May 10, 2014

Joe Wilder, 1922-2014

Joe Wilder, in 1998
I first met Joe Wilder at the Sarasota Jazz Festival on April 12, 1996. We had corresponded back and forth about an interview for the Fillius Jazz Archive, but his time during this festival was fully occupied with playing with a number of ensembles. When we finally met, he apologized for the logistical back and forth, and insisted on taking my photograph, even though it was the first time we met. I remember after that first meeting reflecting on what a gentle man he was, but also one who had his priorities well in order.

Joe passed away yesterday, May 9, 2014, at the age of 92. While I celebrate his important life and career, I can’t help but be melancholy about the loss of one of the finest people I’ve ever met. Joe taught by example. His playing, his everyday demeanor and his sense of humor were a model to young musicians. While not a household name, he was held in the highest regard by his fellow artists.
In our second interview, in 1998, I asked Joe about his work ethic:
MR:    I’m wondering, where did you get this work ethic? Was it something from your family?
JW:     I guess I got it mainly from my father, who was a musician. My father played with a lot of the bands in Philadelphia and he was a stickler for being on time. He used to pound that into my brothers and me. You know it’s better for you to come one hour early than to come one second late for something, and he would use as an example, there was a drummer that played with one of the bands he played with. And the guy was a good drummer. And he said, “you know the dance starts at 8:00 and we’re all there,” and he said, “and we’re all sitting on the bandstand ready to play and the drummer isn’t there. He comes at 8:15.” He said, “he knows it takes him at least 20 minutes to set up his drums.” He said, “now what sense does that make? What excuse is that?” And then he would say, “you know just because you’re black doesn’t mean you have to show up late.” And they had an expression that they used to use, they would say you go to work and you come on time, and then there’s another time that they call “CP time” — colored people’s time — CPT was a thing they used to use. The blacks used it in reference to the other people that came late you see? And they would say well there is such a thing as the correct time and CPT. So this was a real put down, so you didn’t want to get involved with that. But that’s basically where I got it from, my father. And the other idea, the deportment of the guys on the job and things like that. He felt that they had an obligation to come on time, perform properly, to dress properly and conduct themselves in a way that people wouldn’t have any problems with them.
MR:    I’ve never heard that expression.
JW:    Yeah, it’s an old expression. A lot of the Latino musicians have an expression that’s similar too. The Latino musicians, one fellow was a friend of mine and he was one of the first Latin musicians to play in the Broadway theaters. And we were doing Laureli with Carol Channing. And a couple of times he showed up, the show hits at 2:00, and at 2:30 he came in and he couldn’t walk through the band, he had a crawl because of the way we were all set up, he had to crawl through the orchestra to get to his seat. And he was so accustomed to showing up late when he’d play a Latin dance some place in some hall, if he got there a half hour late, as long as you got there it was okay. So they had to explain to him that this is not a Latin dance hall, it was a Broadway theater.
As a trumpet player, Joe did it all: big bands, Broadway, studio dates, jazz recordings and symphonic work. He also became a marvelous photographer. Always a practical man, he once turned down an offer from Duke Ellington because he was supporting a family and making a better salary elsewhere.
Ed Berger, a dear friend of Joe’s and former Associate Director of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, just completed a marvelous book entitled Softly, With Feeling — Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music. It is published by Temple University Press and was recently released in late April of this year. It’s a marvelous read, relating the fascinating life story of Joe Wilder, while also shining the spotlight on the segregation and eventual integration of one of the major facets of the music business. Joe Wilder, Milt Hinton, and a handful of other African American musicians were in the forefront of this movement to level the playing field in the Broadway pit bands and studio orchestras.
Of the lessons I learned from Joe, the most important was the idea that it is possible to be gracious and a gentleman while refusing to be intimidated or exploited. I felt inspired simply by standing next to him.
Joe Wilder and Monk Rowe
My 1999 release Jazz Life included the song Portrait in the Wild, which I composed as a tribute to Joe. Wendell Brunious, with his luscious tone on the flugelhorn, captured the desired feeling for the piece. I wrote of Joe in this blog in an entry from January of 2009 entitled A Statesman of the Highest Order.

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