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. 

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