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Interview- Jack Wilkins (Vintage Guitar Magazine)

Jack Wilkins

Self-Made Man (Vintage Guitar Magazine)

Veteran jazz guitarist Jack Wilkins may not be a household name. In fact, some self-described "jazz nuts" are unfamiliar with his long and varied career.

But to certain players and jazz-guitar aficionados, the New York-based guitarist is in the upper echelon. With his new record, Until It's Time, Wilkins is finally satisfied.

"This is the record I've wanted to make for a long time," he said. "I love the tunes, and my friend Jeff Barone helped with the producing and arranging." Wilkins chose an eclectic mix of music, with jazz standards and songs that lean toward pop stuff you might not expect from a world-class jazz guitarist. His cover of James Taylor's "Blossom" is a testament to his ability to make any song work. And he turns Christopher Cross' "Arthur's Theme" into a swinging treasure. "We essentially do the same arrangement, but play a little faster and with a Latin feel." Buffy St. Marie's classic "Until It's Time For You To Go" makes an appearance, as do the standards "Two For the Road," "Airegin," "These Foolish Things," and one by Johnny Smith "Walk Don't Run."

The mix hints at Wilkins' background; at 17 he was giving guitar lessons, and by 21 he was gigging full-time. "A friend, Dan Armstrong (of New York guitar shop fame) turned me on to all kinds of big-band gigs. I got to meet great musicians like Randy Brecker. I also started doing a lot of studio work in New York, and played in a fusion band called Exit. At the time, I wasn't thinking 'jazz,' 'rock,' or 'folk.' I even toured with Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary). I just wanted to play and make a living. If you start putting labels on things, it can fall apart, you know? You want to do only one thing? I think it's very limiting. I think all my friends felt that way. We had lots of work and would exchange jobs. If I couldn't do something, I'd call a friend. And he'd do the same. I met Bucky Pizzarelli, Barry Galbraith, and others who helped me get into the studios. In '73, I met Buddy Rich and started playing a lot of jazz. It was a great experience. I played five or six nights a week for 45 weeks each year. That'll tighten you up!"

While he says the playing of Johnny Smith and Joe Pass really got him involved in playing he also had a cousin teach him about some of the older players like Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Wilkins took guitar lessons from a local named Joe Monte, who taught him how to read music. He also studied composition, but didn't take a lot of formal instruction. But when gigs with Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, Rich, Illinois Jacquet, and Earl "Fatha" Hines popped up, he was ready. "There was a lot back ten, but I'd honed my craft. I could read, play a million tunes, and transpose anything.'

Wilkins' favorite instrument is a Benedetto he's had since '98. Early in his career, he sold a '66 Gibson L-5 to buy a newer L-5, but his favorite was an L-7. "It was an amazing guitar. I had a pickup installed, and it had an unbelievable sound. It was the best sound guitar I ever had."

When he reaches for an acoustic which he does several times to great advantage on the new record he plays one of two made by Rich DiCarlo; one that goes to C above high C, and one that goes to D.

Wilkins favors Jazzkat or AER amplifiers but laughingly admits that, on the road, he's not picky. "When I'm out, I'll pretty much take whatever they have, as long as it works, which can be a problem out there. With my Benedetto, though, it doesn't make a lot of difference because it plays well at any volume."

When Vintage Guitar talked with Wilkins, the 65-year-old's date book was full, including a small series of East Coast duo gigs with guitarist Howard Alden. He and Barone are also planning his next record. "I have an idea that I'd like to put together a Great American Songbook CD. I've always been in love with those. I thought it would be fun to play short tunes, playing a melody, and then going on to the next.

"But I've been very busy. It's a good time. I'm really enjoying myself."John Heidt