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Scenes From The Life Of A Young Jazz Musician

Jack Wilkins By

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'Who is this guy?' I thought. I knew I’d seen him somewhere before, not in movies or on TV, but in some major media event. He danced pretty badly so I couldn’t help thinking, he must be a musician. —Jack Wilkins

Foreword

Jack Wilkins is an iconic jazz guitarists of the 1970s who is still playing his ass off today, after a career leading and accompanying a host of groups with musicians such as Stan Getz, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy McGriff, Zoot Sims, Sonny Stitt, Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette, Phil Woods, and the Brecker Brothers to mention just a handful. One thing about Jack that many people don't know was that as young musician he also played vibes professionally. He can often be found playing jazz dates around Manhattan when he's not touring, and has an enviable reputation as a teacher and recording artist. I'm proud to call him one of my closest friends. Which is how I persuaded him to let me publish this little piece for All About Jazz. —Peter Rubie
It was a typical post-Christmas and New Year's tourist night in The Big Apple. My first record as a leader (Windows) had come out several years earlier, and I had been a sidesman on records by Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich, and Earl Hines since then. I was working on recording and releasing a new one as a leader (You Can't Live Without It).

Viewed from the top of the World Trade Center's recently opened restaurant "Windows on the World," a newly-born 1977 New York City looked positively breathtaking. The landmark restaurant had opened as a private club the year before, and was quite literally a dining room in the clouds, located on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It offered guests almost 360 degree giddy, large picture window views of Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey all within a swivel of your head. When the wind picked up you could sometimes feel the building sway slightly under you. Which was vaguely disturbing if you weren't expecting it.

One blustery, cold January night, however, I was viewing it from a different perspective— as a guitarist in a trio with piano and bass. It was a grueling gig. The hours were long, the music was in a commercial vein, and everyone eating seemed too busy talking to be listening. I was okay accepting the job, because, like many musicians I was feeling the pinch after the holiday festivities. January is often a lean earnings month. Because of the weather not many people were about. The job reminded me of a cartoon in the British magazine Punch someone once told me about. An intense-looking pianist dressed in a tux is entertaining a room full of diners and snooty waiters. If you looked carefully at the music stand you could see the title of the piece he was playing: "Choke You Bastards," by Cole Porter.

My friend Carl Barry usually played the gig six nights a week, but every now and then he would take a night off to do a better-paying job and hire me to sub for him. Carl would always pay me a little more than the gig paid to make it worth my while. Since I was able to play the gig "on autopilot," I got in the habit of watching couples as they danced, and eavesdropped on conversations from tables near the bandstand. The club, which at that time had about 1,500 members, was a playground for the wealthy and connected. You could witness a young man trying to impress a date, an elderly couple unabashedly dancing a 1920s Foxtrot, or tourists from the Midwest being intimidated by a waiter. You had to be prepared for anything there.

The job started at 7:30 pm which was too early for me to eat, but by 12:30 am when we closed up shop I'd be pretty hungry, especially since the restaurant served pretty good food and exotic aromas drifted my way all evening. The policy at the restaurant was, "No free food or drink for the musicians." It remains one of the more quaint customs in the music business even to this day. To buy something would have cost as much as I was earning, so I decided to wait till 12:30 am when I finished playing.

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