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Jack Wilkins: Playing What He's Preaching

Rob Rosenblum By

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"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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