Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder

While Tom Reney is away, NEPR’s substitute jazz host Peter Sokolowski offers this appreciation of a jazz trumpet great.

Joe Wilder, who died on Friday at 92, was among the accomplished group of players who made the transition from road musician to studio player after the swing era to become part of the most-recorded generation of musicians in history. These elite players developed stamina and consistency during years of one-night stands, and because they could both read music at sight and improvise, they were the first-call players for radio and television work, Broadway pit orchestras, and countless pop and jazz recording sessions. These positions had been previously closed to black musicians, and Wilder was among the very first to integrate the New York studios. A biography of Wilder, Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music, was published last month.

Wilder’s early studies with a virtuoso cornet soloist gave him high standards and classical technique, and his playing was always confident and clean. This explains his eminent employability and long career, but, as the ultimate professional, it also meant relative obscurity as a pillar of hundreds of trumpet sections through the years. A trumpeter’s trumpeter, Wilder never led a group in a New York jazz club until he was in his 80s.

61WDpIPGd2L._SL500_AA280_Recordings under his name were also rare. His best-known album, “Wilder ‘N Wilder,” was recorded at the peak of his career in 1956. It’s an incongruous title, since no trumpet soloist was ever more firmly in control. His approach was that of a patient perfectionist seeking out all the pretty notes. Joe Newman, Wilder’s contemporary and section mate in Count Basie’s band, had a bright, brassy tone and a loose and freewheeling swing; Wilder, by contrast, had a deep oaky sound and played with a careful, deliberate pacing. No trumpeter ever better merged the aesthetic values of the symphonic and jazz traditions (Wilder was occasionally hired by the New York Philharmonic as an extra player or sub). There is often a symmetry to his playing that recalls – without the negative connotations of the word – an exercise. Phrases repeated after modulating for a subsequent chord progression, quick chromatic triplets landing on the root, double-tongued runs up the scale: his solos sound like etudes, planned and precise. His version of “Cherokee” from the album is a marvel, and the album as a whole is a masterpiece in the challenging genre of trumpet-plus-rhythm recordings.

He was never seen in public without a jacket and tie; it’s no wonder the words most associated with Wilder were “elegant” and “gentleman.” His musical personality perfectly reflected his courteous manner. You can hear it in his melodic solo on Basie’s “Softly With Feeling” from 1953. Even in his late 80s, he never let his standards slip.

A perfect example of his playing can be found in this 1957 performance with a Count Basie all-star band. Amid the roiling swing of the Basie machine (and in great contrast to the raucous Roy Eldridge who plays later in the piece), Wilder is the calm eye of the storm, full of poise, and plays a bridge that seems to spell out every passing chord as if giving a lesson in musical architecture. His is the first trumpet solo (beginning at 1:40):

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