January 18, 2009

A Statesman of the Highest Order

Those who frequent the streets of New York City tell me that Joe Wilder is never seen without a sport jacket and tie. Like many statesmen of his era, Joe’s dignity is unsurpassed, and I consider him a close friend and confidant. Born on the lucky date of 2/22/22, Joe is now 86 years old. He shared a birthday with Claude “Fiddler” Williams, but Claude was born on 2/22/08, so next month will be the 100th anniversary of Claude’s birth.

Joe met his lovely wife Solveig in Sweden when he traveled through Europe in the 1950’s with Count Basie. They married and moved to New York, where they’ve been ever since, and have raised three lovely daughters. When Joe received his honorary doctorate from Hamilton, it was a privilege to meet Solveig and learn of her political activism through her church and other community activities.

Joe told me a story that he had never shared before. As a child, in Colwyn, Pennsylvania, his family used to have chickens in the back yard. When they were little he remembers running around in the backyard without any clothes on and the chickens were trying to peck the little boys in a certain part of their bodies, but he wouldn’t say the word. He started to say “pecker” but he wouldn’t say it. He says “so I’ll never forget that, you know, I never told anybody that.” But, he says, “talk about trying to ‘nip things in the bud.’” That is about as off-color a joke as Joe ever says.

I’ve played many gigs with Joe over the years, and I never miss a chance to bring him to Upstate New York for concerts. It’s especially significant for young listeners to see such a vital and dignified example of someone who has grown as a musician, like most do, and it is inspiring to hear him play the trumpet, an instrument many young players aspire to master.

I was thinking about how it was to work with Joe, and parts of it were a little nerve wracking. Most times I’d suggest starting with “Apex Blues,” (a tune we had previously played), but Joe acted like he didn’t know it. Then I’d remind him, and then eventually I’d say “Apex Blues” and he would go — “oh is that the one that goes de-de-la-de-de-la-de?’” I’d say “yeah.” So we knew that one. Nevertheless, he was a little hard to read because I’d say “is it okay if we do ‘Take the A Train?’” He’d say “oh, okay, that’s all right.” And I never could quite tell if he was happy with the tune selection, but it was fun and challenging on a number of occasions.A couple of times he made minor errors like dropping sections of the song. One time in particular, the first time we played “Seventy-Six Trombones,” he played one A and then went immediately into the bridge. That happened also on “It Might as Well be Spring” when we played during his first improvised chorus. He dropped an A and went to B and I think within one measure the bass player had it and about another two beats later I heard it. It can be identified because his soloing is so well conceived. I’m not sure whether he’s thinking of the specific chords in his head, but even if he’s not he’s playing the changes so well that you’d have to be zoning out to not get it. On one occasion it happened twice within the same song and both times we were right on top of it. And I think the added pleasure of working with this particular group was that I knew that our drummer heard it also. There is a kind of glance of acknowledgment that we all shared that we were still with him.

It’s a daily occurrence of people are always offering to help Joe with his luggage. He brings his horns in what looks like a suitcase, in addition to his cameras and photography equipment which he totes everywhere. He repeatedly says “no, no, no, I’ve got it. If you pick that up you’ll fall to the ground” he would say. He’d say “no, no I’ve got it because this way I’m balanced, I got one in each arm.” And even when we picked him up at the hotel and he’s got this suitcase that must weight 60 pounds, he wouldn’t let you touch it. It reminded me of Milt Hinton. Even in his last years Milt adamantly refused to let anyone help him negotiate his way around with his bass and cameras.

When we played one school gig with Joe I had to bring my P.A. At the end of the gig, of course where is Joe? He’s carrying gear to the car. There can be a lot to learn from behavior like that. How impressive it was to see students crowding around him after gigs and him signing autographs. He struggled to hear their names, and he’d ask them to spell their names for him. He would write a little personal note to each person who requested his autograph. It was interesting also to hear more stories. Some stories he told I had heard before. Nevertheless it was interesting to hear about some of the people he previously played with that he did not enjoy. He mentioned a couple of people who, as soon as they turned into leaders turned into cantankerous personalities. He was only with Lionel Hampton for a short time, but I asked him when he was with Hamp if they were doing some of that show business shtick. I know Hamp used to ham it up and jump into the audience. And Joe said “oh yeah, and we would twirl our trumpets.” Apparently there was this one point in one chart where the trumpet players had to throw their horns up in the air. He said that one night, because of the floodlights above them, he threw it up and either he couldn’t see or the floodlights had him disoriented, anyway he threw it well behind him. At the time the band was on risers so his horn went up and came crashing down on the back of the stage. At that time Hamp said “oh yeah, leave that in the show, leave it.” And Joe said Hamp never gave him a dime to get his horn fixed. It got to the point in later years when Joe would not accept a gig that was going to be with Hamp.

Joe was a classically trained trumpet master, and his father lived to the age of 99. We can hope that Joe gives us many more years of his peaceful presence, as we need more statesmen like him to set pristine examples for young players.

Click on the title, “A Statesman of the Highest Order” to go to the Hamilton website and see a clip of Joe talking about his experience in the 30’s playing with Lucky Millinder, and what it was like in the south traveling with an integrated band.”

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