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Steve Wilson: Lifetime of Study

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

I'm very happy to have the opportunity to interview a musician that I've worked with a lot over the years. When people say that a musician has worked with everybody in the business, Steve Wilson has literally worked with everyone in jazz. It would be hard to name somebody that he hasn't worked with in jazz. I feel like this is kind of a coup from my jazz blog, which is in the early stages.

George Colligan: I feel like we could talk about anything and it would be interesting. Besides biographical information that it most likely on your website, could you talk about your beginnings as a musician? What was the defining moment for you to choose this life? Did you come from a musical family? Was becoming a musician gradual or was there something you can pinpoint where you said to yourself, "There's no turning back. I have to play music?"

Steve Wilson: Well, it was gradual, but there were a few key moments. Because I had decided by the time I was a teenager—about 14 or 15 years old—that this was what I was going to do. And what really inspired that desire more than anything was the opportunity to see a few of the great musicians live at the jazz festival in Hampton, Virginia, where I grew up. So the first time that I got to see Eddie Harris, Cannonball Adderley, [and] Rahsaan Roland Kirk live—those three guys pretty much is what did it for me. And I saw them when I was around nine or 10. My father had some of their recordings. The two recordings that I remember the most were Quincy Jones' Walking In Space (A&M 1969), which had everybody on it, and Cannonball Adderley's Country Preacher (Capitol, 1969). Those were two very popular recordings at the time. As a matter of fact, you might say that they were two of the last jazz hits, if you want to call it that. My father and some of his friends had those recordings, so when we went over to his friends house, those recordings—among others—were playing. So when I saw those artists live—man, that was a pivotal moment. Not that I really understood it at that age, but I loved the energy, I loved the groove, I loved the sound, I loved the audience reaction, and I just loved the look of the band, you know, "Look at these cats playing music!" That was it, that's what made me decide I wanted to do it.

George Colligan: You went to VCU?

SW: Virginia Commonwealth University, yes.

GC: Did you think that going to VCU was the logical choice for a career in music? Was that as important as moving to New York, or was it a sort of a preview of things to come? What was your experience there, working with Doug Richardson?

SW: That was really the move for me to make at the time, although I didn't know how important it would become. I had been touring with an R&B cover band, which I enjoyed, but I wanted to go to school and I was thinking about going to Berklee. But then I got a chance to hear the VCU Big Band at my high school, and they were playing charts by Thad Jones, Gil Evans, and Duke Ellington and I said "Man, that's what I want to do." So I went to VCU and it turns out it was the best move I could have made. Had I gone to Berklee around that time—this was 1979, 1980—I would have been overwhelmed for a few reasons. Moving to a city like Boston would have been a shock, since I'm from Hampton, Virginia, which is not exactly a sprawling metropolis. Plus, when you consider who some of the students at Berklee were at the time—a lot of heavyweights like Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Kevin Eubanks—I think it would have been overwhelming. So I think going to Richmond and VCU was the move and I don't regret a minute of it. And that's because I learned some things that maybe I would not have learned elsewhere, such as the early music of Duke Ellington. That's how I became a fan of Johnny Hodges, who is still my favorite saxophonist.

GC: Wow!

SW: My first year I was studying oboe, I actually got in on an oboe scholarship.

GC: Really?

SW: Yes, although I gave it up after the first year. And I was also playing baritone saxophone in the big band, so I got to play all of these Harry Carney parts and Pepper Adams parts. I don't believe that I would have gotten that experience anywhere else. So I feel like those experiences really gave me a foundation that still serves me today in everything and anything that I do.

GC: Were your parents musical?

SW: My father had a great collection of recordings. He wasn't a collector; he had a small collection. But they were choice recordings. One recording that really stands out is Ahmad Jamal's Live At The Pershing (Argo, 1958). That recording might have been what really turned me on to music. I think I was about three or four years old checking out that recording.

GC: Amazing.

SW: I would just listen to that record over and over. " Poinciana" was a big hit at the time. I would beg my mother, "Mommy, mommy, put the record back on. And there were some other recordings, Miles Davis' Miles at Antibes (CBS, 1963). Miriam Makeba's Pata Pata (Reprise, 1967), some Mario Lanza, Johnny Mathis, some Motown, and Staxx, so it was a whole variety of music that I was listening to. Also, we went to church most Sundays, and my father used to sing in an all- male spiritual choir. I used to travel with them and sit in the front row and listen to them. Furthermore, Hampton Institute, which is now Hampton University, was renowned for their gospel and spiritual concerts, which were conducted by a guy named Roland Carter, who is now in Pittsburgh.

There was a local pianist that my father was friends with named Joe Jones. They called him "Virginia" Joe Jones. He had played with Dizzy Gillespie briefly in the '50s. He was one of these guys that knew all the old tunes. He was one of these gunslinger type of cats; he wasn't a super trained musician like cats are today. But anyway, all of these things were an influence on me.

GC: So it seems that there would be no surprise that you became a musician, because music was all around you. It was part of the culture. Not that your parents forced you to play instruments, but it was natural. Was your family surprised or supportive?

SW: I had always shown an affinity for the drums, particularly. Most kids are attracted to drums, when you see parades, etc... My parents got me a drum set for Christmas.

GC: I didn't know you played drums!

SW: Well, I'm a frustrated drummer above all.

GC: Aren't we all?

SW: Well...

GC: [laughs] Even the drummers!

SW: [laughs] Right! I never pursued being a trained drummer, because around age eight or nine I knew I wanted to focus on the saxophone. At some point in high school, I had thought about becoming a social worker, but my parents always recognized that I have an affinity towards music. At first they thought it was a phase, but then they were supportive. I had already started playing professionally as soon as I learned the horn. Also, everybody in the neighborhood played music, all the kids played music. There were two things we did in my neighborhood, played music and played sports. So we started to form garage bands. We put different bands together, and we were playing school dances by the time we were 14 and 15 years old. And then we would play at the Elk's Lodge or some of the clubs around the city. So basically all of my activity was music or sports. So I don't think it was a surprise to my folks when at 17 or 18 years old, I was definitely choosing to be a musician.

GC: What year did you move to New York?

SW: 1987. I was 26 years old.

GC: Was it a shock? I mean you were already working with Stephanie Mills.

SW: Actually that was in 1981-82. I went back to school, and then stayed in Richmond for a while, and then moved to New York. But I had been making periodic trips to New York. And also I was playing with the band Out Of The Blue. Kenny Garrett had contacted me and told me that the alto chair was open in that band. So I was already working some. But yes, it was a shock because in Richmond, I worked constantly, but when I moved to New York at first there was very little work off the bat. Out of the Blue wasn't working that much, it was kind of the end of their run. But I just networked for a while and it started to snowball.

GC: It seemed to me for a while you were with every band out there. I saw you playing in Geoffrey Keezer's band, James Williams band, Ralph Peterson's band, Buster Williams band. Did you ever play with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers?

SW: No, I never did. I played with him once in Mount Fuji in Japan, with the Art Blakey Big Band, but I was never in the Messengers.

GC : It's probably impossible to plan on having a career as illustrious as yours, but what would tell a young musician who aspires to this kind of sideman career, especially as a non-rhythm section player?

SW: Ironically, my three main role models in my first years in New York were drummer Victor Lewis, bassist Ray Drummond, and pianist Kenny Barron. And the reason was that that those guys worked every week in New York, either collectively or in other configurations. If you picked up the newspaper, you would see those guys playing with somebody every week. And I went to see them play with bands, and I realized that the reason that they were so in demand was that they made everyone they played with sound good! They could fit into any situation and make it work and also keep their own identity as well. It's ironic that rhythm sections players were my inspiration in that respect. I mea, there were horn player that inspired me as well, of course.

Did I plan on the career that I have had? No, I moved to New York thinking that maybe I would be here for a year and then I would have to leave. I never thought that things would turn out the way they did. I tell people that I've been here for 23 years, and this is the longest year I've spent anywhere!

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