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Interviews

Steve Wilson: Consummate Pro

By Published: May 26, 2008
"I'd like to have two or three different groups that I can play with because I like different directions in music. At some point, I want to try some more experimental type of things with different configurations of ensembles. But it is a tricky balance, because I pretty much cut my career on trying to learn how to be a great sideman. That's been invaluable. It's taught me a lot about how to be a leader, which I think is missing a lot these days from the scene ... But I am trying to scale back sideman activity to a premium so that I can concentrate on some of my own projects now. "



That's good news for the music scene, because Wilson's projects to date have had a strong vision, with creativity as a priority.



But the work with other outstanding musicians won't come to a complete halt. "Working with people like Maria [Schneider] and Christian [McBride] and Buster [Williams] and Mulgrew [Miller], it really inspires me musically. Quite honestly, when I'm working with them I'm as fulfilled as when I'm being a leader. Their music and their artistry and their humility are just so great. I learn a lot every time I come away from those experiences. It keeps me creative because each of those situations is different. So it keeps my mind open to different possibilities. And all of that I bring to my leadership."



Wilson has learned something through all his apprenticeships. He says having mentors among the professional ranks is very important to a young musicians development. But it isn't as common as in years past, so, as a teacher, he tries to fill that roll. It's part of the enjoyment he gets in spreading knowledge to aspiring musicians. And he gets benefits in return.

Steve Wilson He started teaching at William Patterson University in New Jersey in the 90s. Now he is teaching at SUNY Purchase in New York State, as well as Columbia University, and last year began teaching at the Manhattan School of Music.



"It's a wonderful experience. I've been really blessed with a lot of wonderful students who have a hunger for knowledge about the various aspects of the music, not just improvisation, but the other parts too, technical and professional. It really helps me to solidify my own ideas about what I'm trying to do on all those levels. And how to articulate them. So it helps me to really hone in and clarify the very points that I take to hearty and that I'm working on. It makes me reinvestigate and investigate new possibilities with some of the ideas I've been working with," says Wilson.



"Many times the students, they bring in new ideas. Sometimes new ideas, based on the concepts that we've talked about. So, there's an exchange there and it's very exciting. Many of the students now come in as freshmen or sophomores and their playing is very high compared to what it was maybe 25 years ago when I was in school. They come in now with so much knowledge and so much skill. But there's the mentorship factor that they need and are looking for... the nurturing. That's a role I've really embraced. Many of the students are not just good students, they're good people. The role that that played for me, and does play for me in my career—the mentorship—is so important. Especially now that we don't have, for all intents and purposes, an apprenticeship system in the business anymore, for various reasons. But I really embrace that goal of mentorship. It is a nurturing situation for me as well as the students."



Wilson was fortunate to be in good musical climates all his life and had experiences with some of the outstanding professionals in the field. While not from a particularly musical family, his father was a jazz enthusiast, who took him to jazz festivals when he was young. He recalls seeing people like Cannonball Adderley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eddie Harris, Les McCann, Freddie Hubbard and it fueled a desire to play music. The first record Wilson remembers hearing at a very young age was Ahmad Jamal: Live at the Pershing. "But my family had Stax, Motown, the Beatles. My father loved Mario Lanza. Being raised as a Baptist, there was Gospel. Later on R&B and funk and pop music of the '60s and '70s. So I had everything coming in to my ear. Later, as a teenager, that's when I became influenced by Rahsaan and Eddie Harris and Cannonball. There was such a wide variety of music I was listening to at that time. The fusion stuff was in full bloom at that time, so I was a fusion head. Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Brecker Brothers."



He started formal training at 12, in junior high school, mostly on saxophone. He played in various R&B and funk bands throughout his teens. Wilson went on to attend Virginia Commonwealth University, enrolling in the jazz studies program. He also studied oboe and flute, as well various aspects of jazz performance and writing.



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