Joe Wilder obituary

Jazz trumpeter with an understated style who was one of the first black musicians to break into the New York studio scene

In jazz, a musician's personal qualities often inform the way they play. The trumpeter Joe Wilder, who has died aged 92, was known for the warmth and grace of his personality. Where some players were bombastic or raucous, Wilder was understated and lyrical, revered for his sensitivity and for the clarity of his musical ideas. Wilder's greatest prominence as a creative musician came late in life when a series of recordings for the Evening Star label reminded observers of his exceptional solo talents, so often submerged in studio sessions and Broadway pit bands. He was named as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2008.

Son of Augustine (nee Brown) and Curtis, he was born in Colwyn, Pennsylvania, and brought up in Philadelphia, in a household dominated by music, where his father was a bandleader and an elder brother a professional bassist. Wilder began to play the cornet as a youngster, first sitting in with his father's band, the Bits of Rhythm. He appeared regularly on a local children's radio programme entitled Parisian Tailors' Colored Kiddies of the Air (the Modern Jazz Quartet's bassist Percy Heath was another "Kiddie"), their performances sometimes backed by bandsmen from the Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway orchestras. Once enrolled in the Mastbaum school of music in Philadelphia, Wilder had thoughts of a classical career but soon realised that this was unrealistic for a black musician in the 1930s.

Instead, he began his ascent through the ranks of the travelling big bands. Aged 16, he left home to join Les Hite's band and was soon recognised as a lead trumpet specialist, moving on to premier leagueorchestras led by Lionel Hampton and Jimmie Lunceford. He remembered Lunceford, a former school teacher, as a tough disciplinarian who would fine players who were late for rehearsal or who misbehaved, and then use the accrued money to give the band a party, explaining that they should thank their colleague for his generosity.

Having served for three years in Special Weapons, as one of the first wave of African-American marines in the second world war, Wilder returned briefly to Hampton's outfit, before working in Dizzy Gillespie's fiery bebop big band, and then with other nationally known bandleaders such as Erskine Hawkins and Lucky Millinder. His final regular stint in the fading world of the big bands was with Count Basie in 1953 and 1954.

Once he was off the road, Wilder's musicianship enabled him to break into regular Broadway pit band work, previously off-limits for black players. When Cole Porter was asked if he objected to a black trumpeter playing his music in the touring company of Silk Stockings, the composer asked: "Can he [Wilder] play my music?" When told he could, Porter said: "That's all that matters."

Wilder graduated from the Manhattan School of Music with a music degree in 1953, still hankering for a classical career, and joined the music staff of the ABC network in 1957, staying for 16 years and handling every kind of musical assignment. He made countless recordings, including a couple of albums of his own, while also taking time out to travel to Russia with Benny Goodman's orchestra in 1962 and performing occasionally with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He later became principal trumpet with the Symphony of the New World.

More recently, Wilder continued to straddle the twin worlds of concert music and jazz, recording with Benny Carter and playing on the recreation of Charlie Mingus's challenging Epitaph symphony, also appearing with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks (with which he visited Britain) and the Lincoln Centre jazz orchestras. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine a situation in which Wilder did not shine, his versatility making him a "first-call" musician for exacting projects and allowing him to appear as a sideman on a whole roster of jazz albums. He was also greatly in demand for "jazz parties", including the Blackpool Jazz Party in 2005 (with the all-star Statesmen of Jazz), where he The critic Whitney Balliett said of Wilder that "he makes a song gleam", while Leonard Feather commended his "highly personal manner of phrasing".mingled happily with friends and fans, while creating music of heartfelt beauty.

The ever-congenial (and teetotal) Wilder was a skilled photographer and devoted family man. He is survived by his wife, Solveig, and their three daughters, and a son from an earlier marriage.

Joseph Benjamin Wilder, jazz trumpeter, born 22 February 1922; died 9 May 2014


Peter Vacher

The GuardianTramp

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