Friday, July 25, 2014

Part Three of My Interview with Guitarist Jack Wilkins

Jack Wilkins, Billy Drummond, Harvie S and Sonny Fortune
photo courtesy of Jack Wilkins
The New York City based guitarist Jack Wilkins recently celebrated his seventieth birthday with a jam session at he Jazz Standard on July 1, 2014. In attendance, honoring the master musician, were his contemporaries Larry Coryell, Joe Diorio  Howard Alden, Vic Juris, Gene Bertoncini, Jimmy Bruno and John Abercrombie. By all accounts it was a wonderful evening of guitar wizardry and camaraderie. Wilkins was gracious enough to spend time with me on an extensive phone interview that spanned the gamut of music, history, musicians, education and anything else we could talk about. The experience both enlightening and thoroughly entertaining for me and I hope for my readers. This is the third and final part of that interview the other two parts can be found by linking to Part 1 here and Part 2 here. If this doesn't pique your interest and make you want to go out and see this fine musician perform than nothing will.  In this part we discuss playing with singers, music education, the state of the music business and recordings, his take on listening to himself on records and his obsession with fifties era Sci-Fi movies.

We discussed Jack's biological father, who he didn't originally know and who was himself a fairly famous guitar player, in the last part of this interview. Jack thought  a picture of his dad and one of his album covers from The River Boys might give a little insight into his innate  musical heritage.

Jack Rivers Lewis
photo courtesy of Jack Wilkins

Continuing our conversation:

NOJ: You have played with some great singers over the last forty years including Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn, Chris Connor, Tony Bennett etc. How does playing for a singer differ from playing with a group?

JW: It’s not that different. With a singer there is more conscious dynamics and I think there are more conscious tempos too. Singer’s always want a tempo that they want. You can’t play All the Things You Are for example fast or slow or any tune for that matter, with a singer it has got to be in their tempo. I like playing with singers, when they are good of course.  One of the singers that I really enjoyed playing for was Morgana King. She was great. I loved her singing. Jay Clayton, Nancy Moreno, wow Sarah was wonderful;. I liked them all. They all had something special.
Sarah Vaughn
One guy that I wished I had played for was Nat King Cole. I played for his brother though, Freddy Cole.

NOJ: I did an interview with Freddy last year. He was great.

JW: Ah what a nice cat and I loved the way he sang. Very funny.

NOJ: He is very smooth. You know he never makes a set list before a show. Poor Randy Napoleon, his musical director has to be prepared for whatever he decides to play on the spot! He has an incredible memory of all these tunes even at his age. I think he is now eighty two.

JW: Yeah I know I played with him. That’s what he did, fortunately I knew the tunes. ( Laughter) He is terrific.

NOJ: Your teaching gigs include Manhattan School of Music, Long Island University, the New School and NYU?

JW: Well I’m an adjunct to all of them. Manhattan was my main school. There are not that many students at this point. I have plenty of private students, sometimes more than I need. I can handle what I have so it is not a burden. I like to teach.

NOJ: So what is it about teaching that you find most satisfying?

JW: When I can hear somebody starting to play better because of my helping them, I am very gratified about that. I am honored that they got something from my teaching. I am very pleased about that, very pleased. I want to help them because they so want to learn. Most of these students want to learn that it gives me great pleasure to help them.  They all usually have great attitudes and if they don’t I won’t take them a second time. They respect what I do and they ask me all the right questions and I am pretty honest.  I don’t hold anything back. That would not be helpful, if I said, that’s great see you next week.
They want the truth so I say your ‘comping is lousy, your single line is a little sporadic, you’re not playing on the right changes, your tone is shrill and your too loud. (Laughter) Your doing just fine.

NOJ: So go home now. (Laughter)

JW:  Sometimes I’d like to say that (Laughter) but seriously. With somebody so needy and so wanting to learn you’re not going to hurt their feelings. You like them and you want to help them.

NOJ:  And you don’t want to dampen their enthusiasm either, right?

JW: No. That is a very fine line.

NOJ: You have spoken in the past as to having learned very early on to play within the music, within the group as opposed to showcasing yourself on the bandstand. With the students you see coming up, is there an emphasis today on chops more than musicality?

JW: Oh, totally, absolutely.  It is sort of disturbing. It does not sit well with me. They are not concerned about the music, they are not concerned about playing the right changes, they’re not concerned about sound, and they are just concerned about their chops. It’s preposterous! Who cares! There is always somebody who can play faster. It is not about the speed, it’s about playing with the music.

Speed is fine if it is organic. A lot times they practice these runs at home and they get on the bandstand and they play exactly the same thing. You can’t do that when you’re playing with a bass player and a drummer that are in the moment. You have to be in the moment when you play music. It’ll happen if you have a good band and they are all playing together, but I had that experience too.  I was a kid, Mr. Hot Shot there, we have all done this. You get up there and you wail away and feel how fast and wonderful you are and then the next thing you know you’re there alone!  That has happened to me, it was an incredible experience. The whole band stopped playing after a while, and I said why did you stop playing?  They said “Oh we were listening to you.” A bell went off in my head.  I wasn’t listening to them is what they were saying.

NOJ: You have several albums out. The latest one is Until It’s Time from 2008.  Is that the last one or do you have a newer one out?

Jack Wilkins :Until It's Time
 Sample Jack's Music here

JW: I have a new one coming out. It is not out yet. I recorded it in Paris and I like it a lot, which is difficult for me to say, because usually I don’t like anything I record. It’s true I don’t. I can’t listen to anything I record, I just hate it.

NOJ: Really, you are that critical of yourself?

JW: Not critical, it’s not that it isn’t good or okay or whatever, it brings back too many memories of what  I was feeling or going through at the time in my life. What happens is it brings all the angst to the surface, again. That was a moment in time. Music is like a portrait, you play something that you are feeling at one time in your life, and then you put it on wax and it’s recorded and it’s there forever. As soon as you hear again, maybe ten years later and you go right back to that spot that you were in. You start reliving the past , you know I didn’t like this or that was great but that part is gone, or whatever.  You know it is a real introspective when you listen to your own music. That is why I am not keen on listening to my own music.

NOJ:  Tell me about the new recording.

JW: Yeah, it was done in Paris. I have a trio, bass and drums and we do a bunch of trio things plus we have a featured vibes player and a harmonica player who is wonderful. I don’t have all the information  but it is done. It is just being ordered and mastered and it should be ready in a few weeks. I’ll send you one when it is done.

NOJ: That would be great. You are now seventy and  have been playing professionally for over forty years. What advise do you have for aspiring musicians?

JW: That is a question that I am asked quite a lot. The answer is to learn the fundamentals. Be on time if you have a gig, don’t be an asshole.( Laughter) Learn as many tunes as you can, learn how to read. Develop your ears so you can play a tune that you don’t  know.  Be cooperative, don’t be nasty. If you don’t like something just don’t do it, don’t do it with an attitude.  All you can do is hone your professional skills, but  therein lies the problem. These kids don’t have a place to play anymore. There are not a lot of venues. I was having some sessions here at my place for my students but it turned out to be too much. There are places, Small’s has a jam session, Cleopatra’s Needle, the Zinc Bar has a session a couple of places in Brooklyn.

NOJ: You Used to have a residency up on the Upper West Side at an Italian joint called Bella Luna, but they don’t do that anymore, right?
Jack Wilkins, Ron Jackson and Tom Dempsey at Bella Luna
JW: No. We had a great run there seven or eight years.

NOJ:  You had a lot of great duos there.

JW: Oh the best. Bucky (Pizzarelli), Howard (Alden), Freddie Bryant, Ron Jackson, Paul Meyers, Carl Barry  the list goes on and on and on. It was fun that place. Then they moved and the new place didn’t last that long. There are places to play, but there are not as many as there used to be, and they not as warm and cozy as they used to be.

NOJ:  It must be humbling to have had all the players that you had at your birthday bash show up and want to honor you for your seventieth birthday celebration at the Jazz Standard? ( The Jam Session Celebration was held to a pack house on July 1, 2014.)

JW: Oh of course, I am beyond flattered.
Guitarist Jack Wilkins 70th Birthday Bash at the Jazz Standard w friends
John Abercrombie, VIc Juris, Larry Coryell, Joe Diorio, Howard Alden and Jack 
NOJ: One of the players that will be there for your celebration is John Abercrombie. I am a big fan of John and his music. His is one of my favorite players.

JW:  Me too, I love John. A wonderful player and a wonderful cat too. One of my favorite records he ever made was a record called Direct Flight.  It was with Peter Donald and George Mraz just a trio date while he was recording for ECM. People don’t realize how straight ahead when he wants to.

NOJ: When musicians are in sync it is an incredible experience and wonderful to behold.
You don’t always see that in performance. You said once in another interview that you are very big on listening and I can understand why, because if you don’t have the ears to listen to what the other players are playing, where they are taking it, then how can you tell where the music can possibly go?

JW: That is essential. That is almost elementary "1A" Be in tune. Listening is to me the most important aspect of playing. John \(Abercrombie) told me a long time ago, John in his inimitable way said “Yeah, listening is my meat and potatoes.” (Laughing loudly).  Couldn’t be more truthfully said.

NOJ:  What do you lies in the future for jazz guitar? 

JW: I think the economy is going to dictate where it goes. Things can become obsolete if no body wants to buy it. That holds true with just about everything. CDs are pretty much obsolete aren’t they?

NOJ: Well I like to get a lot of  hard copy of what I review. I like the packaging; reading about the artists;. how the music was made. Who wrote the tunes etc.
JW: A lot of the kids today they just download it.

NOJ: Yeah they just download the music, but how connected can you be to a digital download?

John Coltrane and Miles Davis

JW: Well, I have an interesting way of thinking about that. A few years ago I asked my students what they were listening to. They would tell me I’m listening to Coltrane, Miles Davis. I said wow, what phase of Coltrane do you listen to?  Because he has had a lot of phases,  you know and no of them are the same.  So they say to me “I don’t know I have this compilation that I listen to. “OK, so what are some of the tunes on that. “ Well they would tell me “ I don’t know.” That surprised me. I said “You mean you listen to Coltrane and you don’t know the name of the tune, you don’t know who is in the band?”  “Nah I just downloaded it.” Now I don’t think that is really learning anything.  You may like it but you’re not ‘going to remember it. I don’t think so. Maybe I am wrong about that. I don’t even know. It’s such a complicated issue, downloading and all that wizardry that goes on. It is so far out for a lot of people in my age group. If you are in your twenties that is all you have, that is what you have grown up with.

Students tell me “ I can’t remember tunes. I play a tune three or four times and it doesn't stick with me.”
I tell them I am not surprised. You didn’t grow up with this music. I did. When I was a kid, my step father and mother used to play Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole  and I knew all these tunes.  All the great singers, I grew up with this music.

NOJ: If you never grew up with this music how can you possibly embrace it. It goes back to heredity and environment.  Environmental influences can be so powerful. If you grow up exposed to something you are more likely to have an easier time absorbing it and will most likely enjoy it.

JW: It’s true. Interestingly enough, students from Europe and Japan are way more versed in the ( Great American Songbook) tunes then American Students are.

NOJ: Isn’t that funny. I have a theory about that. The Japanese have been very big jazz fans for decades and you wonder what it is that drew them to this music. Maybe it was the GIs that were stationed there after WWII during the reconstruction, listening to that music that laid the groundwork for the Japanese people’s affinity for the music. The same could be said for the American GI’s stationed in Europe during the Marshall Plan.
GI's dancing to Big Band music with Japanese girls in Japan 1945
JW: That is a great thought. I don’t know about that but that is very possible. The music was big band  with vocalists and they were around then after the war. The music is still around today.

NOJ: Any new player that really impresses you these days.

JW: I can’t even say new but Adam Rodgers is quite remarkable. I think he is just a brilliant, Jonathan Kriesberg, Ben Monder. These guys are not even new are they?  Like I said before, if you can play this instrument at all in a good way, you get my vote right there, because I know how hard it is to play this thing.

You know there are a lot of guitar players that I mentioned, like Barney and Tal and Jimmy and the rest but I would be remiss if I didn’t include Chuck Wayne in the pantheon of the greatest guitar players to have ever played the guitar. The technique that Frank Gambale uses, Chuck Wayne did that in the forties, of course Frank is playing different stuff, but Chuck called it alternate consecutive picking. It is simple to fathom but different to execute.

NOJ: Who is your most influential teacher?

JW: John Mehegan, pianist, and my early guitar teachers Sid Margolis, Joe Monte and Rodrigo Riera, he was my classical guitar teacher. He was amazing. I could never get that right flavor or feel for it.

NOJ:  You live in Manhattan and I understand that you are a SciFi fan. What is your favorite SciFi movie of all time?

JW: How did you know that? I have several favorites. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, the first Time Machine, Them.  My girlfriend thinks I am nuts. It is very interesting that the way the world is going SciFi. In my apartment I have a big walk-in closet with maybe five hundred movies. They are copies.

The Original
 Invasion of the Body Snatchers
NOJ: What is your upcoming schedule for live performances after the July 1, 2014 Jazz Standard date?
JW: I am playing a duo with Carl Barry on July 26th at Grata Restaurant. On August 9th I am playing at the Bar Next Door and at the Kitano on  August 29th. Both gigs are with with Mike Clark on drums and Andy McKee on bass.

NOJ: I really appreciate  your time and I look forward to actually seeing you in person in the near future and hearing your new album.

You can hear link to Part 1 of this interview here and Part 2 of this interview here

Friday, July 18, 2014

Part Two of My Interview with Guitarist Jack Wilkins

Jack Wilkins
The guitarist Jack Wilkins has been on the musical scene, in and around New York for the past fifty years. He made his bones playing with the great drummer Buddy Rich. Despite growing up in the midst of the fusion era and dipping his toe in the electronic waters of fusion for a time, he never really dove too far astray from a mainstream approach to jazz guitar. He was always more interested in the sound of the guitar than in the electronic wizardry that fascinated so many of his contemporaries at the time. We spoke to Wilkins just prior to his July 1, 2014, seventieth birthday bash at the Jazz Standard, where many of his fellow guitarists came to honor and celebrate his career. Part two of this interview is a continuation of our lengthy conversation with Wilkins. You can link to Part One by clicking here.

In Part Two we discusses fusion, some of his admired contemporaries, his guitar playing father, whether musical traits are learned or inherited, his time with Rich and some of his experiences as a working musician.

NOJ: Jack, what happened ( to jazz guitar) after (Joe) Pass? You get into the contemporary guys, after Howard Roberts or so you get Pat (Metheny), you, John McLaughlin, John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Alan Holdsworth  where do all  these players fit into the musical tree of jazz guitar players in your mind?

JW: I think jazz guitar took a real division in the mid to late sixties. A lot of guitarists got into the fusion bag, which is great . You know I did a lot of that myself. People don’t know that but I can play the tar out of fusion guitar. (Laughter)

NOJ: I was going to ask you about that. It seems like you were with (Buddy) Rich while the whole fusion scene was exploding around you?

JW: No, I did a lot of that. I was in a lot of bands that had all this wild fusion stuff .... I did all that; it was beautiful, I loved it but it didn't last for me. I sort of stayed with contemporary jazz whereas a lot of guys didn't.  Pat Martino stayed contemporary too, but a lot of guys went into fusion or bossa nova.
I am not dismissing it, I want you to know that. It is just an observation, I see what people play and how they play and to me I am just observing it and ninety nine percent of the times I like it. Sometimes its really terrible its just s*^t  you know.

NOJ: What about a more mainstream guy like Larry Carlton. I think Larry is a phenomenal guitar player.

Larry Carlton
JW: Me too.

NOJ: But he got into playing in a studio arena where the music was much more popular than more traditional other guys.

JW: Oh I think his work, for example with Steely Dan is brilliant. I play those solos, I know those solos. Oh God yeah.  I mean I have played them all because they are so melodic and so perfect.

NOJ: Yeah, they are so melodic and so memorable. You can’t help but remember, wow that was a great line.

JW: Yeah, memorable that’s exactly right. You know some players, that may not be so technically advanced, may play something in a way that just touches your heart and you say wow I want to play this.

NOJ: What about a player like Al DiMeola?

JW: He is a great player, very humble and friendly to me.  Paid me a great compliment, which is rather funny, he said “Wow, man I never heard anybody play as fast as you.’ And so I busted up laughing and I said “Are you kidding, you are the fastest guitar player that ever walked on a stage. ” He said “yeah but I just play the same thing over and over, you are actually playing on the changes.” I laughed and gave him a hug and said “Yeah you keep thinking that.” (Riotous laughter) I loved that story.
Alan Holdsworth

Another guitarist that is a monstrous guitar player, beyond comprehension, is Alan Holdsworth. What he plays on the guitar and the music that he writes is uncanny. I think that record  he made called Secrets, you know that one?Probably one of the great records ever made in the twentieth century.

NOJ: He is a monster, but I don't believe he is known that well to the  public outside of guitar circles.

JW: Is that right? I didn't know that. I have a copy of a recording  he made at a club in England a long , long time ago. It must have been in the sixties, late sixties I don’t remember and he is playing straight ahead.

NOJ: Wow, that is interesting.

JW: With his twists on it , you know. The particular way he hears it. Do you that record John McLaughlin made, with that piano player, Gordon Beck? I forget the name of it a sixties pop record. They do “These Boots are Made for Walking” and all that stuff. It’s quite impressive.

NOJ: Is that right?  I was a big McLaughlin fan. When I was younger I saw the Mahavishnu ( Orchestra) and they just blew me away.

JW: Oh Yeah.
Mahavishnu Orchestra
 NOJ: I was about four feet away from them and he comes out in this white suit with a double neck Gibson  and Billy Cobham had the Fibes drum set that was clear acrylic, and Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird and Jan Hammer and they just said nothing , counted off time imperceptibly and opened up with a fusillade of music. It was like a wall of sound that juts blew you away. I couldn't comprehend how anybody could be that precise, that fast, that together and that powerful.  When they were on they played like a precision clock; a clock on amphetamines but a clock. (Laughter)

JW: I saw the band he had when he was with Tony Wiiliams. That was so loud ohhh. I cannot believe how loud it was, too loud. I don’t mind volume but this was beyond the pale.
Tony Williams Lifetime w John McLaughlin
 NOJ:  Let’s get more into your life. After you found out that your birth father was a successful west coast guitar player, I guess in the western swing mode? I assume you tried to get your hands on his music? Was there much material to listen to and did you find his playing had any relationship to yours?

JW: I found several cd’s and a bunch of 78's that were running around. Was his playing like mine? In some ways, a little bit. In some of the instrumental things he played, yeah there was a similarity. I couldn't say we were the same, it had just a touch of similarity, we weren't the same but close.

NOJ: That begs the question are musical traits inherited or learned?

JW: That’s a big question that I've milled over in my mind for years and years and years. I never did believe in hereditary traits, never. I just figured with hard work you could get what you wanted, but I have come to change my opinion on that. I think there is something to this genetic thing after all.

NOJ:  It seems to repeat itself in different areas, like sports and things that have a mechanical aspect to them.

JW:  You know, yeah, but part of that is sociological. For example if your father was a golfer and he spent his whole life playing golf, you are naturally going to be drawn to the sport. Or you might have the same physical attributes that would make you a decent player or even a great player. But it is a rarity when you find a  father/son or father/daughter or mother/daughter thing where the offspring  does as well or better than the parent. There are a few instances where it has happened. Michael Douglas comes to mind, the actor Kirk Douglas’ son. Michael Douglas has done as well if not surpassed his father in terms of being a great actor and making better movies.

Kirk and Michael Douglas

NOJ: In basketball Stephen Curry is better than his father Del Curry was, right?

JW: Yeah that’s most likely true. There is probably a lot of examples but it is not common. You have to really search for examples where it is true. Jack Nicholas, the great golfer has  sons, and they play, but they are not nearly in the same ballpark as he is. They know that but that is neither here nor there. Sometimes it has to do with desire too.  You can have the talent, but if you don’t have the will it’s not going to happen.

I mean I was possessed for lack of a better word, maybe obsessed is a better way to put it. I spent most of my waking hours practicing, or playing or asking questions or going to hear people play . I was really, really dedicated to what I was doing. Not knowing about my father at the time, mind you. I didn't know he played the guitar and if I had known or I had heard him play, I might not have been as desirous of wanting to play. I don’t know that now. If I did know him and he was part of my life, I may not have gone for it like that. I mean it’s a question that I throw out as a possibility. There are all kinds of possibilities.

Kenny Drew Jr. is a perfect example. His father was a magnificent player but so is Kenny Jr., as good, maybe better. Not better,  it’s hard to say better just different. Kenny Jr. is classically trained and his technique is astonishing. He is ridiculous, a preposterous technician and a musician that hears everything. Just a class act all the way.There is a bunch of others, I suppose I have to keep thinking about it, but that is enough.

Kenny Drew 

Kenny Drew Jr.
NOJ: You once said in an interview that playing along with records is silly. Do you really feel that there is no value to listening to great players and trying to emulate some of what they are doing?

JW: Did I say that?

NOJ: That is what I read in the interview. (Laughter)

JW:  Well, you know what I think that was taking out of context. It was not playing along with records, it was playing along with “play-along” records”.  The Jamie Abersold (records), which I have nothing against, you know playing along with a rhythm section and you play over them, its not going to help you that much. There is no interplay, let’s put it that way. It is just playing with the changes. Playing along with say Horace Silver Band where they swing so hard, I used to do that a lot.

NOJ: What about emulating solos from people who you respect.

JW: Yeah I have done that. Playing along with a real recording where the guys are really blowing and you can keep the time that’s great. I have studied some solos and it’s okay to a point, just to see how they did ( what they did) and how they negotiated the changes, sure. I have transcribed Bill Evans as much as I have transcribed anybody else.

NOJ:  Many people have, he was very influential to many different instrumentalists.

JW: Yeah. I also did a lot of Bud Powell, a lot of Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard  a lot of different musicians, trumpets, saxophones..

NOJ: Oh Yeah you did a version of Freddie’s Red Clay  from your Windows album that was ultimately sampled in a hip hop version done by A Tribe Called Quest.  What do you think of that?

JW: Well, they paid me. (Laughter). I like the tune and I like that band actually. A Tribe Called Quest, I enjoyed that record.

NOJ: You met Buddy Rich in 1973 and you have been quoted as saying that at the time you were playing five or six nights a week for 45 weeks out of the year for probably two to three years?

JW:  Two and half years yeah.

NOJ: That is a whole lot of playing and you obviously became very proficient and attuned to the music, but did you find yourself running out of ideas or getting fatigued playing this much?

JW: Oh no, not at all, not even close. No I never got tired. Playing with Buddy you can’t be tired or you wouldn’t play. (Loud Laughter). I was energized every time I got on the bandstand. There was never any lulls there, never, none. The music was always at the highest level of energy and Buddy he was the machine behind it.

NOJ: I just wonder when your playing that much do you fall into a trap of repeating yourself?

JW: I suppose so, a little bit, it’s impossible not to, you can’t help it especially if it is in the same tempos and the same set. But Buddy was pretty cool about changing stuff up. He didn't stay with the same program every night. And he changed bands quite a bit too. There were different horn players, different bass players, and different piano players. Then we went on the road with Frank Foster, Jimmy McGriff, myself and Buddy, that was fun. That was great, we had a great time and the music was killing. Dizzy played with us, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Fortune and Kenny Baron were in the original band. Pretty impressive, yeah. Stan Getz played with the band for a while, three or four gigs. Buddy and he were co-leaders, whatever that means. All I know I sat there playing and I was having the time of my life. I didn't even realize I was having the time of my life until it was over.
Jack Wilkins and Sal Nistico with Buddy Rich
 photo courtesy of Jack Wilkins
You know who I thought was a great tenor player was Sal Nistico, man. When he got started he was like a machine. He was on fire. Notes came out so lucid and so clear and strong. You never had a problem knowing where the beat was. Him and to my ears Cannonball ( Adderley)  have always been my favorites. There is a lot of great players out there. You could spend the next six months figuring out all the great players.

NOJ:  You were playing straight ahead with Rich’s small groups while the fusion-era was exploding around you.  Did you miss this era of electronically progressive music and what was your take on this development in jazz and music in general?

JW:  I didn't miss it, we did some fusiony things with Buddy. Buddy would try to keep up with what was happening on the scene, so we did a couple of Herbie (Hancock) tunes and like Maynard’s (Ferguson) "Chameleon" and such. Buddy wasn't just straight ahead “Sweet Georgia Brown” type music, plus he had an electric piano at some point. Then the organ, of course, that sort of implies funk, with Jimmy McGriff. I wasn't playing with Buddy all the time. So there were other things I was doing while I was playing with Buddy. I think that forty-five weeks a year is a little bit exaggerated, I don’t know if I said that, it seemed like forty-five weeks a year.  I think it was more like thirty five weeks out of the year. We played a month at Buddy’s Place, then have a couple of weeks off and then go on the road for a couple weeks and then come back to Buddy’s Place for a month. It was that kind of thing.

NOJ: That’s right, he had a club and you were in and out of the club and on the road in between?

JW: That’s correct. We did some European trips which was fun. Buddy didn't really want to travel anymore, so he was delighted to play home at his club.

NOJ: Was he as incredible as they say?

JW: More. Believe me when I tell you more. I sat next to him, right on his right for two and a half years and I got to tell you, the stories about his legendary drumming, it pales in comparison to actually seeing it every night. You couldn't believe anyone’s hands could move that fast.  We were all knocked out by that. Everybody, everybody, Sonny Fortune used to shake his head, we all did. It was stunning to watch that.

NOJ: Could he play really  softly and comp very well?

JW: He listened very well. Absolutely and his brushes were extraordinary. I know a lot of people think he was just a basher, that’s not true at all. He made a record with Lionel Hampton and Art Tatum Just the Three of Them. They made two records actually I have them and Buddy is playing brushes the whole time. It’s ridiculous; I mean that guy was really spectacular.

NOJ: Who did he take lessons from?

JW: You know what, my drumming friends would know. Mike Clark would know that. Davie Tough maybe was an influence on him. A lot of drummers used to come by and sit in with us.  He had a lot of drummer friends, a lot of friends period. Buddy was a good guy.

A lot of people don’t know that, they listen to that stupid tape of him on the bus. That infuriates me actually. What a legacy, the man leaves a musical legacy like that and that’s what people remember him by? That really irritates me. That’s what they all remember. It’s like that book that they wrote on Frank Sinatra. Kitty Kelley. It was a trash on Frank Sinatra from start to finish, but nothing was mentioned about his music. How can you write a book about Frank Sinatra , no matter how vicious and venomous you want it to be and not mention his music? It’s like writing a book about Babe Ruth and not talking about baseball! It’s crazy.

NOJ:  Let’s get back to the second part of my question, the electronically driven music that was fusion. What is your take on that part of music and do you think it was a positive or negative or just another aspect of the evolution?

JW: I don’t think it’s positive or negative, it is just what it is. I dabbled in that myself.

NOJ: But you chose not to go too far down that path so there clearly wasn’t enough there for you?

JW: Yeah, I don’t know it just got tiresome after a little while for me. I mean, I wanted to hear the sound of what started to get me play this instrument in the first place. The beautiful sound of the guitar without the effects and distortion and what not. I did a record called Alien Army where I did a lot of distortion and what not, that is a fusion record. I don’t know if you have heard of it? That’s about as fusion as I can get it, it’s on my website, there a couple of tracks there you can sample.

Sample Alien Army here

I played it for my girlfriend when I first started going out with her. On this one track I sound very much like Eric Clapton. She said “ Wow, who is this.”  I said it’s me. She said “No, no, no who is it? No let me listen it sounds like Eric Clapton, it’s Eric Clapton isn’t it?” Nope it’s me. She thought I was teasing. It took me about a half hour to get her to believe me I had to give her the record. She is still not sure it’s was me.( Laughing Loudly)

NOJ:  Is she still your girlfriend?

JW: Yeah,(Laughing)  She has certainly played that kind of stuff she knows that was me.  You know a lot of the so called “purists,” jazz people, they hated that record. They had no qualms about telling me so. One of them said “What is that shit?” I said that’s not shit it’s a very personal expression of what I felt at the time. “No that’s just shit.”  they would say . Can you imagine?

NOJ: They didn’t hold back did they?

JW:  I would never say that to somebody, ever. Here is another part that I have come to realize about myself that I didn’t know. Turns out if I don’t like something and then a few years later I go back to it and I do like. I’ll be honest with you the first time I heard Coltrane’s Meditations recordings, I said oh  I hated it,  I hated it , I couldn’t stand it. Then some years later and I listen to it now and I think it’s some of the greatest music ever made. So it takes some time to develop as an artist, as a person, as an emotional entity. You don’t just wake up in the morning and say oh let’s listen to Beethoven without knowing anything about it. To me it makes me like something even more when I learn something about it; where the tune came from how it was created and what’s behind it and all the things that go into certain music.

NOJ: That’s what you said about knowing and meeting Baden Powell, it made a big difference to you.

JW: It made a difference to get to meet him and get to know him and Johnny Smith too. I got to know him pretty well too and Tal. So that does make a difference. It is not as simple as just liking or disliking something. You have to have a sort of education. A lot of people, real quick, say of that is shit, but you don’t know anything about it. You can’t like or dislike it until know something about it. It doesn’t hold true only with music, it’s true with everything, it’s true with movies, it’s true with architecture.

NOJ: What other groups did you play within the fusion era?

JW: I played with a group called Elephant’s Memory.  I played with a band called Exit; with a guy called Rick Cutler. I played with a lot of bands that you never heard of.  On my website, there is section as a sideman and a leader, but there is a  couple of cuts from the band called Exit that you would not know it is me.

" takes some time to develop as an artist, as a person, as an emotional entity. "

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Conversation with the Guitarist Jack Wilkins at Age Seventy

Jack Wilkins
Since the early seventies, the Brooklyn born, New York City based guitarist Jack Wilkins has quietly but firmly established himself as a musician’s musician.  His resume is an impressive collection of work, mostly performed in the shadows of some of jazz music’s most celebrated artists. In the group setting Wilkins is a brilliant soloist who can dazzle with blazingly fast, impeccably clean single-line runs or he can employ warm inventive chord work that leads you along the melody in new and delightfully unpredictable ways. 

In the early seventies he was introduced to acclaimed drummer Buddy Rich, who hired Wilkins for his small ensemble. The group played regularly at Buddy’s Place in NYC and extensively toured with a rotating line-up of formidable musicians.

Wilkins has been a lifelong educator who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music, teaches privately and has been an adjunct professor at NYU, the New School and Long Island University. He is recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts grant for his work with jazz guitar and has served on the selection committee at the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institutes guitar competition in Washington DC. 

On Tuesday July 1, 2014 a seventieth birthday celebration ( Wilkins actual birth date is June 3, 1944) was held at The Jazz Standard for Wilkins. The self-deprecating musician is both honored and humbled at the outpouring of his contemporaries who came to play with him and the fans that joined in his celebration.

We had, what turned out to be, a delightfully long and in-depth conversation with the guitarist. We talked about his career, teaching, other guitarists and music in general, in a conversation that was remarkably frank and  wonderfully enjoyable. Here is  part One of this phone interview from June 10, 2014, where we caught up with Wilkins at his Upper West Side home.

NOJ: Let’s start with your name. Is Jack your real first name or is it a nickname?

JW: A lot of people ask me that. Jack is a nickname for John they say, but no that‘s my real name. It is Jack officially.

NOJ: You have been playing for over forty years and have played with some of jazz music’s iconic figures, yet while you are recognized by fellow musicians, you are not what I consider a household name.  Why do you think the general listening public is not as familiar with you and your music as it is with say some of your contemporaries like John Scofield, John McLaughlin or Pat Metheny?

JW: I don’t know maybe I had a bad agent. (Laughter). I don’t know, I get quite a lot of attention, but I suppose I am not as well-known as Pat (Metheny) or Martino or those guys. Things are what they are.
I’m now getting quite a lot of attention so that’s nice so I don’t know. You know that’s what Barry Altshcul told me a long time ago when I turned fifty. He said “If you hang around long enough people are going to finally recognize you. (Laughter). He has the same issue, Barry. You know Barry?

Drummer Barry Atschul 

NOJ: Yeah sure.

JW: He is not a household name either like Jack DeJohnette or Buddy Rich or some of those guys.

NOJ: I think it has something to do with how much a musician chooses to go after the spotlight. Looking at your career, you have been a long time educator and while you have been out there quite a bit, it seems some people are better at promoting themselves then others.

JW: Yeah, I think that’s true. There is no doubt about that. Personally I don’t know how it works so I just do what I do. I don’t begrudge anybody what they do.  I don’t have any malice or jealousy or anything like that and I mean I admire everybody that can play the guitar. I know how hard it is so I respect the work that goes into it.

NOJ:  I grew up in NJ and we used to go to Gulliver’s (in West Paterson). It was a big guitarist’s hangout. We used to see guys like, Pat Martino and there was a guy named Harry Leahey  that a lot of people didn’t know about but who was a fabulous player.

JW: I knew Gulliver’s.  Harry was a friend of mine.

NOJ:  You have been a long-time educator. Can you share your teaching philosophy with us?

JW: I pretty much stress the fundamentals. I am not about to give any young or should I say inexperienced player Charlie Parker lines to play because he doesn’t know where it is coming from.  I’ll stress the basics. I’ll tell them to go to Basic Guitar Book One, you know. Which is a beginner’s book, but it teaches fundamentals. A lot of these young players are, how should I put this, it’s like everything else that is going on now. They want instant gratification. If they read about something on the Internet or they download something they think they know it. This isn't the Matrix. You have to actually absorb what you’re learning. I stress the fundamentals. They have to have good time, they have to read, they have to have good tone, they have to learn tunes, and they have to learn the right changes and all the things that go with that. Ear development is very essential...but you can develop that. A lot of people are born with perfect pitch. If you don’t have perfect pitch, well that's a lot of don’t have to have perfect pitch to have great ears, ... to hear what is being played. (Listening) That’s what I do. It’s very difficult to try to teach “jazz”. How do you teach that? It is an expression, it’s a feeling, it’s something that really can’t be taught, but you can teach the language.  That’s what I do, I teach the language of that and it’s sort of like learning a foreign language. You may learn a few words but you don’t speak the language. You may learn the syntax and the nouns and the verbs and all that but it doesn't make you speak the language well, does it? So the same thing with this music called “jazz” and I put that in quotes. “Jazz” is not something that can’t be defined in a lot of ways. Everything is “jazz” when you break it down. Beethoven wrote symphonies and sonatas and such, he improvised, he made that stuff up. So if that isn't jazz then I don’t know what is? 

NOJ:  That’s interesting. I’ll have to listen to them juxtaposed against each other.

JW: It’s just that the musicians have different ways of expressing themselves. But it all comes to the same place to me, mostly; if it is done well, with the heart and feeling, with the right expression, most music is in the same place. Most of it, of course there are always exceptions to the rule, I know that everybody knows that, but that is part of the equation too, the exception to the rule.

NOJ: It is sometimes thought that physical attributes can give some players a distinct advantage in playing the guitar. Tal Farlow, for example, had very large hands, so he could span quite a distance between notes.  Some people have brain to hand coordination that is incredibly quick compared to others.  Do you think players with less physical attributes can overcome those inherent limitations when playing an instrument?

JW: Oh totally, no problem with that. Look at Andes Segovia had short stubby fingers and look what he played. Are you are talking about just guitarists? Art Tatum had very large hands I understand. Oscar Peterson too, Bill Evans’ hands weren't that big, but I don’t think it matters. You make do with what you have. I mean Tal’s hands were very large sure and he did manage to skate the fingerboard pretty well.
Jump from position to position, but you could do that without having large hands. You don’t have to have large hands and not move. You know the hand is capable of moving (Laughter). I tell that to my students, I say to them you can actually move your hand.

Getting back to the question of large hands and whether or not it is an advantage. Some things that Tal played, somebody else couldn’t play or Johnny Smith for that matter. He had very large hands too and he played and arranged things that were pretty incredible for the average guitar player. But that doesn't really mean that somebody with small or even average hands couldn't express themselves in such a way that the emotion is just as great. So let’s face it I am never going to play basketball for the Miami Heat
(Laughter), so physical limitations do have their truths. I’ll never hit a home run in the major leagues. There are a lot of things you can’t do, but there are a lot of things that you can do .I always think that maybe Le Bron James can’t play "Autumn in New York."

NOJ:  Yes, but I would not bet against him trying. (Laughter)

Chris Bosch, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade

JW: You’re right, I know what you mean. (Laughter)

NOJ: I read something from a previous interview that guitarist Johnny Smith, who you mentioned before, was your first exposure to jazz guitar. What was it about Smith’s work that turned your attention toward jazz?

JW: Well actually, I have to clarify that. He wasn’t the first jazz guitarist that I heard. He was the first so called jazz guitar player that made me want to play the guitar. I didn’t quite understand what he was playing, but I also listened to Charlie Christian and DJango Reinhardt and a lot of guitar players around that same time. Some of them got to me emotionally and some of them didn’t. Johnny got to me right then and there.  I mean I didn’t know what he was playing or what he was improvising or what all that was, but it felt good, it felt right and it sounded good. I think it was the sound that attracted me to it more than anything. I think it is the sound of an instrument that gets right into your heart.

NOJ: Yeah, Wes did that for me.

JW: Yeah, Wes too. There is a bunch of them. I could go on and on about all the great guitar players and their sound.  Johnny, Tal, Barney Kessel too; so many of them, there is too many to mention.

Barney Kessel and Jack Wilkins photo courtesy of Jack Wilkins

NOJ: As a student and teacher of jazz history, who do you credit as being the real innovators of the various styles of guitar and what particularly did each of these innovations bring to the pantheon of guitar music?

JW: Well, that is a pretty big question, but I’ll tell what I think. The first true innovator was Lonnie Johnson. He was playing stuff in the mid to late twenties that was purely developed lines. Very developed with a lot of blues. It was essentially the blues because he was a guitarist/singer. Some of the things he did with Eddie Lang, for example, he showed without a doubt, that stuff is the uncanny stuff since day one.  He played with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, not to mention Duke. His lines were uncanny and Charlie Christian must have heard that because Charlie Christian has a lot of Lonnie Johnson in him. So I’d say Lonnie Johnson and then certainly Charlie Christian. Part of the reason for Charlie Christian’s place is not just because of his lines and his uncanny swing and his inventive playing was the electric guitar, of course. It brought a whole different dimension to the sound.
Lonnie Johnson

Nothing has really changed since Charlie Christian; I mean its variable, a lot of variations on the same theme. I’d have to say Charlie Christian was “the” innovator. But then there were a lot of guys that codified it even further. Barney Kessel in the forties, sounded just like Charlie Christian. Impossible to believe this about Kessel, and then Jimmy Raney showed up and wow, playing that on the guitar and Tal too. Jimmy was in a way even more bebop, if you will- I don’t even like that expression, cause it sort of turns people away as  be-bop intellectual crap- it was not. 

NOJ: What years was Raney on the scene?

JW: He started in the late forties but he had been around before that. His first big recording was with Buddy DeFranco and other things to. That was a major breakthrough with playing the guitar like that and Tal too with Red Norvo. From there it was those two then Grant Green came along. Johnny Smith in the fifties, Kenny Burrell a little bit later, Howard Roberts a little bit latter than that. So there were  a lot of great ones. They were all innovators in a way. They all took the main theme and the variations were on that main theme which was fantastic.

Atilla Zoller, Jack Wilkins and Jimmy Raney photo courtesy of Jack Wilkins

NOJ: You also credited the great Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell as an influence. You even wrote a song “For Baden” and recorded it on your album from 1998 Trio Art. What is it about Powell’s work that was so inspiring and how does he fit into the mix?

JW: Well he had more of an American jazz feel and some of the other Brazilian guitarists didn’t. It was so touching what he played. Everything he played, whenever I heard him play, I just loved it right away and I had a chance to meet him. Whenever you have a chance to meet a guy likes that it, like wow, but I am not dismissing other guys. Laurindo Almeida, Luis Bonfa a bunch of other Brazilian guitar players that made an impact on the music, but for my taste it has to be Baden.
Baden Powell

NOJ: Anyone else?

JW: Getting back to the innovators, I‘d have to put DJango in that list. He was from Europe, which changed his feel a little bit, changed his influences a little bit. The rhythms were slightly different not to mention he had that disability which altered his thought processes. It had to, because you make do with what you have. Talking about large fingers with, Django you only had two fingers.  So it’s all relative. To me any one of these guys you could spend years learning about them.

Let me give you a quick rundown of who I feel were the real innovators on jazz guitar, which may start with Lonnie Johnson, it may go to Carl Kress before that even.

NOJ: Carl Kress?

JW: Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, Eddie Lang before that. But then I ‘m not sure I might have missed someone. Teddy Bunn was another one quite innovative in his way. Do you know his name?

NOJ: No I don’t. You got me on that one.

JW: He played with a band called the spirits of rhythm, they were a magnificent group. Anyway, then Django of course- It is almost like a tree, like a mythological tree it spans off in all directions. Maybe like a family tree is a better way to put it.

NOJ: Then Charlie Christian?

JW: Charlie Christian yeah. Then there was Tal (Farlow), Jimmy (Raney), Johnny (Smith) and then I think the one who changed that a little even though he was around the same time was Billy Bean. In my mind he might be considered the missing link between early bebop and later bebop. Billy Bean influenced, whether they may have known it or not, I think he may have influenced Joe Pass and Pat Martino as well, because they both had a similar attack. Billy was the first to do that from what I hear. Pat didn’t start recording until the sixties and Billy Bean was recording in the mid-fifties.

NOJ:  What about Oscar Moore with Nat Cole?

JW: Yeah he played well, beautiful player. They are all innovators but some stand out more than others. Oscar certainly had a voice there didn’t he? Lovely sound lovely playing with Nat (King Cole). 

Part Two of this fascinating interview with guitarist Jack Wilkins covers his career with Buddy Rich, the fusion era, his teaching philosophy and playing with singers.