It can be dangerous to equate a musician’s style with his persona. In the case of Joe Wilder, however, the warmth, lyricism, humor and sophistication of his music are an extension of the man himself. Just mention his name to almost any professional musician in either the jazz or classical worlds and you’re sure to get a smile and a testimonial—not only to Wilder’s musical talents, but also to his sterling personal qualities. In fact, Wilder’s sense of propriety is almost as legendary as his musical prowess. One longtime associate recalls that 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!
Wilder has accomplished just about everything one can accomplish in music—from big bands to bebop, classical concertos to commercials. And if he hasn’t enjoyed the same success in bringing his name before the general public, this failing is only a result of his modesty and self-effacing nature. Nevertheless, his belief in himself enabled him to avoid the pitfalls that claimed so many of his musical generation and to open doors that he was told he could never enter.
Wilder was born into a musical family in Colwyn, Penn., on Feb. 22, 1922. His father, Curtis, was a bassist and bandleader in Philadelphia and celebrated his 100th birthday in November 2000. Wilder’s older brother, Curtis Jr., also played bass. Although Joe was initially attracted to the trombone, his father got him a cornet and began to bring the youngster to some of his dance jobs—sometimes to the consternation of the other band members. Wilder recalls overhearing the orchestra’s first trumpeter, Fred Beckett, grumble, “Oh my God, here comes Wilder with that damn kid again!”
Wilder progressed quickly enough to be featured on a weekly children’s radio program in Philadelphia: Parisian Tailors’ Colored Kiddies of the Air. Believe it or not, the youngsters were backed by whatever band happened to be appearing at the time at the Lincoln Theater, including no less than Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. “I would be playing the first trumpet part of some popular tune—not improvising, just reading it note for note. And these bands would be playing backgrounds for us!” One such program led to an early encounter with Louis Armstrong. “He was awfully nice to me. He gave me a pass and said, ‘You come and see Louis every day.’” Much later, the great Satchmo remembered the young trumpeter from the broadcast: “He always encouraged me, and I think he was proud of the fact that I made it in the studios,” Wilder recalls.
Wilder studied at the Mastbaum School of Music in Philadelphia along with future jazz luminaries Buddy DeFranco and Red Rodney. Although drawn to classical music, Wilder soon came to realize that, talent notwithstanding, a career in the symphony was not a realistic goal for a black musician coming of age in the late 1930s. “My father had friends who were fine classical players. One of them, Josh Sadler, played violin and viola and auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was told that he played exceptionally well, but—this was the first time, I guess, that expression came up—‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ Philadelphia was bountiful with fine African-American players like that. But they never got an opportunity and, of course, from their experiences, my father let me know that there was no future in classical music for me.”
Instead, the trumpeter set out on a veritable big-band odyssey, leaving home in 1941 at 19 to join Les Hite’s band. “I remember my mother standing there at the side of the bus all loaded with strangers, giving me this lecture: ‘Now, you behave yourself and don’t you do anything to disgrace the family!’” In great demand for his superb lead playing, as well as his solo ability, from the 1940s to the early 1950s Wilder went on to play in the orchestras of Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford, Herbie Fields, Sam Donahue, Lucky Millinder, Dizzy Gillespie and Noble Sissle. Wilder’s big-band career was interrupted when he became one of the first thousand black Marines during World War II, serving in special weapons. He eventually was assigned to the headquarters band and promoted to assistant bandmaster.
The trumpeter’s last regular big-band association was a stint with Count Basie in 1953. “I loved Count! You had to like him! He was such an easy-going person. That’s why the band played so well and had that real free feeling,” Wilder recalls. But he was frustrated at the lack of solo opportunities, so at one performance he decided to take action: “I got a piece of paper and wrote, ‘Dear Count, could I play 16 bars of anything?’ and signed it: ‘The trumpet player, second from the drums.’ I folded it up and I handed it to Marshall Royal and he handed it to Count. Count stopped playing, looked at the note, looked up at me, and said, ‘You want to play? Play!’ And he let me take a couple of choruses of whatever we were playing. From that point on he always let me play something—it was just that he hadn’t thought of it!” (Wilder’s only recorded solo with the Basie orchestra was on the aptly titled “Softly, With Feeling.”)
With the demise of the big bands, Wilder’s musicianship enabled him to forge a new career playing for top Broadway shows. “I got a call to do Alive and Kicking , which starred Carl Reiner, David Burns and Jack Guilford. As far as most of the musicians were concerned, there was no problem. The main problem was with the stage hands, who seemed like an arm of the Ku Klux Klan.”
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.”
In the mid-1950s, Wilder also penetrated the highly competitive New York studio scene. Once again confronted with racial barriers, Wilder refused to become bitter, and 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.”
Wilder joined the elite group of first-call studio musicians who skillfully (and almost always anonymously) produced much of America’s recorded popular music until synthesizers and sampling began to replace orchestras. On staff at ABC from 1957 to 1974, Wilder was often called for two or more sessions a day, encompassing the most diverse musical settings. He found this life demanding but enjoyed the challenge. “A lot of times you just went in and were completely surprised. We took pride in being able to sight-read anything that was put before us and in playing any type of music as well as the people who specialized in that particular style.” Studio work also allowed him to remain close to home and his family.
In addition to his busy studio schedule, Wilder continued to build a reputation as a highly original jazz soloist through his own albums for Savoy (1956’s Wilder ’n Wilder) and Columbia (1959’s Jazz From “Peter Gunn” and The Pretty Sound of Joe Wilder, the latter a cult classic among musicians), and countless sessions as a sideman with Hank Jones, Gil Evans, Tadd Dameron, Michel Legrand, Benny Goodman and many others. He also became a favorite of vocalists, such as Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Helen Humes and Johnny Hartman, who found their own work to be greatly enhanced by Wilder’s sympathetic obbligati.
Throughout these varied endeavors, however, Wilder never lost sight of his dream of becoming a classical trumpeter. He went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. “I was fortunate to study with Joseph Alessi, who was Toscanini’s first trumpet player when Toscanini came to the U.S. He was wonderful; and then I studied orchestral repertoire with Bill Vacchiano, who was also very nice to me. They had a book, the Pietsch Book, which has all kinds of operatic excerpts. He would have me play the first part while he played the second part. You can imagine how encouraging that was.” But once again, Wilder encountered prejudice—this time musical. “The school’s conductor was sort of anti-jazz. He had determined that no one who’d been playing in a dance band could come in and play classical music.” After blind auditions were held, however, Wilder was assigned the principal trumpet chair in the Manhattan School’s symphony orchestra.
Other barriers began to fall. Wilder played on several occasions with the New York Philharmonic, and in 1968 he became principal trumpet for the Symphony of the New World, which he cites as “the first fully integrated symphony orchestra in the United States.” He also recorded his own album of classical trumpet pieces, including a work written especially for him by Alec Wilder (no relation). When he first saw the music, Wilder told the composer, “Oh my God, there’s no way in the world I can play this!” Alec Wilder responded, “I don’t see how it could be over your head. After all, I wrote these things because I heard you play them!”
Wilder’s classical and jazz background ideally suited him for the third-stream experiments of the 1950s, and the trumpeter participated in challenging recording projects featuring the work of composers John Lewis, Gunther Schuller and Johnny Richards.
Over the past few years, Wilder has become a favorite on the jazz-party circuit and a frequent participant in the burgeoning jazz-repertory movement. As senior member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Wilder often finds himself in the singular position of recreating performances of the same historic big band charts he played when they were new. “It gives people, especially younger people who never did hear a live band, a chance to hear what it sounded like in a concert setting. And some of the older people who do remember that era come and reminisce; it just brings them right out of the doldrums.”
Approaching 80, Wilder shows no signs of slowing down. He continues to record regularly as a sideman, and in the early 1990s made his first albums as a leader in over 30 years, Alone With Just My Dreams and No Greater Love for Evening Star [Full disclosure: Evening Star was c0-founded by Benny Carter and Ed Berger]. He is devoted to his family; he and his wife, Solveig, have three daughters and two grandsons. Wilder is also an accomplished photographer and certainly could have pursued that as a career had music not intervened. Although he has shot album covers and his work has appeared in books and magazines, the major beneficiaries of Wilder’s photographic talents are his friends and fellow musicians to whom he has generously sent literally thousands of his superb prints through the years.
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.
Perhaps Wilder himself best summed up his musical essence when he once observed: “In any music—classical or jazz—there are certain things that can move you so emotionally that it just touches your heart. You can create something that seems to come from someplace unknown to you. But at the moment it happens you just feel so happy about it.”