coach just as this guy was threatening to blow Illinois’ head off. Mack shouted, “What’s going on here?” The conductor said, “Cap’n, is them your niggers?” And Mack said, “Yeah, why?” Well, you better teach ’em how to behave down here!” the conductor replied. Meanwhile, Red Farrington, the band boy, was standing right behind the conductor with a switchblade. Mack O’Connell quieted the whole thing down. He was a nice guy. A lot of guys didn’t like him because he had a southern drawl. A lot of us were turned off by the accents, but a lot of these guys were the nicest people you could run into.

It’s easy to see how quickly incidents like these involving a black man and a white authority figure like the police can get out of hand like is still happening today.

After his stint with the big bands, Wilder broke the color line by dint of his excellent musicianship started getting gigs for Broadway shows in the 1950s. Ed Berger wrote:

Wilder went on to play in such hit productions as Guys and Dolls and Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings, joining the touring company of the latter in 1953. “They went first to Mr. Porter and asked if he had any objection to a black musician playing first trumpet,” Wilder recalls. “All he asked was, ‘Can he play my music?’ When they told him I could, he answered, ‘Well, that’s all that matters.’ I never got an opportunity to tell him how much I appreciated it.” As a Broadway regular, he was in the pit orchestra of the musical “42nd Street” for more than eight years.

In the mid-50s Wilder joined the elite group of first-call musicians in the New York City studio scene. Again he had to overcome racial barriers. He overcame prejudice and stereotypes with sheer talent and consummate professionalism. “We’re all going to encounter bigotry and racism in some form or other but you can’t let yourself get mired down in those problems,” he says. “When you run into that kind of a situation you stop and you think about the guys that you’ve known, the friends you’ve had, the people who were absolutely in no way like that. And those are the people that you relate to.”

He was on staff at ABC from 1957 to 1974. He was heard on “The Voice of Firestone,” “The Dick Cavett Show” and other programs that used live music. As a non-traveling musician, he was able to stay at home with his family unlike most jazz musicians of that day. Wilder was adaptable enough that he could play any kind of music. He also cut some jazz albums under his own name as well as many albums as a sideman for other jazz musicians and vocalists.

Wilder Never Gave Up His Dream

sd jazz societyStill Wilder never gave up his dream of becoming a classical musician. He went back to school at Manhattan School of Music and did several gigs with the New York Philharmonic. In 1968 he became principal trumpet for the Symphony of the New World, which he cited as “the first fully integrated symphony orchestra in the United States.” He also recorded his own album of classical trumpet pieces thus predating by 15 years and paving the way for Wynton Marsalis’ dual role in jazz and classical music.

Ed Berger wrote:

Joe Wilder’s trumpet sound remains one of the glories of American music. His elegant solo style is instantly identifiable, drawing from the swing and bebop eras he straddled, as well as reflecting his classical experience. As Whitney Balliett wrote in a 1986 New Yorker profile of Wilder, “His solos are immaculately designed.… He makes the song gleam.” Whether skillfully manipulating his mutes and plunger, or displaying his ravishing tone on open horn, Wilder’s solos tell a story with poise, wit, swing and feeling. He is also one of those rare musicians who can captivate an audience by simply playing a melody.

In Joe’s biography Wynton Marsalis wrote in the foreword: “Beyond the excellence of his playing, as a man he has such dignity and feeling and is so engaged and intelligent. He brings a warmth to every situation. He loved my kids who were very young at the time, and was constantly looking out for them. He would tell me, ‘You’ve got to be attentive to your kids.’ He’s always talking about family and the importance of savoring moments together.”

In 2008 Mr. Wilder was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for a jazz musician.

Joe Wilder died at the age of 92 in 2014 in New York City. Wilder’s survivors include Solveig, his Swedish-born wife of 56 years; daughters Elin Wilder-Melcher, Solveig Wilder and Inga-Kerstin Wilder; son Joseph Wilder Jr.; and six grandchildren.

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