Steve Wilson: Lifetime of Study

George Colligan By

Sign in to view read count
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!

All the young musicians are different. Some players come to me and say they want to be sideman. Some say they just want to be leaders. Some tell me they want to be a star! I tell them just to be open to different styles and different situations.

It's interesting because when I moved here, during the whole Young Lions phase when all the labels were signing young cats on the jazz scene, there were all different cliques, and people would try to pigeonhole me. They would see me playing with somebody and say, "You must be from New Orleans." And I would say, "No, I'm from Virginia!" So I was never tied to one clique, I tried to keep and open mind, and I never wanted to do it on the heels of someone else's success. I had to start from scratch on my own.

So in keeping an open mind, I was open to playing and sitting in with all different types of situations. I was sitting in with Jon Faddis' band, David Murray's octet, I was playing with the American Jazz Orchestra, I would sub in the Vanguard Band, I was playing with African Bbands sometimes. I think if a young musician can keep an open mind like I did, then opportunities will come. I don't think you can afford to be closed-minded especially the way the scene is today.

GC: How has your career as a sideman affected your career as a leader positively or negatively?

SW: I'm still figuring that out! It's been a double-edged sword. I have been lucky to play in different bands and observe how to be a leader. I say to players, even if they can't or don't want to work with different bands, go check them out and ask them how to be a bandleader.

GC: Do you think some people are looking for a short cut to stardom?

SW: Well, yes, because the problem is the apprenticeship system has been killed. The industry killed it in the '80s and '90s with the Young Lions phase. They took away the opportunity to develop as musicians. I could name a whole slew of cats that were put out there as leaders without working with anybody [who] weren't ready and now they aren't around anymore. If they had been allowed to develop, maybe things would have been different for them.

For me, it's worked for me because I've gotten to work with so many great bands. But unfortunately, concert presenters tend to not see me as a bandleader; they only perceived me as a sideman. A lot of older musicians have the same problem, no matter how much credibility they have, the promoters don't see them as leaders. Oftentimes, there is nothing you can do about it except to keep pushing your material, develop an audience, make good music, and hopefully promoters will change their minds eventually.

GC: I had a promoter tell me to my face that I was a great sideman but that I just didn't have what it takes to be a leader! And then he gave an example of one of my peers—who will remain nameless—who he thought had much more charisma and stage presence and that they had what it takes and I didn't. It was crushing and I still disagree because I want to do more as a leader. But it was a real wake-up call. How do you convince them? Some say you have to completely stop being a sideman and only be a leader. Is it possible? Is it possible financially?

SW: Well, I tried to do that, just focus on being a leader. I tried that in the early '90s. Out of the Blue had just broken up. I will still working as a sideman. But I was meeting label people and presenters, and many of them were saying, "We want to give you a shot!" So I started to get into it, but I didn't have an agent. So I was trying to book myself. And I was spending so much time on the phone, like six hours a day, and it was not yielding results. And I wasn't getting to spend any time on my horn! So I sort of gave up for another 10 years because it was so frustrating. I'm actually glad I gave it up at that time because I developed more musically.


comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Jamie Saft: Jazz in the Key of Iggy Interview Jamie Saft: Jazz in the Key of Iggy
by Luca Canini
Published: October 20, 2017
Read Piotr Turkiewicz: Putting Wroclaw On The Jazz Map Interview Piotr Turkiewicz: Putting Wroclaw On The Jazz Map
by Ian Patterson
Published: September 18, 2017
Read The indefatigable Bill Frisell Interview The indefatigable Bill Frisell
by Mario Calvitti
Published: September 12, 2017

Join the staff. Writers Wanted!

Develop a column, write album reviews, cover live shows, or conduct interviews.