Bob Wilber 1928 – 2019

The multi-reedist, Sidney Bechet protégé, and hot-jazz stalwart has passed away at 91

Bob Wilber
Bob Wilber at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the late 1970s (photo: Rene Speur)

Bob Wilber, a disciple and protégé of Sidney Bechet who served as a bulwark of traditional jazz against the bebop revolution, died August 4 at his home in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, England. He was 91 years old.

His death was confirmed to WBGO by his wife, the singer Joanne “Pug” Horton. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Wilber was no stranger to modern jazz, studying with the innovative pianist Lennie Tristano and founding a mid-1950s combo, the Six, to bring trad and bebop into a rapprochement. But the saxophonist and clarinetist was best known for his revivalist work, from his postwar leadership of the Wildcats and tours with Benny Goodman, Eddie Condon, and Bechet, to his later work with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, Soprano Summit, and the Bechet Legacy Band, as well as collaborations with Dick Hyman and the Tuxedo Big Band. Wilber also led a celebrated residency at New York City’s Rainbow Room throughout the 1980s.

Regardless of where and with whom he worked, however, Wilber perpetually regarded Bechet as his wellspring. “Always Sidney is the inspiration,” he told the New York Times in 1982.

Robert Sage Wilber was born March 15, 1928 in New York City, and grew up in nearby Scarsdale. His mother died in his infancy; his father ignited his love for jazz, bringing home a copy of Duke Ellington’s hit record “Mood Indigo” when his son was three. At 13, young Bob began studying the clarinet and became deeply immersed in jazz. Three years later, he became obsessed with Sidney Bechet, and was introduced to the legendary New Orleanian musician by fellow jazz clarinetist and hanger-on Mezz Mezzrow. By 1946, Wilber was studying with Bechet—and eventually even lived with him in Brooklyn for several months.

After graduating from high school in 1945, Wilber attended Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., for a single semester, then dropped out and hit the jazz scene in New York. (He later completed a degree at Empire State College.) Before the year was out, he had started his own quintet, the Wildcats, which became a mainstay at Jimmy Ryan’s jazz club on 52nd Street. Bechet also played regularly at Jimmy Ryan’s, and the two reed players often sat in with each other. In 1948, Bechet sent Wilber in his stead to perform at the Nice Jazz Festival in France (the world’s first major jazz festival); after his return, Wilber went to Boston and formed a trio that became the house band at the Savoy Café. In 1950, he was the first musician booked into George Wein’s Boston jazz club Storyville.

Thus established as a hot jazz player, Wilber worked regularly through the 1950s, ultimately working with the full spectrum of traditional players—including Eubie Blake, Jimmy McPartland, Ruby Braff, and Bobby Hackett. He toured Europe with Eddie Condon, held a tenor saxophone seat in the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and by the 1960s was leading his own all-star band.

At the same time, however, he studied bebop and the emerging avant-garde with Tristano, and in 1954 founded the Six—an attempt to merge trad-jazz sonorities and interplay with bebop rhythms and harmonies. The Six was short-lived, lasting through 1956, and despite recording three albums remained obscure.

More successful were efforts like his own quintet and all-star band, and his collaborations with Hackett, which continued through the late ’60s. In 1968 he became a founding member of the World’s Greatest Jazz Band (also featuring trumpeter Billy Butterfield, trombonist Carl Fontana, and saxophonist Bud Freeman, among others), a successful ensemble with which he remained until 1974.

Ironically, as jazz struggled into the ’70s, Wilber entered one of his most successful periods. He formed the in-demand Soprano Summit with Kenny Davern, and became director of both the Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble and Wein’s New York Jazz Repertory Company. In the ’80s, he began his long residency at the Rainbow Room, and also founded the Bechet Legacy band with Horton, his wife, whom he called “my greatest source of confidence and inspiration.” In 1988, he reformed a version of the Benny Goodman Orchestra to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. The period was also marked by his Grammy-winning score for Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Cotton Club and his 1987 autobiography, Music Was Not Enough.

Settling into his final home in England, Wilber continued performing and recording through the 1990s and 2000s. He kept the Bechet Legacy Band together, performing at festivals around the world (especially in Europe) and organizing centennial performances for Bechet (in 1997) and Goodman (in 2009). He recorded his final album in 2011, Bob Wilber and the Three Amigos, with multi-reedists Pieter Meijers and Antti Sarpila (also featuring guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and bassist Nicki Parrott).

Wilber is survived by Horton and her three children from a previous marriage. 

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.