"Notes On Jazz" (Part Two) Ralph A. Miriello (Jazz Journalist)
Member of Jazz Journalist Association
The New York City based guitarist Jack Wilkins recently celebrated his seventieth birthday with a jam session at he Jazz Standard on July 1, 2014. In attendance, honoring the master musician, were his contemporaries Larry Coryell, Joe Diorio Howard Alden, Vic Juris, Gene Bertoncini, Jimmy Bruno and John Abercrombie. By all accounts it was a wonderful evening of guitar wizardry and camaraderie. Wilkins was gracious enough to spend time with me on an extensive phone interview that spanned the gamut of music, history, musicians, education and anything else we could talk about. The experience both enlightening and thoroughly entertaining for me and I hope for my readers. This is the third and final part of that interview the other two parts can be found by linking to Part 1 here and Part 2 here. If this doesn't pique your interest and make you want to go out and see this fine musician perform than nothing will. In this part we discuss playing with singers, music education, the state of the music business and recordings, his take on listening to himself on records and his obsession with fifties era Sci-Fi movies.
We discussed Jack's biological father, who he didn't originally know and who was himself a fairly famous guitar player, in the last part of this interview. Jack thought a picture of his dad and one of his album covers from The River Boys might give a little insight into his innate musical heritage.
Continuing our conversation:
NOJ: You have played with some great singers over the last forty years including Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn, Chris Connor, Tony Bennett etc. How does playing for a singer differ from playing with a group?
JW: It’s not that different. With a singer there is more conscious dynamics and I think there are more conscious tempos too. Singer’s always want a tempo that they want. You can’t play All the Things You Are for example fast or slow or any tune for that matter, with a singer it has got to be in their tempo. I like playing with singers, when they are good of course. One of the singers that I really enjoyed playing for was Morgana King. She was great. I loved her singing. Jay Clayton, Nancy Marano, wow Sarah was wonderful;. I liked them all. They all had something special.
One guy that I wished I had played for was Nat King Cole. I played for his brother though, Freddy Cole.
NOJ: I did an interview with Freddy last year. He was great.
JW: Ah what a nice cat and I loved the way he sang. Very funny.
NOJ: He is very smooth. You know he never makes a set list before a show. Poor Randy Napoleon, his musical director has to be prepared for whatever he decides to play on the spot! He has an incredible memory of all these tunes even at his age. I think he is now eighty two.
JW: Yeah I know I played with him. That’s what he did, fortunately I knew the tunes. ( Laughter) He is terrific.
NOJ: Your teaching gigs include Manhattan School of Music, Long Island University, the New School and NYU?
JW: Well I’m an adjunct to all of them. Manhattan was my main school. There are not that many students at this point. I have plenty of private students, sometimes more than I need. I can handle what I have so it is not a burden. I like to teach.
NOJ: So what is it about teaching that you find most satisfying?
JW: When I can hear somebody starting to play better because of my helping them, I am very gratified about that. I am honored that they got something from my teaching. I am very pleased about that, very pleased. I want to help them because they so want to learn. Most of these students want to learn that it gives me great pleasure to help them. They all usually have great attitudes and if they don’t I won’t take them a second time. They respect what I do and they ask me all the right questions and I am pretty honest. I don’t hold anything back. That would not be helpful, if I said, that’s great see you next week.
They want the truth so I say your ‘comping is lousy, your single line is a little sporadic, you’re not playing on the right changes, your tone is shrill and your too loud. (Laughter) Your doing just fine.
NOJ: So go home now. (Laughter)
JW: Sometimes I’d like to say that (Laughter) but seriously. With somebody so needy and so wanting to learn you’re not going to hurt their feelings. You like them and you want to help them.
NOJ: And you don’t want to dampen their enthusiasm either, right?
JW: No. That is a very fine line.
NOJ: You have spoken in the past as to having learned very early on to play within the music, within the group as opposed to showcasing yourself on the bandstand. With the students you see coming up, is there an emphasis today on chops more than musicality?
JW: Oh, totally, absolutely. It is sort of disturbing. It does not sit well with me. They are not concerned about the music, they are not concerned about playing the right changes, they’re not concerned about sound, and they are just concerned about their chops. It’s preposterous! Who cares! There is always somebody who can play faster. It is not about the speed, it’s about playing with the music.
Speed is fine if it is organic. A lot times they practice these runs at home and they get on the bandstand and they play exactly the same thing. You can’t do that when you’re playing with a bass player and a drummer that are in the moment. You have to be in the moment when you play music. It’ll happen if you have a good band and they are all playing together, but I had that experience too. I was a kid, Mr. Hot Shot there, we have all done this. You get up there and you wail away and feel how fast and wonderful you are and then the next thing you know you’re there alone! That has happened to me, it was an incredible experience. The whole band stopped playing after a while, and I said why did you stop playing? They said “Oh we were listening to you.” A bell went off in my head. I wasn’t listening to them is what they were saying.
NOJ: You have several albums out. The latest one is Until It’s Time from 2008. Is that the last one or do you have a newer one out?
JW: I have a new one coming out. It is not out yet. I recorded it in Paris and I like it a lot, which is difficult for me to say, because usually I don’t like anything I record. It’s true I don’t. I can’t listen to anything I record, I just hate it.
NOJ: Really, you are that critical of yourself?
JW: Not critical, it’s not that it isn’t good or okay or whatever, it brings back too many memories of what I was feeling or going through at the time in my life. What happens is it brings all the angst to the surface, again. That was a moment in time. Music is like a portrait, you play something that you are feeling at one time in your life, and then you put it on wax and it’s recorded and it’s there forever. As soon as you hear it again, maybe ten years later and you go right back to that spot that you were in. You start reliving the past , you know I didn’t like this or that was great but that part is gone, or whatever. You know it is a real introspective when you listen to your own music. That is why I am not keen on listening to my own music.
NOJ: Tell me about the new recording.
JW: Yeah, it was done in Paris. I have a trio, bass and drums and we do a bunch of trio things plus we have a featured vibes player and a harmonica player who is wonderful. I don’t have all the information but it is done. It is just being ordered and mastered and it should be ready in a few weeks. I’ll send you one when it is done.
NOJ: That would be great. You are now seventy and have been playing professionally for over forty years. What advise do you have for aspiring musicians?
JW: That is a question that I am asked quite a lot. The answer is to learn the fundamentals. Be on time if you have a gig, don’t be an asshole.( Laughter) Learn as many tunes as you can, learn how to read. Develop your ears so you can play a tune that you don’t know. Be cooperative, don’t be nasty. If you don’t like something just don’t do it, don’t do it with an attitude. All you can do is hone your professional skills, but therein lies the problem. These kids don’t have a place to play anymore. There are not a lot of venues. I was having some sessions here at my place for my students but it turned out to be too much. There are places, Small’s has a jam session, Cleopatra’s Needle, the Zinc Bar has a session, a couple of places in Brooklyn.
NOJ: You Used to have a residency up on the Upper West Side at an Italian joint called Bella Luna, but they don’t do that anymore, right?
JW: No. We had a great run there seven or eight years.
NOJ: You had a lot of great duos there.
JW: Oh the best. Bucky (Pizzarelli), Howard (Alden), Freddie Bryant, Ron Jackson, Paul Meyers, Carl Barry, the list goes on and on and on. It was fun that place. There are places to play, but there are not as many as there used to be, and they not as warm and cozy as they used to be.
NOJ: It must be humbling to have had all the players that you had at your birthday bash show up and want to honor you for your seventieth birthday celebration at the Jazz Standard? ( The Jam Session Celebration was held to a pack house on July 1, 2014.)
JW: Oh of course, I am beyond flattered.
NOJ: One of the players that will be there for your celebration is John Abercrombie. I am a big fan of John and his music. His is one of my favorite players.
JW: Me too, I love John. A wonderful player and a wonderful cat too. One of my favorite records he ever made was a record called Direct Flight. It was with Peter Donald and George Mraz just a trio date while he was recording for ECM. People don’t realize how straight ahead he was when he wanted to.
NOJ: When musicians are in sync it is an incredible experience and wonderful to behold.
You don’t always see that in performance. You said once in another interview that you are very big on listening and I can understand why, because if you don’t have the ears to listen to what the other players are playing, where they are taking it, then how can you tell where the music can possibly go?
JW: That is essential. That is almost elementary "1A" Be in tune. Listening is to me the most important aspect of playing. John (Abercrombie) told me a long time ago, John in his inimitable way said “Yeah, listening is my meat and potatoes.” (Laughing loudly). Couldn’t be more truthfully said.
NOJ: What do you think lies in the future for jazz guitar?
JW: I think the economy is going to dictate where it goes. Things can become obsolete if no body wants to buy it. That holds true with just about everything. CDs are pretty much obsolete aren’t they?
NOJ: Well I like to get a lot of hard copy of what I review. I like the packaging; reading about the artists;. how the music was made. Who wrote the tunes etc.
JW: A lot of the kids today they just download it.
NOJ: Yeah they just download the music, but how connected can you be to a digital download?
JW: Well, I have an interesting way of thinking about that. A few years ago I asked my students what they were listening to. They would tell me I’m listening to Coltrane, Miles Davis. I said wow, what phase of Coltrane do you listen to? Because he has had a lot of phases you know and not of them are the same. So they say to me “I don’t know I have this compilation that I listen to. “OK, so what are some of the tunes on that. “ Well they would tell me “ I don’t know.” That surprised me. I said “You mean you listen to Coltrane and you don’t know the name of the tune, you don’t know who is in the band?” “Nah I just downloaded it.” Now I don’t think that is really learning anything. You may like it but you’re not ‘going to remember it. I don’t think so. Maybe I am wrong about that. I don’t even know. It’s such a complicated issue, downloading and all that wizardry that goes on. It is so far out for a lot of people in my age group. If you are in your twenties that is all you have, that is what you have grown up with.
Students tell me “ I can’t remember tunes. I play a tune three or four times and it doesn't stick with me.”
I tell them I am not surprised. You didn’t grow up with this music. I did. When I was a kid, my step father and mother used to play Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole and I knew all these tunes. All the great singers, I grew up with this music.
NOJ: If you never grew up with this music how can you possibly embrace it. It goes back to heredity and environment. Environmental influences can be so powerful. If you grow up exposed to something you are more likely to have an easier time absorbing it and will most likely enjoy it.
JW: It’s true. Interestingly enough, students from Europe and Japan are way more versed in the ( Great American Songbook) tunes then American Students are.
NOJ: Isn’t that funny. I have a theory about that. The Japanese have been very big jazz fans for decades and you wonder what it is that drew them to this music. Maybe it was the GI's that were stationed there after WWII during the reconstruction, listening to that music that laid the groundwork for the Japanese people’s affinity for the music. The same could be said for the American GI’s stationed in Europe during the Marshall Plan.
JW: That is a great thought. I don’t know about that but that is very possible. The music was big band with vocalists and they were around then after the war. The music is still around today.
NOJ: Any new player that really impresses you these days.
JW: I can’t even say new but Adam Rodgers is quite remarkable. I think he is just a brilliant, Jonathan Kriesberg, Ben Monder. These guys are not even new are they? Like I said before, if you can play this instrument at all in a good way, you get my vote right there, because I know how hard it is to play this thing.
You know there are a lot of guitar players that I mentioned, like Barney and Tal and Jimmy and the rest but I would be remiss if I didn’t include Chuck Wayne in the pantheon of the greatest guitar players to have ever played the guitar. The technique that Frank Gambale uses, Chuck Wayne did that in the forties, of course Frank is playing different stuff, but Chuck called it alternate consecutive picking. It is simple to fathom but different to execute.
NOJ: Who is your most influential teacher?
JW: John Mehegan, pianist, and my early guitar teachers Sid Margolis, Joe Monte and Rodrigo Riera, he was my classical guitar teacher. He was amazing. I could never get that right flavor or feel for it.
NOJ: You live in Manhattan and I understand that you are a SciFi fan. What is your favorite SciFi movie of all time?
JW: How did you know that? I have several favorites. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, the first Time Machine, Them. My girlfriend thinks I am nuts. It is very interesting that the way the world is going SciFi is not so weird anymore. I have a big walk-in closet with maybe five hundred movies.
NOJ: What is your upcoming schedule for live performances after the July 1, 2014 Jazz Standard date?
JW: I am playing a duo with Carl Barry on July 26th at Grata Restaurant. On August 9th I am playing at the Bar Next Door and at the Kitano on August 29th. Both gigs are with with Mike Clark on drums and Andy McKee on bass.
NOJ: I really appreciate your time and I look forward to actually seeing you in person in the near future and hearing your new album.
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