Remembering Bob Wilber, A Standard Bearer For Traditional Jazz

Aug 15, 2019
Originally published on August 16, 2019 6:41 am

The saxophonist and clarinetist, a student of Sidney Bechet and a specialist in early styles of the music, died Aug. 4 at the age of 91. He spoke with Terry Gross in 1988, excerpted here. (Hear the full interview through the Fresh Air archive.)

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with clarinetist and saxophonist Bob Wilber, who died last week. He was 91. The late New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett called Wilber a gifted arranger and composer and an invaluable preserver and enhancer of jazz tradition.

Wilber came of age in the 1940s. But unlike most of the jazz musicians of his generation, he wasn't interested in the modern idiom bebop. Wilber's mentor was the New Orleans musician Sidney Bechet. Wilber studied with him, played with him, even moved in with him. Benny Goodman was also a big influence. I spoke to Bob Wilber in 1988. Before we hear an excerpt of our conversation, let's listen to a recording featuring Wilber on clarinet and Scott Hamilton on tenor saxophone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEVER KNEW")

BOB WILBER AND SCOTT HAMILTON QUARTET: (Playing music).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Do you think of your tone as being influenced by Benny Goodman at all?

BOB WILBER: Well, he was my first role model, my first idol when I was a kid just starting to play clarinet at the age of 13. And yeah, he's definitely an influence on me. Benny made the clarinet sing, and it's a very difficult instrument to sing on. It tends to be very cold and detached. And Benny made it a voice, so when you listen to his music, you're not hearing the clarinet. You're hearing Benny Goodman.

GROSS: Now, you played it in Goodman's band briefly. This was - when? - in the - was it in the 1950s?

WILBER: Yeah, late '50s, I played tenor saxophone in the band, yeah.

GROSS: Now, he had a reputation of being a very cold bandleader and of giving his musicians the ray, this really evil look from his eye (laughter), if they did something that he didn't like. In your forthcoming autobiography, "Music Was Not Enough," you've written that you were somebody who could say to Goodman that his reed sounded bad without getting your head chopped off.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And now, what made you able to say something like that to him?

WILBER: Well, I think - I think Benny respected me as a fellow clarinetist - although, I must say, when I was with his band, I played precious little clarinet. But he respected my judgment, and he'd call me into the dressing room before a concert. And he'd say, well, how does this sound? And I'd say, jeez, that doesn't sound very good, Benny; that's not a very good reed. And he would listen to me.

Years afterwards, we used to get together at his apartment and play clarinet duets and compare notes and ideas about how to play this and how to play that. So we never had any kind of run-in. But Benny was a difficult leader. He was a perfectionist. And he demanded the highest standards of himself and expected everybody else to live up to those standards.

GROSS: Your mentor early on, when you were coming of age and first starting to play - your mentor then was Sidney Bechet. You've led a band called Bechet Legacy in which you play music associated with Bechet. And from one of your first albums - in fact, the first album in a series of records with Bechet Legacy - we're going to hear what I think is your theme song with that group, "Petite Fleur."

WILBER: Right. This was Sidney Bechet's most famous song.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Bob Wilber's Bechet Legacy group, and this is "Petite Fleur."

(SOUNDBITE OF BECHET LEGACY'S "PETITE FLEUR")

GROSS: My guest Bob Wilber featured on soprano saxophone. Now, Sidney Bechet was the great soprano saxophonist and clarinetist who came out of New Orleans, started recording in the 1920s. But you met him when he was living in Brooklyn, N.Y. This was in the 1940s, I believe...

WILBER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The late 1940s. What was the state of his life and his career when you started studying with him in Brooklyn, N.Y.?

WILBER: Well, he was over the really low period in his career in the '30s when he was running a tailor shop in Harlem, practically out of music. But he was - it kind of felt like he was going into semi-retirement and would devote himself to teaching. He felt the jazz world had sort of passed him by, and they were interested in more modern forms of jazz. And he just - he wanted to be able to pass on to younger people his experiences in jazz, and he was delighted with me because I was very interested in his playing. And he felt very complimented about that.

But he was living in comparative obscurity. And in light of what happened in the late '40s and the rest of his career, it's amazing to think that he was in such an obscure state because his last 10 years living in France were just one triumph after another. Million-selling records - he was a household name in France. He played all over Europe. It was a triumphal ending to a very checkered career.

GROSS: When you went to study with him in Brooklyn, you were a young man from the suburbs. Did you want Bechet to introduce you to the jazz life as well as to help you with jazz music?

WILBER: Yeah, I really wanted to soak up every aspect of jazz - the life, the way musicians thought. You can get so much from listening to records. But if you don't get to know the players, you don't really know the whole story. And Sidney was like a second father to me. I lived with him, and then he started taking me on his jobs. And I'd get a chance to play with him.

GROSS: How did you end up moving in with him?

WILBER: Well, I was living down in the Village at that time, and my funds were rather low. He said, well, look. Instead of having to go back and forth to Manhattan all the time, why don't you come and live here with me? You can use the sofa in the upstairs parlor. He was living with his wife there and a big Great Dane dog. And I just moved in, and I was - he was working on some of his compositions. I used to help him write them down and record them, so I was helping him in his projects too.

GROSS: Is there any advice that he gave you about soloing or playing melody that's always stuck with you?

WILBER: Yeah. His big thing was - he said, you got to tell a story in your music. You have to lead the listener along so that he gets into what you're doing and understands what you're doing. First of all, you have to respect the melody of the song you're playing and give it the best treatment you can. And then when you make variations, they must make sense to the listener. The listener must hear the relationship of your variations to the original.

GROSS: My interview with Bob Wilber was recorded in 1988. He died last week at the age of 91. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Christopher Leonard, whose new book is about how the Koch brothers changed corporate and political power in America, or our interview with Janet Mock, a writer, director and producer of the TV series "Pose" about the underground gay and trans ballroom culture of the late '80s and early '90s, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB WILBER & KENNY DAVERN'S "ROSETTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.