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Steve Wilson: Consummate Pro

By Published: May 26, 2008
"The best part about being there at that time was that it was a really vital time in the city of Richmond. The city was going through a renaissance period, especially with the arts. So there was a lot of work as a musician there and it was a great atmosphere. And we had many great artists-in-residence coming in, people who came in and spent several days or a week. People like Jackie Byard, the Heath Brothers, Elvin Jones, Sonny Rollins, Frank Foster. It was a great time to be there. That's where I made a lot of my first New York contacts, actually."

Among the gigs he got to play in college was one with pianist John Hicks, who would travel to Virginia occasionally and play with a local group. Ellis Marsalis was also teaching at Virginia Commonwealth for a time and their paths crossed. New York. In 1986, Wilson became a member of Out of the Blue, a sextet of promising young jazz players who were sponsored by Blue Note Records "It was a 'young lions' Blue Note group at the time, which afforded me the opportunity to come to New York, play with the band, and also my first tours to Europe and Japan. On those tours I got to meet a lot of New York musicians, so that was the impetus that helped me with the transition to New York."

The move to New York came in 1987. He was working with O.T.B. and also toured the U.S. and Europe for one year with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. In 1988, drummer Ralph Peterson, also an O.T.B. alumnus, asked Wilson to join his band. He began to pick up work with the likes of Michele Rosewoman, Renee Rosnes, The American Jazz Orchestra and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. In 1989, he worked with bassist Buster Williams.

His saxophone sound was, and is, influenced by a wide range of people, including Grover Washington, Hank Crawford and Arnie Lawrence. "When I was about 16 or 17 I started listening to Charlie Parker and Coltrane. I was unknowingly hearing a lot of Gary Bartz in those days in the '70s. Gary was doing a lot of the solo work on those Blue Note fusion records. I was really listening to him. I didn't know who he was, but I was listening to him a lot and transcribing his solos.

Steve Wilson

"Probably the most important turning point along the line of influences was going into college the director of the program at the time, Doug Richards, was steeped in Duke Ellington, particularly early Ellington. And that's where the influence of Johnny Hodges came in. To this day, Johnny Hodges is my favorite saxophonist. That really made a change for me in terms of how I approach the sound of the instrument and lyricism. Of course, I still listen to everybody and everything, but Hodges is my favorite... Particularly early Hodges. People think of Hodges only as a great ballad player, and he was, but in the '20s and '30s, he was as virtuoso as any player out there."

Coming to New York, "I probably had it easier than some others and more difficult than others," he says. "I did know a few people when I came in. I got a chance to play with a few people before I actually moved here. I was with the band Out of the Blue when I moved to New York, so I did have some 'ins' and that helped. The thing that helped me the most was having an open attitude, ready to try anything musically and professionally. The 'young lions' scene was sort of at its apex when I moved here. A lot of young artists were signing with record labels and getting big record deals. Though I worked with a lot of those people, I wasn't among those who, at least as an individual, were signed." But it didn't dissuade him.

He started teaching at William Patterson University in "I am very glad for that, because that allowed me the opportunity to work with a lot of the older established musicians, which is what I really wanted when I came to New York. That allowed me to work with people like Buster Williams and Lionel Hampton, the American Jazz Orchestra, which was led by John Lewis at the time, working along side people like Jerry Dodgion and Jerome Richardson. Subbing in the Vanguard band. My situation allowed me to keep musical relationships going for the older musicians as well as the younger musicians. I was very fortunate in that way. It was a tricky balance, but a healthy balance.

As he continued to develop, the 1990s saw stints with Dave Holland's quintet for about a year and Chick Corea's group Origin.

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