Sunday 20 October 2019

Obituary: Bob Wilber

Jazz musician and devoted pupil of Sidney Bechet who thrilled audiences of the swing era


Bob Wilber, the clarinettist and saxophonist, who has died aged 91, was devoted to preserving jazz styles of the past, their techniques, forms and spirit.

Wilber began in his early teens. When he was about to leave school, his father asked him whether he proposed spending his life "blowing his lungs out in smoky dives". His reply was: "Yeah, Dad! That's what I want to do!"

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The dives were eventually replaced by concert halls and recording studios, but that is exactly what he did until age and infirmity called a halt.

Robert Sage Wilber was born in New York on March 15, 1928. His mother died when he was an infant. He took up clarinet at 13 and led his own band, the Wildcats, while still a teenager. In 1946 he sought out the veteran New Orleans musician Sidney Bechet, then living in relative obscurity in New York, and became his devoted apprentice.

Wilber assimilated much of Bechet's passionate, full-toned style on clarinet and soprano saxophone, and the echo of it remained in his own playing thereafter. Bechet, who feared that the old ways would die with him, was delighted to have such a pupil. As it turned out, the late 1940s saw not only the new jazz of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, but also a surge of interest in older styles, with Bob Wilber as a leading figure.

He made his first records then, some of them with Sidney Bechet as guest star. In 1948 Bechet was unable to take up an invitation to play at the first jazz festival in Nice, and sent Wilber in his place.

In 1952, at the time of the Korean War, Wilber was drafted into the US Army. His two years' service, spent in a military band gave him time to consider what to do next. He was fully aware of contemporary jazz and considered creating an amalgam of classic and modern idioms. On his discharge in 1954 he set up a band on these lines, called The Six. It aroused critical interest but left the public unmoved.

Bechet died in 1959, prompting Wilber to record an album of his music. Much as he revered Bechet's memory, however, he suspected that their close similarity in style was hampering his own development. He took up the alto sax at around this time, partly to signify a new start.

In his 1987 autobiography, Music Was Not Enough, Wilber recalled feeling misunderstood during the 1960s. He certainly recorded very little, but he was playing regularly with some of the best people. He was twice invited to join Louis Armstrong's All Stars.

Many jazz musicians would have jumped at the chance, but, flattered though he was, Wilber turned it down. Armstrong's gruelling tours were notorious, and the contract was for at least a year. A new band, modestly entitled The World's Greatest Jazz Band, was launched in 1968 by jazz entrepreneur Dick Gibson, with Wilber among its first members. Co-led by the trumpeter Yank Lawson and the bassist Bob Haggart, well managed and efficiently promoted, it enjoyed success and continued for 10 years.

It also arrived at the right time. Vintage jazz was about to experience another rise in popularity, boosted this time by serious academic interest.

Perhaps the peak of Bob Wilber's career came with his recreation of the sound of Duke Ellington's early orchestra for Francis Ford Coppola's film, The Cotton Club.

Bob Wilber was married twice. He is survived by his second wife, Pug Horton, and a daughter from his first marriage. Wilber died on August 4, 2019.

Sunday Independent

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