Appropriately, I stumbled across a recently posted video of my all-time fave French jazz band on YouTube yesterday – Bastille Day. There are quite a few videos of them already available, but this one was only uploaded to YouTube in … Continue reading →
Bob Wilber, who has died at the age of 91, was a champion of classic and traditional jazz and one of the world’s leading jazz soprano saxophonists and clarinettists. During a career which spanned more than six decades, the quiet-spoken … Continue reading →
Bob Wilber, who has died at the age of 91, was a champion of classic and traditional jazz and one of the world’s leading jazz soprano saxophonists and clarinettists. During a career which spanned more than six decades, the quiet-spoken New Yorker was a living link to the great jazz originals who had inspired him – in particular the legendary Sidney Bechet, whose protégé he was in the late 1940s – and a musical chameleon, able to emulate both Bechet’s sound and that of the clarinet king Benny Goodman.
In later life, he became a generous mentor to the younger players who followed him, not least the mighty tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton with whose young band Wilber recorded in 1977, thereby attracting the attention of the record company which ultimately signed him.
In Scotland, he is remembered for his involvement in gala or one-off concerts at the Edinburgh and Nairn Jazz Festivals – in particular the handful of reunions of the 1970s jazz “supergroup”, Soprano Summit, which took place twice in Edinburgh in the 1990s, and twice in Nairn in the 2000s, and he appeared with Scott Hamilton the final edition of the much-missed Nairn Jazz Festival, in 2009.
Robert Sage Wilber was born in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1928. His father was a partner in a small publishing firm which specialised in college textbooks. His mother died when Wilber was just over a year old, and Wilber and his sister were raised by their father and the second wife he married soon afterwards. When Wilber was six years old, the family moved to Scarsdale, an affluent commuter suburb to the north of the city.
Wilber was just an infant when he first heard jazz – his father, who played some jazz piano, played him the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s recording of Mood Indigo when it had just come out. Wilber would hear the band live, in 1943, when the whole family went to Carnegie Hall for the historic Black, Brown and Beige concert. Not that this was the young boy’s first experience of live jazz; his father had already taken him to Manhattan’s Café Society nightclub to listen to the elegant and swinging pianist Teddy Wilson.
Like many of his peers, Wilber, who took up clarinet in his early teens, became hooked on traditional jazz which was enjoying a popular revival in the 1940s. He wrote in his 1987 memoir Music Was Not Enough: “I had discovered jazz. It seemed to me to celebrate the very joy of being alive. How very different from the rest of my life!” At school, he helped establish a record club and formed a band which held lunchtime sessions.
Aged 15 years old, Wilber and his jazz-mad classmates would go into the city every Sunday afternoon to hear some of their favourite musicians playing in a jam session. They even persuaded them to come to play in an end-of-term concert at their school. And so it was that such well-known names from the jazz world as pianist Art Hodes, bass player Pops Foster, trombonist Wilber De Paris and clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow played at Scarsdale High.
Instead of pursuing an Ivy League education, as might have been expected, Wilber finished school and moved to New York to continue his studies in the jazz clubs of 52ndStreet and in Brooklyn, where he studied with the great New Orleans clarinettist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet.
“He had a ramshackle house with a sign, ‘Sidney Bechet’s School of Music’,” Wilber told the New York Times in 1980. “I was virtually the first student and the only serious student. After a month Sidney suggested I move in with him.” By 1948, Wilber was so immersed in Bechet’s style of playing and sounded so like him that when the older man was unable to accept an invitation to play at the Nice Jazz Festival, his student went in his place.
Wilber had formed his first band, the Wildcats, in 1945. It comprised contemporaries including the dazzling pianist Dick Wellstood. But, says Dan Morgenstern, the Director Emeritus of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, it was the second incarnation of the Wildcats which was Wilber’s most important band.
Morgenstern says: “Apart from Bob and Dick, the other members were veteran blacks, old enough to be their fathers or even grandfathers. Between them, these elders had worked with a veritable who’s who of early jazz including King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as Louis Armstrong. The interracial aspect was almost as unusual, for that time, as the age one.”
When he was drafted into the army in 1952, Wilber – seeking to emerge from Bechet’s shadow – swapped his soprano sax for a tenor. He didn’t restrict his interest to classic and traditional jazz – he explored modern jazz by studying pianist Lennie Tristano, and he formed a band named The Six which combined elements of traditional and modern jazz. He also studied classical clarinet, and toured with the most celebrated swing clarinettist, Benny Goodman. It wasn’t until the 1960s that he was first introduced to the instrument for which he will be best remembered – the curved soprano sax.
He later wrote: “I played one note of curved soprano sax and I remember saying this is different from the straight. I can do something on this which is different than Sidney Bechet. And that started my second career on soprano.” Indeed, it was on soprano that Wilber was featured when he became one of the charter members of Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart’s modestly monikered World’s Greatest Jazz Band in 1968.
In 1969, Wilber earned a Grammy nomination for his album The Music of Hoagy Carmichael, which featured his arrangements and his serene soprano sax playing. (He won the Grammy in 1985 for his recreations of Duke Ellington’s 1920s music for the movie The Cotton Club.) It also marked a comeback for the wonderful swing era singer Maxine Sullivan, with whom he recorded another album that year, Close As Pages in a Book.
Wilber may have had to talk Sullivan into her comeback, but when he called Marty Grosz to ask if he would like to join Soprano Summit, the response was: “My bags are packed.” The much-loved guitarist, vocalist and purveyor of side-splittingly funny anecdotes had been working for the US Postal Service but he gave it up and headed out on the road with Soprano Summit; a move which launched Grosz’s career as a solo star who was a favourite of Edinburgh and Nairn audiences through the 1990s and 2000s.
Soprano Summit was created on impulse by a promoter desperate to revive an audience jazzed-out after a full weekend of wall-to-wall jazz. He suggested that Wilber and Kenny Davern “do a duet with soprano saxophones and wake everyone up”. The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.
“We got a rhythm section together,” explained Wilber during an interview in Nairn, in 1995. “By a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number.” Davern continued: “We finished it off on two high notes in thirds, and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”
In December 1972, the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album. Then, after a second LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born. The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go. Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work.
Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love of tunes which were off the beaten standard track. Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic ground plan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. Davern added: “That was the basic sound of the group – two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue.”
In a typical Soprano Summit number they bounced the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, though one sensed that much of the arranging was going on as they played. Wilber and Davern’s intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing.
As British clarinettist and saxophonist Alan Barnes says: “Soprano Summit brought together two highly individual and virtuosic reed players who, great as they were individually, found an interaction together that was very special. Taking the pre-swing era as their inspiration, they gave the material a contemporary edge and struck real sparks off each other in series of exciting exchanges that stood comparison with any of the other two reed combinations in jazz.”
Even years after Soprano Summit broke up, when Wilber and Davern got together, they still produced spine-tingling music – as anyone who attended one of their reunion concerts will testify.
After settling in the Cotswolds in the late 1980s with his second wife, the Sheffield-born singer Joanne “Pug” Horton, Wilber performed in Scotland every few years until around 2010, when he made his last appearance at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in a concert entitled Festival of Swing which also featured fellow octogenarian Joe Temperley and tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton.
By this time, he was in the habit of taking control of the line-up with which he was working, and, rather than following the programme and leading the all-star group in its entirety for a finale, he assumed leadership from the off, putting together a first set which overran by 45 minutes. Nobody in the band said anything, despite being 45 minutes’ overdue their pints, but Wilber – as one musician remembered it – “got a massive bollocking from the wee lady who sold the ice-creams – which had melted in the meantime.”
Bob Wilber, born March 15, 1928; died August 4, 2019.
A shorter version of this was published in The Herald on August 30.
Text (c) Alison Kerr; Photo (c) Donnie Kerr
One of the most magical moments at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe came from the bowels of Chambers Street where a room-ful of punters could be heard softly singing Feed the Birds, the beautiful ballad from the Disney film Mary Poppins … Continue reading →
One of the most magical moments at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe came from the bowels of Chambers Street where a room-ful of punters could be heard softly singing Feed the Birds, the beautiful ballad from the Disney film Mary Poppins – to the accompaniment of two of Scotland’s leading jazz musicians as they performed their Poppins-themed show at the Jazz Bar.
This hour-long concert – which united tiny tots, senior citizens, hippies, hipsters, seasoned Fringe-goers, diehard Disney fans and jaded jazzers in song – became one of those shows which grew busier as its run went on. Word of mouth boosted its ticket sales and the memory of how special it was prompted its stars – the duo of trumpeter Colin Steele and pianist Brian Kellock – to be persuaded to revive it for this year’s Fringe, for just two performances.
But Mary Poppins, the jazz version, is just one of a raft of diverse gigs that Steele is preparing for. While other dads might be looking forward to easing off work during the school holidays, Steele is limbering up for the busiest couple of months in his calendar.
The acclaimed 51-year-old jazz musician – and father of three – is bracing himself for a festival season which this year sees him headlining two concerts at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival (and serving as sideman on a further seven) and four shows (each with multiple performances) at the Fringe, plus so many as a sideman that he has already lost count. “Some days I have three gigs,” he says, “so I’m practising like crazy, building up the chops.”
Steele – who has just spent the weekend zooming between the Glasgow Jazz Festival, where he played in up-and-coming singer Georgia Cecile’s band; Loch Lomond, where he is renovating a holiday house, and his hometown where he had gigs at both the Barony Bar and Soderberg – seems to be ahead of the game in terms of building up his stamina for mid July. But it’s not something he takes for granted, having suffered a catastrophic crisis with his playing ten years ago.
Left unable to play, he had to re-learn his craft and he is now much more aware that he shouldn’t push himself too hard. “Nowadays, I know that if it’s not working, then I need to put the trumpet away for a bit. I used to get anxious and push myself too far and it would all collapse,” he explains.
As his busy, cross-country weekend and heavy Fringe schedule illustrate, Steele is an extremely versatile musician who is at home in any number of jazz settings and has absorbed inspiration from a vast range of horn players. He cites Chet Baker – whose, cool, swinging, pared-back “West Coast” sound he channels with ease – as his biggest influence, and names Louis Armstrong, “whose creativity, originality and emotional playing is second to none”, as his favourite trumpeter. It was playing Baker-style jazz that made Steele’s name back in the 1990s, but recently he has played more traditional jazz thanks to his membership of various bands led by the singer Alison Affleck, a tireless champion of early styles of jazz.
[Affleck, Steele and their cohorts may have helped to fuel the revival of interest in traditional jazz in Scotland but it has,unfortunately been pounced upon, rather cynically, by some musicians who seem to view it as a way of landing gigs, rather than because it’s an area of jazz that they are passionate about and well-versed in. Even more disheartening is the fact that jazz festivals are lowering their standards by booking these groups which have jumped on the trad bandwagon.]
Under his own name, Steele has performed and recorded Celtic/folk-influenced jazz with his own band. At last year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival, he acknowledged his past forays into pop by performing a jazz concert of music by the Glasgow band The Pearlfishers, on ten of whose records he had played. The success of the Pearlfishers project – the concerts and a very well-received album – inspired another pop-themed jazz project for this year’s festival: the Colin Steele Quartet Play Joni Mitchell.
“I’ve had a deep love for Joni Mitchell for a long time; I’d always known her music – and I felt her songs deserved to be better appreciated. She’s known primarily as a poet, but her melodies are fab and stand on their own two feet. Plus, there’s already a jazz connection because she worked quite often with jazz musicians – Charles Mingus, Michael Brecker and Jaco Pastorius are just some of the jazz guys she worked with.”
There were other contenders for this next jazz-meets-pop project, however. “Ricky Lee Jones was high up on the list too,” says Steele before returning to the subject of how he convinced himself that the Joni Mitchell idea could work. “Actually,” he explains, “I probably wouldn’t have gone for this Joni Mitchell idea had Brian Kellock and I not done the music of Mary Poppins at the Fringe last year. It’s so far away from jazz – it just shows what you can do. Someone said to me after the Mary Poppins show that if you can make something as fab as that out of Mary Poppins, then you can do anything. It’s all about melody, and if you have a really strong melody, then it will work. Also, Brian can make anything possible!”
Over the last five years, the Steele-Kellock double act has become a fixture on the Fringe; the two longstanding friends and colleagues seeing it as an opportunity to explore themes or songbooks that they hadn’t delved into before, and to harness the anything-goes spirit of the Fringe to up the level of spontaneity and fun. And, of course, to make a feature of audience participation.
Steele recalls: “The first Fringe show we did together was My Fair Lady in 2014, then the following year, Brian suggested that we do a Glenn Miller show and it sort of took off from there; it became an annual jamboree. It just worked so well; the audience loved it. We had air raid sirens, singalongs (Pennsylvania 65000 etc) and everybody knew a lot of the tunes. The strength of the melody and the arrangements are so great, and playing that music in a small group gives you so much space. When I’ve played it in a big band, I’ve not been satisfied because you can’t really be creative – and I do like to improvise.”
In 2018, Steele and Kellock retired the Glenn Miller show so they could concentrate on their Mary Poppins one. Its slow sales at the outset suggested that there was some ambivalence that it would work but ultimately it assumed the status of being one of those shows that people kick themselves for having missed because those who were there talk about it as a life-enhancing event.
Steele says: “On the fifth and final day, there was a big group of musicians who came in and they said it was the best, most fun, gig they’d ever seen and I felt that way too. It really was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life – everyone singing Feed the Birds. It was so special. I felt it would be a shame not to do it again.”
In addition to reviving Glenn Miller for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival and Mary Poppins for this year’s Fringe, Steele and Kellock are celebrating two of the original giants of jazz – Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington – in another Fringe show that will have five outings.
What is it about working in a duo that so appeals to Steele? “There’s a real intimacy and a responsibility that you both have – you can’t take a back seat. It’s lovely to work with someone with such musicality and of course you have to remember that there’s also the beauty of no drummer! There’s so much space because there’s no drummer. Anything can happen in duos. With three or four people it’s more complicated. The duo offers more possibilities, more freedom but also harder work – there’s a lot of sweat going on.
“I’ve no doubt that Brian is the greatest of all Scottish jazz musicians and we’re so lucky to have him and I’m so honoured to play with him. We all feel that. It’s always a challenge: he’s not an accompanist – he’s there for the creativity, he’s always pushing. I’m more reticent, he pushes you into different areas. It’s always scary, always a joy.”
*Colin Steele plays the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on July 15 (Glenn Miller, with Brian Kellock) and 17 (Joni Mitchell with his own group); www.edinburghjazzfestival.com for details. For details of his various Fringe shows, visit www.edfringe.com ; Mary Poppins is on August 18 and 20.
Leon Redbone, who has died at the age of 69, was an enigmatic and eccentric figure on the music scene best remembered in this country for providing the wistful songs which played a key part in the success of a … Continue reading →
Leon Redbone, who has died at the age of 69, was an enigmatic and eccentric figure on the music scene best remembered in this country for providing the wistful songs which played a key part in the success of a series of much-loved British Rail InterCity adverts which ran from 1988 into the early 1990s.
In the United States, he was regarded as a national treasure, having made regular appearances on TV since the first series of Saturday Night Live in 1976 when his debut album, On the Track, was attracting attention. He became such an icon that he was immortalised in both the 2003 Will Ferrell movie Elf (he voiced Leon the Snowman) and one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. He was also a regular on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion live radio show.
Usually dressed in a suit and tie, and panama hat and always wearing shades, Redbone cut a distinctive dash. His throwback look and the air of mystery around him were almost as intriguing and appealing as his unique musical sound – a simple, folksy melange of jazz and Delta blues with a hint of western swing. He sang in a laconic Louisiana accent, and played acoustic guitar. Sometimes he broke into a bit of yodelling, and he often whistled melodies or played harmonica along with his guitar.
The songs he chose were invariably little-remembered Tin Pan Alley gems from the 1910s and 1920s, though he also wrote some numbers – including So Relax, the song featured in the InterCity adverts. Many of his 16 albums featured top jazz musicians who were no strangers to jazz audiences in Scotland – Ken Peplowski, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dan Barrett.
His rise to fame in the mid-1970s coincided with the sudden popular interest in ragtime – thanks to the use of Scott Joplin’s rags on the soundtrack of The Sting – and he enjoyed early endorsement from Bob Dylan, who was impressed and intrigued by this Groucho Marx lookalike whose age, he said, could be “anywhere from 25 to 60”.
Throughout his career – which came to an end in 2015, when he retired for health reasons – Redbone’s disinclination to talk seriously about himself or engage in routine publicity simply added to his mystique.
During his four-night run at the 1991 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Radio Tay broadcaster (and festival compere) Alan Steadman’s delight at managing to persuade Redbone to be interviewed turned to slightly frustrated bemusement when every question was answered with just “yes” or “no”. (Steadman also recalls that one of Redbone’s quirks was to take a photo of the audience before every show.) All he did reveal, beyond his gentle and whimsical style of music, was a wry sense of humour. Quick wit quietly delivered in a slow southern drawl was in evidence both onstage and off.
That same festival, American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton was appearing on a BBC radio show featuring an all-star line-up. He remembers: “I was desperate for a drink and there were only minutes to go before the start, so I ran downstairs and bumped into Leon, whom I’d never met before. ‘Is there a bar or a restaurant down here anywhere?’ I asked, out of breath. He looked at me funny and said: ‘A bar or a restroom? Buddy, you better make up your mind ..’ !”
At the 2002 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, it was difficult to tell whether the stage persona was his natural personality or a cultivated one (indeed, there had been speculation that Redbone was an alter ego for another performer). Redbone – wearing his signature sunglasses – complained about the lights being too strong but was admirably unruffled, and characteristically droll, when dealing with the other issues of what turned out to be a pretty tense evening for those of us who wanted to listen to him.
First there were the problems with the microphone – “Was I singing the same song I was playing?” asked the deadpan musician – then there was the one-man campaign for audience participation which went on for most of the concert.
Redbone ended up playing referee as his attentive audience turned on the heckler, and demanded his removal (after he had sung along through a staggering seven numbers and even been given a personal warning from the jazz festival director himself). “Some enchanted evening …” sang Redbone, by way of commenting on the incident.
Asked, late in his career, about his reluctance to chat or to talk about himself, Redbone said: “I don’t do anything mysterious on purpose. I’m less than forthcoming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m mysterious. It just means I’m not inclined to go there.” He claimed that he preferred the emphasis to be on his songs, and that he was simply a vehicle for the music. Even the announcement of his death last week – in a notice posted on his official website – referred to his age as 127.
What is known is that Redbone – who is believed to have been born Dickran Gobalian in Cyrpus to Armenian parents – moved to Toronto in the 1960s where he developed a cult following thanks to his performances in coffee houses and folk clubs. But it was in the mid-1970s that he came to the attention of a larger audience when he was name-checked in a Rolling Stone article by Bob Dylan, who had heard him at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario and talked about producing his first album. Other notable admirers have included Loudon Wainwright III, Jack White and Bonnie Raitt.
He is survived by his wife (and manager) Beryl Handler, his two daughters and three grandchildren.
*Leon Redbone, singer and guitarist, born August 26, 1949; died May 30, 2019.
First published in The Herald, June 6, 2019