Matt Wilson: Leaving a Mark

Matt Wilson By

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Often times just being in the right place at the right time will provide us with moments that inspire us for a lifetime. We should all be grateful for the moments where someone has done or said something that leaves a mark on our lives. Here are five "leave a mark" moments in my musical life I would like to share.

As a kid, I remember seeing a profile of Count Basie on 60 Minutes. I believe Morley Safer was the correspondent for the segment. At one point he asked Mr. Basie the common question, "What do you want to be remembered for?" Mr. Basie paused and smiled. He humbly replied, "That Count Basie was a really nice guy." Not long after that my friend and I went to hear the Count Basie Orchestra at a high school gym in Chillicothe, Illinois. After the concert we briefly met him. As he signed an autograph he flashed that warm smile and thanked us for attending. I was thrilled to have made that contact with a legend of the music and you know what? He was a nice guy. Mr. Basie's kindness left a mark.

I went to college at Wichita State University. A highlight of our year was the annual Wichita Jazz Festival held each April. Folks did not come around those parts that often so we soaked up every second of the weekend. It was our big chance to hear stellar music and hang out with the musicians who came for the festival, many of which would stay two or three days. My teacher, the esteemed Dr. JC Combs, encouraged us to welcome the visiting artists and do our part to see that they were comfortable. It was a way to get to know them beyond the usual "music nerd" questions and I met many musicians during those years that developed into valued friendships.

My favorite experience from the festival years was time that I got to spend with drummer Mel Lewis. He was there for the weekend as part of an allstar ensemble put together by the festival to play and conduct workshops. There was a fine older bassist in Wichita who had played in territory bands with Mr. Lewis and he introduced me to him the first day. Following the last concert of the festival one of my fellow students and I stayed up with Mel until about 6 am. I think his airport pick up was at 7 am! He shared many stories about jazz, drums, cymbals, band leading and life. At one point he said to us, "You know guys, I never have a bad night." We thought, "Oh really?" He continued, "I just have better nights than others."

Mel's outlook left a mark.

I had the fortune to play in Dewey Redman's band from 1994 until he passed away in 2006. After a particularly extraordinary concert one evening in Europe, I expressed my excitement to Dewey. He said, "Thank you for your music, Matthew. You know people sound their best when they're with me." I was taken aback by his confident declaration. My confusion soon transformed into an "ahhhhh" moment when I realized what he was conveying. Dewey was proud that he allowed his fellow musicians to journey beyond their boundaries. His giving approach as a selfless "allower" was a gift to all that were ever in his presence. I know firsthand that when I played with Dewey, I was liberated to express myself freely. He encouraged me to do so. Hallelujah! Dewey's gift of allowance left a mark.

I have played with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz for many years in an array of settings. I am always inspired by his improvisational courage and I love his sense of humor. One night we were playing trio with the late, great Dennis Irwin at the Ironhorse in Northampton, Massachusetts. We played totally acoustically on this series of concerts, which was a delight. I remember a collegiate jazz student commenting at one of the concerts, "Wow, we really had to listen."

We were in the dressing room prior to the set. Lee, at this time, was about to turn 75. (He is turning 82 Oct. 13th. Happy Birthday Lee!) He inquired, "Matt, do you know what I want to do in my remaining years?" I was expecting his answer to be a large-scale project possibly involving a large symphony orchestra and Tibetan throat singers. I patiently awaited his response. He simply answered, "I want to just keep doing what I am doing and do it better." Lee's message of dedication left a mark.

Prior to a concert with the wonderful Kenny Barron at the Stanford Jazz Festival, I observed that my close friend, trumpeter extraordinaire Terell Stafford, seemed a bit troubled. I inquired, "Terell, something wrong?" He replied "It's Kenny, he is so intimidating." I said, "What do you mean? Kenny is the nicest guy in the world. Plus, you have played with him often." He responded, "Yes, I know. But how can someone as great as Kenny be SO cool?" I agreed. Kenny's dignified grace left a mark.

I encourage you all to take time to recollect and celebrate moments where someone has left a mark. Also recognize that through our words and actions we leave marks that can elevate and inspire our community. NOW GO LEAVE A MARK!


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