Joe Wilder, who died today at the age of 92, possessed one of the loveliest trumpet tones in the whole of jazz. His name cropped up quite frequently as a member of the trumpet section on other people’s albums in the 1950s and ’60s, but the handful of records he made under his own name displayed a talent that deserved far greater renown.
The son of a Philadelphia bandleader, he studied music at college but decided that classical music offered no future to an African American musician and turned to jazz and popular music instead. At 19 he joined the band of Les Hite; subsequent employers included Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. Later on in his career his flawless technique would make him an in-demand session, TV studio and Broadway pit band man.
I remember Whitney Balliett writing a long profile of Wilder in the New Yorker 20 years or so ago, a typical Balliett choice, given that Wilder was an intelligent, thoughtful man who played intelligent, thoughtful music that paid attention to quality above fashion. He had a good story to tell, and Balliett helped him tell it very memorably.
I’m particularly fond of his 1959 quartet album, recorded for Columbia, of Henry Mancini’s music for the TV cop series Peter Gunn, which Shelly Manne also explored to good effect at around the same time. But it was the recent release of Such a Beautiful Sound, a compilation of two albums released by the invaluable Spanish label Fresh Sound a few months ago, that made me think it was time to write something about him.
The first of the albums in question is Wilder ‘n’ Wilder, a 1956 quartet session with the dream rhythm section of Hank Jones (piano), who also appears on the Peter Gunn album; Wendell Marshall (bass); and Kenny Clarke (drums), recorded by Rudy Van Gelder for Savoy. The second is Peter the Great, by the sextet of the altoist Pete Brown, with Wilder, Wally Richardson (guitar), Wade Legge (piano), Gene Ramey (bass) and Rudy Collins (drums), recorded two years earlier and originally released as a 10-inch album on Bethlehem. Two extra tracks from Savoy’s vaults, “How High the Moon” and “I Think of You With Every Breath I Take”, both recorded in 1955 with the Jones-Marshall-Clarke unit, previously saw the light of day only on a Jones album titled Bluebird and a various-artists disc called Night People respectively.
Wilder’s gloriously burnished tone, easy swing, impeccable poise and flawless discretion are evident throughout, particularly in the intimate, almost candle-lit environment of the quartet dates, where ballads dominate. But even when things get livelier on the session led by Brown, a now-forgotten jump-blues player of considerable distinction, he more than holds his own. Joe Wilder was part of a jazz trumpet tradition that goes all the way up to today’s Ambrose Akinmusire: he knew how to be hot and cool at the same time.
* The uncredited photograph of Joe Wilder is from the insert accompany the Fresh Sound CD.