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Steve Wilson: Lifetime of Study

George Colligan By

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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?

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