Tuesday is live jazz night at Bella Luna, an exceptional Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. For the past couple of years, guitarist Jack Wilkins has held court at this intimate hang, swinging nonchalantly in one corner of the room as unsuspecting patrons chow down on their rigatoni. On most Tuesday nights a coterie of hardcore Wilkins fans—most amateur and professional six-stringers themselves—gathers at the bar just a few feet away from the Brooklyn native to take in every nuance of his remarkable playing. They sip their wine and whiskey with eyes glued to Wilkins’ busy right hand; they soak in his lush chordal voicings, shimmering arpeggios and ringing harmonics.
Though Wilkins’ fretboard prowess is on par with such celebrated contemporaries as Pat Martino and Larry Coryell, the 65-year-old guitarist has been flying under the radar since the release of his debut record, 1973’s Windows on the Mainstream label. A one-time member of Buddy Rich’s working septet of the early ’70s and accompanist to a bevy of great jazz singers over the years, from Sarah Vaughan, Chris Connor and Jay Clayton to Morgana King, Nancy Harrow and Amy London, Wilkins remains highly regarded in guitar circles. And when it comes to assessing his standing in the guitar firmament, the guitar aficionados at Bella Luna are quick to give their man kudos. “Jack is definitely one of the best guitarists out there today, without a doubt,” says one ardent fan at the bar. “His problem is he’s just not so good at promoting himself. But the players know the deal.”