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Jack Wilkins: Playing What He's Preaching

Rob Rosenblum By

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The point of recording an album isn’t to make money anymore–it's basically a calling card.
Some time in 1975 a box of records from the Mainstream label was dropped by my front door. I picked it up and began to open it with a mix of excitement and dread of having to face writing more record reviews. I saw an LP titled Windows with an unfamiliar cast of characters and put it aside. I had too many other albums to listen to and render judgment. Despite a nagging sense of obligation, this piece of vinyl was destined for a garage sale. Mainstream was issuing a lot of LPs, many by relatively obscure artists, and frequently filled with musical ornaments like strings, voices and electronics with the apparent desire to water them down just enough to attract a wider audience. A second look a few days later drew my eyes to the song list—"Windows," "Red Clay," "Pinocchio," "Naima." It was impressive, despite the youthful face of the unknown guitarist on the cover. I had some time to waste, and with low expectations I put it on the turntable. A few minutes later, my life was changed.

The guitarist was Jack Wilkins and his cohorts were bassist Mike Moore and drummer Bill Goodwin. Both would move on to illustrious careers—Moore pairing frequently with pianist Marian McPartland and Goodwin becoming a mainstay with alto saxophonist Phil Woods.

What I heard was riveting. It was an elegant album, but full of fire. Wilkins' technique was stunning, but employed to decorate his solos not to show off. His melodic invention was easy and flowing. I didn't know where he came from, but I was convinced that he was going to be a jazz star some day and I knew I needed to hear more of him.

At the time I was a booking agent and had a free hand at a couple of local clubs. I did some hunting around and eventually found Wilkins' phone number and arranged for him to play in upstate New York.

The abbreviated story is that Wilkins had the same impact with this new audience that he did with me. His reputation grew quickly and it wasn't long before hundreds of local jazz fans—including almost every area guitarist—were always on the lookout for his return. And return he did; many times and to ever increasing crowds.

Judging by what I saw in our little universe, Wilkins was on his way to joining a heady group of musicians in the lofty heavens of jazz.

Wilkins was born into a marginally musical family on June 4th, 1944 in Brooklyn, New York. His step father played a little saxophone and his mother piano, but with little distinction. However, unbeknown to him, he came by his talent honestly. More about that later.

Unlike those kids whose parents nag them to learn an instrument, Wilkins' mother and father couldn't care less. It was his aunt who bought him a guitar when he was a teenager and he learned to play the basics.

"I played a couple of chords like everybody in the neighborhood," he told me while munching chicken in my kitchen recently. There had been no hint that he was a jazz musician in the making. Most of what he was playing then were pop and rock tunes at parties and small local clubs.

"I didn't have any kind of real ambitions. I played guitar because it could help me get out of my parents' house and experience life. I felt like I was in prison then. Music helped me escape from home."

Jazz caught his attention while still a teenager. "I liked jazz, but a lot of it I didn't quite get," he told me. "I didn't know what they were doing.

"Django Reinhardt was one of the first players I could identify with in my early 20's," Wilkins recalled. "It was fun hearing him swing away like that. I could imagine being in a bistro in Paris listening to that music. I know that a lot of his music has been intellectualized, which is too bad because it is just fun music.

"Playing jazz never came on like a flash bulb," Wilkins said. "Perhaps it was just the process of elimination. I could do other things, but nothing that really interested me. I found out that I was very good at playing guitar when I was learning how to read music. That came in handy because it helped me become a studio musician and I could make a living. If it weren't for studio work I would probably have left music altogether."

His skills also caught the attention of many of the society bands that were around at the time, like Sammy Kaye, Warren Covington and Larry Elgart. While playing with those bands he made some important connections with other young and future stars like Randy Brecker and Eddie Daniels. He even played banjo in some Dixieland bands—a music he doesn't particularly enjoy playing.

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