Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Steve Wilson Interview

GC: I'm very happy to have the opportunity to interview a musician that I've worked with a lot over the years. When people say that a musician has "worked with everybody in the business", well, Steve Wilson has literally worked with everyone in Jazz. It would be hard to name somebody that he hasn't worked with in Jazz. I feel like this is kind of a coup from my jazz blog, which is in the early stages. 

I feel like we could talk about anything and it would be interesting. Besides biographical information that it most likely on your website, could you talk about your beginnings as a musician. What was the defining moment for you to choose this life? Did you come from a musical family?Was becoming a musician gradual or was there something you can pinpoint where you said to yourself, "There's no turning back. I have to play music"?

Eddie Harris
SW: Well, It was gradual , but there were a few key moments. Because I had decided by the time I was a teenager, about 14 or 15 years old, that this was what I was going to do. And what really inspired that desire more than anything was the opportunity to see a few of the great musicians live at the jazz festival  in Hampton, Virginia, where I grew up. So the first time that I got to see Eddie Harris live, Cannonball Adderly live , Rashaan Roland Kirk live, those three guys pretty much is what did it for me. And I saw them when I was around 9 or 10. My father had some of their recordings. And the two recordings that I remember the most were Quincy Jones " Walking In Space", which had everybody on it, and Cannonball Adderly's " Country Preacher". Those were two very popular recordings at the time. As a matter of fact,  you might say that they were two of the last jazz hits, if you want to call it that. My father and some of his friends had those recordings, so when we went over to his friends house, those recordings among others were playing. So when I saw those artists, that was a pivotal moment. Not that I really understood it at that age, but I loved the energy,I loved the groove, I loved the sound, I loved the audience reaction, and I just loved the look of the band, you know, "Look at these cats playing music...".  That was it, that's what made me decide I wanted to do it.

GC: You went to VCU?
SW: Virginia Commonwealth University, yes.
GC: Did you think that going to VCU was the logical choice for a career in music? Was that as important as moving to New York, or was it a sort of a preview of things to come? What was your experience there, working with Doug Richards?
Johnny Hodges
SW: That was really THE move for me to make at the time. Although I didn't know how important it would become. I had been touring with an R&B cover band, which I enjoyed, but I wanted to go to school and I was thinking about going to Berklee. But then I got a chance to hear the VCU Big Band at my high school, and they were playing charts by Thad Jones, Gil Evans, and Duke Ellington and I said " Man , that's what I want to do." So I went to VCU and it turns out it was the best move I could have made. Had I gone to Berklee around that time-this was 1979, 1980-I would have been overwhelmed for a few reasons:  Moving to a city like Boston would have been a shock, since I'm from Hampton, Virginia, which is not exactly a sprawling metropolis. Plus,  when you consider who some of the students at Berklee were at the time, A lot of heavyweights like Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Kevin Eubanks.....I think it would have been overwhelming. So I think going to Richmond and VCU was the move and I don't regret a minute of it. And that's because I learned some things that maybe I would not have learned elsewhere, such as the early music of Duke Ellington. That's how I became a fan of Johnny Hodges, who is still my favorite saxophone player....
GC: Wow!
SW: And my first year I was studying oboe, I actually got in on an oboe scholarship.
GC: Really?
SW: Yes, although I gave it up after the first year. And I was also playing Baritone Saxophone in the big band, so I got to play all of these Harry Carney parts, and Pepper Adams parts, and I don't believe that I would have gotten that experience anywhere else. So I feel like those experiences really gave me a foundation that still serves me today in everything and anything that I do.
GC: Were your parents musical?
Amhad Jamal
SW: My father had a great collection of recordings. He wasn't a collector, he had a small collection. But they were choice recordings. One recording that really stands out is Ahmad Jamal's "Live At The Pershing.". That recording might have been what really turned me on to music. I think I was about 3 or 4  years old checking out that recording.
GC: Amazing:
SW: I would just listen to that record over and over. " Poinciana" was a big hit at the time...... I would beg my mother, "Mommy, mommy, put the record back on. And there were some other recordings...Miles Davis " Live at Antibes". Miriam Makeba's " Pata Pata", some Mario Lanza, and Johnny Mathis, and some Motown, and Staxx, so it was a whole variety of music that I was listening to. Also, we went to church most Sundays, and my father used to sing in an all-male spiritual choir. I used to travel with them and sit in the front row and listen to them. Furthermore, Hampton Institute, which is now Hampton University, was renowned for their gospel and spiritual concerts, which were conducted by a guy named Roland Carter, who is now in Pittsburgh. 
There was a local piano player that my father was friends with named Joe Jones. They called him " Virginia" Joe Jones. He had played with Dizzy Gillespie briefly in the 50's. He was one of these guys that knew all the old tunes. He was one of these gunslinger type of cats. He wasn't a super trained musician like cats are today....but anyway, all of these things were an influence on me.
GC: So it seems that there would be no surprise that you became a musician, because music was all around you. It was part of the culture. Not that your parents forced you to play instruments, but it was natural. Was your family surprised or supportive?
SW: I had always shown an affinity for the drums, particularly. Most kids are attracted to drums, when you see parades, etc....My parents got me a drumset for Christmas...
GC: I didn't know you played drums!
SW: Well, I'm a frustrated drummer above all.....
GC: Aren't we all?
SW: Well...
GC: Even the drummers! (laughter)
SW: Right!( also laughing) I never pursued being a trained drummer, because around age 8 or 9 I knew I wanted to focus on the saxophone. At some point in high school, I had thought about becoming a social worker, but my parents always recognized that I have an affinity towards music. At first they thought it was a phase, but then they were supportive. I had already started playing professionally as soon as I learned the horn. Also, everybody in the neighborhood played music, all the kids played music. There were two things we did in my neighborhood, played music and played sports. So we started to form garage bands. We put different bands together, and we were playing school dances by the time we were 14 and 15 years old. And then we would play at the Elk's lodge or some of the clubs around the city. So basically all of my activity was music, or sports. So I don't think it was a surprise to my folks when at 17 or 18 years old, I was definitely choosing to be a musician.
GC: What year did you move to New York:
SW: 1987. I was 26 years old.
GC: Was it a shock? I mean you were already working with Stephanie Mills?
SW: Actually that was in 1981-82. I went back to school, and then stayed in Richmond for a while, and then moved to New York. But I had been making periodic trips to New York. And also I was playing with the band Out Of the Blue. Kenny Garrett had contacted me and told me that the alto chair was open in that band. So I was already working some. But yes, it was a shock because in Richmond, I worked constantly, but when I moved to New York at first there was very little work off the bat. Out of the Blue wasn't working that much, it was kind of the end of their run. But I just networked for a while and it started to snowball.
GC: It seemed to me for a while you were with every band out there. I saw you playing in Geoffrey Keezer's band, James Williams band, Ralph Peterson's band, Buster Williams band. Did you ever play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers?
SW: No, I never did. I played with him once in Mount Fuji in Japan, with the Art Blakey Big Band, but I was never in the Messengers.
GC: It's probably impossible to plan on having a career as illustrious as yours, but what would tell a young musician who aspires to this kind of sideman career? Especially as a non-rhythm section player?
Victor Lewis
SW: Ironically, my three main role models in my first years in New York were drummer Victor Lewis, bassist Ray Drummond, and pianist Kenny Barron. And the reason was that that those guys worked every week in New York, either collectively or in other configurations. If you picked up the newspaper, you would see those guys playing with somebody every week. And I went to see them play with bands, and I realized that the reason that they were so in demand was that they made everyone they played with sound good! They could fit into any situation and make it work and also keep their own identity as well. It's ironic that rhythm sections players were my inspiration in that respect. I mean, there were horn player that inspired me as well, of course.
Did I plan on the career that I have had? No, I moved to New York thinking that maybe I would be here for a year and then I would have to leave. I never thought that things would turn out the way they did. I tell people that I've been here for 23 years, and this is the longest year I've spent anywhere! 
All the young musicians are different. Some players come to me and say they want to be sideman ... some say they just want to be leaders. Some tell me they want to be a star! I tell them just to be open to different styles and different situations. 
It's interesting because when I moved here, during the whole Young Lions phase when all the labels were signing young cats on the jazz scene, there were all different cliques. And people would try to pigeonhole me. They would see me playing with somebody and say, "You must be from New Orleans."  And I would say, "No, I'm from Virginia!" So I was never tied to one clique, I tried to keep and open mind, and I never wanted to do it on the heels of someone else's success. I had to start from scratch on my own. 
So in keeping an open mind, I was open to playing and sitting in with all different types of situations: I was sitting in with Jon Faddis' band, David Murray's octet, I was playing with the American Jazz Orchestra, I would sub in the Vanguard Band, I was playing with African Bands sometimes.....I think if a young musician can keep an open mind like I did, then opportunities will come. I don't think you can afford to be closed minded, especially the way the scene is today.
GC: How has your career as a sideman affected your career as a leader positively or negatively?
SW: I'm still figuring that out! It's been a double edged sword. I have been lucky to play in different bands and observe how to be a leader. I say to players, even if they can't or don't want to work with different bands, go check them out and ask them how to be a bandleader.
GC: Do you think some people are looking for a short cut to stardom?
SW: Well, yes, because the problem is the apprenticeship  system has been killed. The industry killed it in the 80's and 90's with the Young Lions phase. They took away the opportunity to develop as musicians. I could name a whole slew of cats that were put out there as leaders without working with anybody, and they weren't ready, and now they aren't around anymore. If they had been allowed to develop, maybe things would have been different for them. 
For me, it's worked for me because I've gotten to work with so many great bands. But unfortunately, concert presenters tend to not see me as a bandleader, they only perceive me as a sideman. A lot of older musicians have the same problem, no matter how much credibility they have, the promoters don't see them as leaders. Oftentimes, there is nothing you can do about it except to keep pushing your material, develop an audience, make good music, and hopefully promoters will change their minds eventually.
GC: I had a promoter tell me to my face that I was a great sideman but that I just didn't have what it takes to be a leader! And then he gave an example of one of my peers (who will remain nameless) who he thought had much more charisma and stage presence and that they had what it takes and I didn't. It was crushing and I still disagree because I want to do more as a leader. But it was a real wake-up call. How do you convince them? Some say you have to completely stop being a sideman and only be a leader. Is it possible? Is it possible financially?
SW: Well, I tried to do that, just focus on being a leader. I tried that in the early 90's. Out of the Blue had just broken up. I will still working as a sideman. But I was meeting label people and presenters, and many of them were saying "We want to give you a shot!" So I started to get into it, but I didn't have an agent. So I was trying to book myself. And I was spending so much time on the phone, like 6 hours a day, and it was not yielding results. And I wasn't getting to spend any time on my horn! So I sort of gave up for another 10 years because it was so frustrating. I'm actually glad I gave it up at that time because I developed more musically.  
There are always going to be a few people who can handle being a leader at a young age. But that is the exception, not the rule. But the industry was trying to tell us differently in the 80's and 90's.  I call it the Wynton Effect. Not that I blame Wynton, but what happened was that the record companies saw the success of Wynton Marsalis, being a leader so young, and they tried to apply that business model to everyone. And it had a big effect on the music. Because musicians my age and older, Between 45 and 60, who should have their own bands and should be out there nurturing young musicians, they can't do it because the industry doesn't see us as artists with statements to make. I don't say this with bitterness: The business is what it is. We can't force them to see us this way. I don't try to force anybody: I'm at the age where I just don't give a shit! I can go out and play any gig as a sideman or a leader, and I can just enjoy it. I don't have an agenda.
GC: What would you tell a young musician who is trying to develop their jazz vocabulary?
SW: I remember when I met Jackie McLean in Japan. He told me, "Man, I hear what you are trying to get to. But remember, all of the new music is behind us." It really stopped me in my tracks! what he was trying to say was,"I hear you trying to play this new thing, but you need to go back and hear where it came from". And he is absolutely right. You can't just formulate your own language in a vacuum. Louis Armstrong didn't do it. Duke Ellington didn't do it. They listened to the people that came before them and the music that was around them at the time. Thelonious Monk didn't do it. Charlie Parker didn't do it. Trane......they all listened to somebody else. You can't just say "I want to play my thing." 
If you go back and listen to Jelly Roll Morton, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ellington, Copeland, you'll find that many things that musicians think are new new are not new, it's already been addressed. For example, when you look at Johnny Hodges, some people assume he was just somebody who played these glissandi and pretty notes. If you go back and listen to some early recordings of Hodges, you'll find that he was technically mind-boggling for the time, playing fast passages and with flawless technique. So my point is do your homework and then figure out your own language. You can't come up with convincing jazz language in a vacuum.
GC: Do you think that students now think you can learn how to play jazz in a weekend? I feel like they don't understand the commitment that is necessary to become a great player, even a good player. Do you think many jazz students, after 4 years of college, are going to get discouraged when they realize that even 4 years of college is not enough to even scratch the surface in terms of this music?
SW: I remember Betty Carter coming through when I was at VCU. And she said, "Many of you won't go to New York, many of you will not become great jazz soloists, many of you in this room will end up doing something else." So I think jazz education is not necessarily about creating stars: Many will become educators, many will do something else in the field of music. I t runs the gamut in terms of what the jazz student will become. No question that a few will go on to become significant practitioners of the music. Without a doubt the talent is there: some of the students I am seeing know stuff that I didn't know until I left college. Due to the information age, some of these students are exposed to things in a way that wasn't possible twenty years ago. But even with all that talent and knowledge, it still doesn't mean that anyone is guaranteed a career. But I think many of the students will graduate after four years with a degree and realize they they are just at the beginning. And part of the problem is that jazz school can't replace the way that this music was created: through the oral tradition. Jazz music is not a product of Academia! It's a byproduct of a culture. Classical Music
is the byproduct of a culture! Although academia would have you believe otherwise!(laughing) That's why it's up to the student to seek out the older practitioners of the art form and ask questions. 
GC: I feel like at age 40 I'm just getting started with understanding the music. I ran into Jon Hendricks a few years ago, and he told me that "it takes a lifetime to learn this music". And he was in his 70's at the time. Do you think, in this era of instant gratification, that students can have the patience to survive the lifelong journey of musical development?
SW: I think it's possible. It's very possible. We are in the midst of a cultural shift, some say a cultural war.The students will have to figure that out. It is a lifetime study. I tell students: " This is a marathon, not a sprint.!" And a lot of it is who is left standing when you are 70 or 80, like a Jon Hendricks. You could become a star at 25, but you might not be a star at 30. So you need to be prepared when you aren't a star. And what's going to carry you the rest of the way. There is a real ebb and flow in terms of what we perceive as success. But REAL success is when you have the tools and resolve to keep practicing your craft when nobody's looking. But I do think it's possible. It will be hard for some to shake the cultural tendency to say," If I don't make it by the time I'm 25, then I don't want to do this." But some will figure it out, and I do think we will be in good shape musically.


  1. Amazing insight! Great to "hear" you talk again Steve!

  2. Yeah, thank you Steve and George for the inspiration! Time to go listen to "Live at the Pershing" now...

  3. Great interview George! I really needed to read this today! I have been thinking a lot about what you guys talk about here and it's therapeutic in a way.. One thing - did he mean Hamden University or Hampton University?

  4. Sorry about the spelling. Feel free to correct my spelling mistakes and so forth. I can always go back and edit!

  5. An expectedly intelligent interview from a great player who is also one of jazz's nicest human beings.

  6. Yes, Steve is probably the nicest guy I've ever met!

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    so thank you for the interview. it gives me a lot of emotion. I find many things behind the music. Steve, you are wonderful

  8. Great account George! I absolutely bare to apprehend this today! I accept been cerebration a lot about what you guys allocution about actuality and it's ameliorative in a way.. One affair - did he beggarly Hamden University or Hampton University?

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