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Bob Wilber :: Neverending Swing
by Leonid Auskern, November 1998

Bob Wilber is an internationally renowned classic jazz instrumentalist, arranger and composer.
He was born on March 15, 1928 in New York, his instruments are clarinet, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone and tenor saxophon.

In far 1948 he toured France with Mezz Mezzrow and by now he is devoted to swing and dixieland. Nevertheless he studied jazz with Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz and it gave him much in understanding new trends. In the end of 50s he was touring with Benny Goodman’s big band.In 1968 his “Music of Hoagy Charmichael” LP was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Then he worked much with Ruby Braff and Bud Freeman, became a founding member of the “World’s Greatest Jazz Band" and in 1974 with Kenny Davern formed “Soprano Summit” where created a unique combination of two soprano saxophones. Later he arranged the Ellington recreations for the movie “The Cotton Club” for director Francis Ford Coppola which brought him a Grammy.

Nowadays Bob Wilber regularly releases his audio and video projects on Arbors Records label. He continues to compose and play music that is one of the best and tasteful exploration of classic jazz.

You began to play jazz in the middle of the century. What was it that got you into this music; was it a child passion or something else?

My father was an amateur piano player and would play every evening when he came home from work. He played songs by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern and so forth. One of his favorites was “Rose Room” which he heard when it was introduced by Art Hickman’s band in San Francisco in 1919. Ferdie Grofe was the arranger, the first to write in the big band style. He also had a book of blues by W.C. Handy. I think he heard Duke Ellington on the radio from the Cotton Club. One night he brought home a record by Duke; “Mood Indigo” and “When A Black Man’s Blue.” This must have been 1930 or 1931. I was fascinated by the mournful sound of “Mood Indigo” especially the clarinet (Barney Bigard) and the plunk, plunk of the banjo.

To this day I love this original arrangement. In fact I transcribed it and used it under the credits at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s "The Cotton Club". I also used it for the opening music of "The Untouchables" a film about gangland Chicago in the 1930's. In 1941 my father took my mother, sister and I to hear Teddy Wilson’s band at Cafe Society. In 1943 we all went to see Duke Ellington’s first concert at Carnegie Hall including my grandmother in her eighties who played organ and piano in her husband’s church. We called her Gonka. When Tricky Sam Nanton came down front with his plunger and did his ya-ya thing, Gonka turned to me and said, “He’s trying to tell us something.” In 1941 I started playing the clarinet and I immediately knew this was what I wanted to do in life. I tried to play jazz but also started serious studies. In 1944 I played “Rhapsody In Blue” with the high school orchestra and on my graduation night I went on stage from the orchestra pit to play the first movement of Von Weber’s “Concertino for Clarinet” and then sat with the other students, filed on stage to receive my diploma, then back to the pit to play the audience out; a very busy evening! My first role model was Benny Goodman who still is a great inspiration to me. I soon discovered Louis Armstrong and Frank Teschemaker through the reissues on Columbia records. The first record I ever heard by Sidney Bechet was “Rose Room “and “Lady Be Good,” two songs my father had played for years. Those Victor records with Charlie Shavers, Willie “The Lion”Smith and Big Sid Catlett are among my favorites of his to this day.

We know Sidney Bechet was one of your first teachers as we could read in the liner notes of “Reunion At Arbors.” “Dear Sidney” was the premier recording of your composition dedicated to him. Could you add something personally to the portrait of this jazz giant?

I became fascinated with Sidney’s sound on soprano and got myself an old Conn straight horn when I was 16. I first met him in 1944 at a swing soiree concert presented by Wilber DeParis at the Pied Piper jazz club in Greenwich Village. This later became Cafe Bohemia where I went to hear Art Blakey, Max Roach and Clifford Brown in the 50's. Besides Sidney and Wilber the band included Bill Coleman, Mary Lou Williams, J.C. Heard and Johnny Williams. I went up to Sidney between sets. He had a huge great Dane puppy with him named Butch. I was in awe of him but told him I played clarinet and soprano, which interested him, because there were no other soprano players around at that time. I told him my lips were sore from too much playing. He said, and these were his exact words, “You gotta build up a callous.” My first lesson with Sidney Bechet! It wasn’t until two years later that I started studying with him on a regular basis.

After the first month he asked me to move in with him, his dog Butch and his mistress, Laura, a Canadian lady who looked to be part American Indian. In the fall of 1946 he went to work at Jimmy Ryan’s on 52nd Street with a trio; Lloyd Phillips on piano and Freddie Moore on drums. They played for dancing and played a lot of show tunes for the Broadway theater crowd. The Dixieland revival was just getting started. I used to take the subway to work with him. On the midnight set he’d call me up and we’d play duets until closing time, 3:30. We became quite a hit on the street. George Brunis, the trombonist, who started the fad of marching all around the street playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” gave our act a name. He called us Bash and Shay. Later when he had his own band at Ryan’s he’d march his front line across the street into The Three Deuces. Miles Davis or some other modern band would be playing “Billy’s Bounce” or “Donna Lee” and in would come George drowning them out with “The Saints.”

While living with Sidney I got my first record date with Milt Gabler’s Commodore label. That would be April 1947. When I showed up without my soprano Milt was mad as hell. I told him my soprano playing wasn’t good enough to record yet. Sidney suggested I do “Wildcat Blues” for the first number. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that was the first number that Sidney ever recorded. In August of that year Sidney recorded an album for Columbia. The producer, George Avakian, suggested to Sidney that he do half the numbers with his Jimmy Ryan’s quartet and half with my band, The Wildcats. We rehearsed in Sidney’s front parlor on Quincy St. in Brookly where he lived. The front parlor was also my bedroom; I slept on the couch. I had written the arrangements including the difficult “Polka Dot Stomp” and a beautiful number he’d written in the 20's, but never recorded, called “I Had It But It’s All Gone Now.” Many years later my wife, Pug Horton, wrote lyrics for it and we recorded it with the Bechet Legacy. In the fall of 1947 Sidney went to Chicago to work at Jazz Ltd. and I moved over to Greenwich Village. My student days with the great Bechet were over.

We know you as a multi-instrumentalist, arranger, composer and band leader. Which is your main jazz activity?

All these activities are equally important to me. I was leading a jazz band while still in high school, composing and writing arrangements. The summer I was 15 years old I went to a music camp. I tried to write an arrangement of “Whispering” but was having great difficulty. I thought you had to have a different chord for each note. Nothing sounded right but my instructor told me I could sustain a chord while a melody moved over it. It was a revelation. I always found arranging and composing stimulating; a constant business of trial and error as one develops one’s knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Reading music text books or taking courses doesn’t work. You have to find out these things for yourself.

What do you think about the future of traditional jazz? Do you believe avant garde and traditional are rivals or simply parallel musical worlds?

I do not think of jazz as traditional or modern. These are names that critics tack on to the music by referring to the music as Dixieland, Chicago style, swing, bop, cool, fusion, free jazz and so forth. They seek to show how knowledgeable they are. Actually classifying music by categories tends to close one’s ears to the creative process which can create great music in any style. I have played and recorded “Black Bottom Stomp” by Jelly Roll Morton, “Billy’s Bounce” by Charlie Parker, “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin and “Django” by John Lewis. They’re all beautiful compositions by creative composers; the style is not important.

As to the future of jazz, I have mixed feelings. I grew up in the 30's and 40's when jazz was a major influence on popular music the world over. Since the advent of Rock and Roll in the 50's the influence of jazz has become less and less. I notice when playing concerts that many young people don’t tap their feet to the music. They don’t feel the beat. They don’t have any desire to get up and dance. Curiously the jazz education movement seems to be flourishing. Jazz educators have flooded the market with weighty tomes, usually accompanied by a CD explaining how to improvise. They present jazz as a series of technical exercises to be mastered by endless hours of practicing scales, modes, arpeggios and so forth. As a result of this approach the jazz schools turn out hundreds of musicians each year possessing great technical facility playing music that doesn’t swing, doesn’t convey a personal message and which appeals to nobody except fellow students.

Could you give us some new names of saxophonists, trumpeters, clarinetists, of the 90's who in your opinion are now really successors of Sidney, Satchmo, Benny Goodman and other past greats?

Fortunately due to the invention of the phonograph at the same time as jazz began, much of the great jazz of the past has been preserved to be studied and learned by young musicians. Some of the younger jazz musicians, and by that I mean those under 50, who admire and respect the traditions of jazz but are contributing new ideas are:

trumpet: Randy Sandke, U.S.A. Nick Payton, U.S.A.
clarinet: Don Byron, U.S.A. Antti Sarpila, Finland
tenor sax: Antti Sarpila, Finland
trombone: Dan Barrett, U.S.A. Wycliffe Gordon, U.S.A.
piano: Mark Shane, U.S.A. Ulf Johanson, Sweden
bass: Dave Green, England Phil Flanigan, U.S.A.
guitar: James Chirillo, U.S.A. Dave Cliff, England
drums: Joe Ascione, U.S.A. Ed Metz Jr., U.S.A.

Do these musicians really replace the giants of the 20's, 30's and 40's? I don’t really think so but by emulating the early masters they’re helping to keep jazz alive.

Where in America are Dixieland bands more popular? Who are its’ main audience?

The main audience for so-called Dixieland jazz, a term, by the way, which most musicians hate, are people in the 60's or older, almost exclusively white, conservative and middle class. They attend jazz parties and traditional jazz festivals all over the U.S.A. which have been the main source of employment for many jazz musicians. Unfortunately the attrition rate due to audience age is great and they are not being replaced by younger fans. In Europe the audiences tend to be younger but a lot of the music presented as “jazz” is hardly jazz at all, but ethnic music played with guitars, saxophones and much amplification.

You performed and recorded with many famous jazz artists. What event in your artistic life do you consider the most impressive and maybe curious?

On New Year’s Eve 1947 I was playing with my Wildcats at a society party given by the actress Miriam Hopkins at her East Side townhouse. About four in the morning in comes Django Reinhardt with his manager carrying his guitar. He was playing at Cafe Society for a few nights before going on tour with Duke Ellington. After listening to a number the manager comes up to me and says, “Mr. Reinhardt would like to play a tune with your band.” I say, “What tune?” The manager confers with Mr. Reinhardt, in French of course, and says to me, “Tea For Two.” Django unpacks his guitar, sits down on the stand and turns to my piano player, Dick Wellstood, and says the following three words: “Play oom pah” We play “Tea For Two,” Django packs up his guitar, hands it to his manager and they leave with not another word spoken. Did he like my band? Did he enjoy playing with us? I’ll never know.

Benny Goodman was on tour in the Soviet Union in the beginning of the 60's. It was a great success. Traditional jazz was still popular in Russia. What do you think about the possibility of you performing there?

I toured the Soviet Union in 1975 with the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra playing a concert tribute to Louis Armstrong. The month long tour took us to Moscow, Alma Ata, Novisibursk, Rostov-on-the-Don and Uroslaval. We played nine concerts in Moscow at the Sports Palace for 10,000 people each concert. Yes, I would like to return to Russia but prefer to wait until things settle down a bit.

In conclusion, thanks for your interest in my career and in jazz in general. It is up to dedicated fans all over the world to keep jazz alive despite the constant erosion by commercial interests who always promote any music, good or bad, which will make money.

published 23.04.2005© 2005 jazz news :: home page

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