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Sarah Wilson: Parallel Paths Converge

Whether it’s jazz, anthropology, or puppetry, the trumpeter/vocalist/composer's got it

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Sarah Wilson (photo: Lenny Gonzalez)
Sarah Wilson (photo: Lenny Gonzalez)

For her entire career, trumpeter, singer, and composer Sarah Wilson has been wrestling with apparently separate pursuits: trumpet vs. voice; living and working in New York City vs. the Bay Area; composing music for puppet theater vs. writing for jazz groups; day jobs in museum exhibit design vs. gigs as a working musician. Yet somehow she’s managed to embrace all those paths and establish an identity very different from the “typical” jazz composer.

Her latest album Kaleidoscope is only her third, but it reflects her evolution on every front. The album features her original compositions performed by Myra Melford (piano), Charles Burnham (violin), John Schott (guitar), Jerome Harris (bass), and Matt Wilson (drums), with the leader on trumpet and vocals that suggest a more esoteric Karla Bonoff. Much like the inspiration for its title, Kaleidoscope swirls in often unexpected ways, with more stylistic references than can easily be listed.

“For me the euphoria really kicked in when I started composing,” Wilson says. “I was on a whole other level as far as my relationship with music. Everything completely opened up. I’m just breathing life into the music that I write.” 

Born and raised in Healdsburg, Calif., Wilson grew up influenced by her mother’s love of the singer/songwriters of the ’70s. During the usual elementary-school “pick-your-instrument” moment, she beelined to the trumpet. “I think it had a lot to do with Earth, Wind & Fire,” she explains. “I knew all the horn solos on their tunes.” She gave the instrument up at 16 after a bout with mono but returned to it in college at UC Berkeley as she struck up an interest in puppet theater; she soon was playing with the famous Bread and Puppet company, where she first met another Bay Area trumpeter named Dave Douglas. 

 “I went to the Knitting Factory and saw Carla Bley: ‘Oh my God, this is what I do. She has people playing her music. Right, I’m a composer.’”

Wilson graduated from Berkeley with an anthropology degree, then took a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It was a day gig she kept for 12 years, working on more than 20 exhibits while continuing (with Douglas’ encouragement) to develop as a jazz trumpeter. Then, in 1995, thanks to her puppetry background, the Boston Puppeteer Cooperative asked her to write music for a show it was doing as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors program. She readily agreed, although she’d never composed before. Her music would go on to be performed at Lincoln Center for the next five years—and became the basis for her 2005 album Songs for an Imaginary Play.

Another pivotal moment for Wilson came after her mother’s death in 2000, when she decided to begin singing in public. She was so unsure of herself for her first vocal gig that she performed under a different name (“Amanda Roberts”) while wearing a wig and ill-fitting borrowed clothes. “Honestly, I looked like a Hasidic woman. Even close friends didn’t recognize me. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but [singing] allowed me to connect with the audience and also get a rest from playing the trumpet.”

However, her ambivalence about her identity increased: Was she a trumpeter or a singer or both, or neither? “There was a point where I just didn’t know,” she says. “But I went to the Knitting Factory and saw Carla Bley: ‘Oh my God, this is what I do. She has people playing her music. Right, I’m a composer.’ It was an amazing period. That’s why I wrote a piece about her on this album.”

Wilson moved back to the Bay Area in 2005. “I thought I was committing musical suicide,” she says. “But it soon became clear that I had this community of musicians that I could work with.” Just like when she moved to NYC, Wilson found a museum day job, this time at the Tenderloin Museum, where she’s worked on exhibits about the infamous San Francisco neighborhood, including oral histories of the Blackhawk jazz club and Wally Heider’s recording studio.

After all the starts and stops, she’s still playing the trumpet, often turning to classical exercises to build up her foundation. “I would put it down, but it always called to me. [The late trumpeter] Laurie Frink used to say, ‘It chooses you and you don’t really have a choice.’ There have been so many times where I thought I was done with it. But I’m not.”