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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.

While the big bands provided an income for Wilkins, he needed something more to sustain him. "I started doing a lot of rehearsal bands with guys like Lew Soloff and the Breckers. Small bands—eight pieces mostly. "My first big break came when I recorded Syncratic Music with Barry Miles, which led to a few concerts. Shortly after I began playing with Paul Jeffrey and he wanted to do an album along the lines of The Bridge by Sonny Rollins. He had a recording contract with Mainstream and we did an album with Richard Davis and Thelonious Monk Jr.. Bob Shad, the owner of the label, liked what I did and he wanted me to record my own solo album."

The album was the aforementioned Windows. It was composed mainly of well known compositions of some of the top jazz artists of the time, such as Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter. Critics around the world reacted much as I did. It was a remarkable album by an unknown artist and it appeared to be the launch pad for a stellar career.

Shortly after the recording, Wilkins received a call from drum legend, Buddy Rich. Rich was forming a small group to play at his new jazz club and to tour internationally.

Wilkins is aware of Rich's reputation for being a difficult and demanding boss, but his perspective is much different. "I found Buddy Rich to be a nice guy. I don't know where all those stories came from, but I got along with him," he told me.

His experience with Rich was one of the highlights of the guitarist's career. "I got to play with people like Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Chris Woods, Zoot Sims, Sonny Fortune and Sal Nistico among others who had short stints with the band," he said. "We even did a TV show with Sid Mark in Philadelphia and we were invited to the famous Gibson Jazz Party in Colorado."

Eventually, there was an increased demand for Buddy Rich to reassemble his big band. Wilkins tried it, was left unsatisfied, finding that he had very little playing time, and decided to move on.

After Rich, Wilkins had a brief seat in the guitar chair of iconic trumpet player/band leader Don Ellis, who was known for arrangements with time signatures that bordered on the bizarre. "There was a lot of intricate stuff to read, but I enjoyed it."

Wilkins' exposure through these associations opened doors to new gigs under his own leadership. He had a long standing engagement at Sweet Basil's, then a premier New York City jazz club, hosting some of the biggest names in modern jazz. His group included Randy Brecker, Mike Brecker and Eddie Gomez—a virtual all star line up of the next generation of jazz giants.

Wilkins' new band caught the attention of the Chiaroscuro label, and they recorded You Can't Live Without It in October of 1977, which included Jack DeJohnette, Randy Brecker on trumpet, Michael Brecker on tenor, pianist Phil Markowitz, Jon Burr on bass and Al Foster on drums and Merge with Jack DeJohnette on drums, Randy Brecker and bassist Eddie Gomez.

This group recorded again 25 years later, with both Brecker brothers, Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette on an album called Reunion.

"My stint at Sweet Basil's led to a European tour with Eddie Gomez and pianist Mike Nock. I toured Europe with a quartet a few times," recalled Wilkins.

Jack Wilkins has continued to record sporadically, but most of his recordings, while not selling particularly well, are performances of which he can be proud. As Wilkins admits, "The point of recording an album isn't to make money anymore—it's basically a calling card."

Call Him Reckless, recorded in 1989, has him returning to the trio format with Steve LaSpina on bass, Mike Clark on drums. Wilkins is in top form and even venturing out to show some of his rock roots in the title tune, where uses an echoplex over an ostinato beat.

Alien Army with Marc Puricelli on keyboards, Michael Formanek on bass and Mike Clark is a foray into the realm of fusion. While it stands as an outlier to Wilkins' recorded legacy, it is one that he speaks of often and is one of his favorites.

Just The Two of Us is a duo collaboration with friend and fellow guitarist Gene Bertoncini. It features subtle interplay between the two on familiar standards.

Until It's Time is one of Wilkins' best efforts with Jon Cowherd on organ and piano, Mark Ferber on drums, Samuel Torres on percussion, Jeff Barone rhythm guitar and Steve LaSpina bass (reviewed here).

Keep In Touch features the late Kenny Drew, Jr., a very talented pianist, Andy McKee bass and Akira Tana drums playing a mix of standards and originals, like Wilkins' bright Kiwi Bird, inspired by a bird he saw when touring New Zealand.

"It has been a long time ago since I had my own band," he explained. "The last one was the Alien Army band. It's very hard to keep a band together. While having your own band can get stale after a while, my music isn't the best it could be without a regular band."

Most of Wilkins' recordings and live performances are fairly straight ahead bebop, in part because that is what people expect from him and because stepping outside the bounds of standard jazz performances requires rehearsals and the opportunity to play together on a regular basis. But make no mistake about it, he has a very catholic taste in music.

Even opera is within his scope. "Opera is down home music," he told me. "It was the entertainment of the day. Just because they are singing in a highfalutin' way doesn't mean shit."

"I like all kinds of music," he continued. I'm not a snob. My music collection includes a lot of classical, rock, folk, Brazilian."

While you can hear the influences of his favorite musicians, like Johnny Smith and Barney Kessel, he doesn't want to play like them.

"I don't want to play like anybody," he insists. "I play like me. Somebody's got to do it, right?," he added with a sly grin.

"Nobody can play like anybody else," he continued, pressing the point. "A woman I know played something Bill Evans recorded note for note for Evans himself. And Bill's reaction was why do you want to play like me for? Play like you. Even if you aren't getting over, playing like someone else won't get you over either."

Anyone who has seen Wilkins in person and have witnessed how he can mesmerize a crowd—even those who only have a tangential interest in jazz, knows that it is not Wilkins' music that has stood in the way of being part of the lofty crowd that includes notables like Al Di Meola, Larry Coryell and Wes Montgomery. It is the unseemly element of business that makes these decisions because jazz has to exist in a market climate.

Wilkins has stuck to his aesthetic guns regardless of what the costs may be. But he fully understands those who have succeeded by trying to reach a wider market.

"It's inevitable that you have to deal with business," he said. "But it shouldn't impact your music. It's just a matter of being a grown up. You have to pay your bills. I never understood the term sell-out. If you are a business person and you are screwing other people, then that is selling out. But doing something to earn money? I don't think there is anything wrong with that.

"A lot of people accuse Kenny G. of selling out—but that's the way he plays. It's actually a nice sound he gets. Musicians can be very narrow minded. And the critics just help it along. They all think they are some kind of arbiters of good taste, but I just call them jazz Nazis. "In my opinion, what a lot of people call real jazz stopped in 1955. But music is music and in a way everything is jazz. Everything is a creative force.

"People think that jazz is completely spontaneous, but it's not. Every jazz performance has a program behind it. You do have some creativity, but it is also reliant on what you have learned in the past. When you hear Sonny Rollins, you know it is him because he is using some tricks that identify him. But you can still be creative in that process."

Teaching music has become an ever growing part of Wilkins' income and he passes on his philosophy to his students. "I don't use the same lines every time, but I have my favorite licks. I don't teach them to my students. They need to find their own. I just teach them to negotiate their instrument. I show them how song is created and how to put some expression into it."

He doesn't believe he teaches jazz, but rather gives someone the tools to play it. "I don't even think of myself as a jazz musician. I'm a musician who happens to play jazz. How do you teach jazz? I don't. I think you learn it by listening."

While Wilkins is known for his prodigious technical facility, he doesn't think it is a requirement. "Some guys don't have great craft, but they have a good feel and they can get away with that. You can especially get away with it when playing blues. One of my favorite is T Bone Walker."

Looking over his 50 plus year music career, Wilkins shows little regret. He has a lot of students, plays frequently in New York City and occasionally gets calls for tours around the country as well as in Europe and South America.

As for jazz itself, Wilkins is not quite so optimistic.

"The days of the traveling jazz musician is done. It is too expensive. And as a result jazz is probably going to die. But for now there is still jazz out there."

Recently, Wilkins made a discovery that perhaps explains why he had such an intuitive feeling for music, jazz and the guitar. His birth father of whom he previously knew nothing, was a guitarist and a good one. His name was Jack Rivers Lewis.

"I never met my father," he confided to me. "He was a great guitarist. He played mostly country swing and even had a television show in Seattle. George Barnes was his favorite guitarist."

And one other odd link: Jerry Lee Lewis is a distant cousin!

Much of Wilkins' time is spent teaching the history of jazz and the development of the guitar in jazz. He has become an authority in the field, although insists that he is still learning himself. He does a lot of guest lecturing at universities around the country trying to help people understand the relationship between the great American Song book and composers like Gershwin, Arlen and Porter and it's relationship to the development of jazz.

He also has been working and rehearsing with a group that includes bassist Andy McKee and drummer Mike Clarke. They are hoping to record early next year and perhaps use the recording to lead to a European tour.

My initial hopes for Wilkins, stemming way back forty years ago when I first met him, have not been fulfilled. And while he has no real lust for fame, he does wish he were better known so that he could play in better venues. Overall he is satisfied that he gets to play the music he loves, occasionally playing with some great players, still giving jazz fans around the world their Jack Wilkins fix.
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