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