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. "


  1. Jack is simply one of the best musicians ever and I feel honored that I had the opportunity to work with him, and, to call him a friend. This interview sums up why he is so great. Well done.

  2. I love Chet Atkins’ playing, not only for his expression and technique, but for his innate sense of melody. The guy never disrespects the melody.