Remembering the late trumpeter Joe Wilder, Softly, and with Feeling

In this blog entry, Edward Berger, author of Softly, with Feeling, remembers the subject of his book,  trumpeter Joe Wilder, who passed away last week.

Joe Wilder died on Friday morning at the age of 92. He last played the trumpet in public in 2012, and up until a year or so ago he was still able to attend social and musical events, riding the New York subways and buses. His father lived to be one hundred, and I always thought that Joe would certainly be around to take part in book signings and other events surrounding the publication of our book, Softly, With Feeling.

Softly with Feeling_sm I say “our” book, because, although it’s not an autobiography, Joe took such an active interest and contributed so much to it that he was much more than a mere “subject.” Joe and I had been friends since the early 1980s. As many others, I became infatuated with his beautiful trumpet sound and wholly original approach to improvisation. As I got to know him, I quickly realized that he was as great a person as he was a musician—and that’s saying something!

Over the years I had interviewed him publicly, written about him for Jazz Times and other publications, and taught a course with him at Jazz at Lincoln Center based on his life and career. I also worked with him on several recording projects. The idea of a book was always in the back of my mind, but it was not until around 2010, when he began to experience some serious health problems, that I began to realize the time had come. It was not easy to convince a man of Joe Wilder’s humility to agree to such a project. Just as in music, where he spent virtually his entire career as the consummate sideman and team player and felt uncomfortable in the role of “leader,” he felt equally ill at ease having the “literary” spotlight shone on him. But when I argued that his struggles and triumphs, placed within a broader historical context, could inspire others, and that his insights and reminiscences could call attention to his friends and musical associates who were no longer around to speak for themselves, he allowed me to proceed. We grew even closer during this period, as I was interviewing him regularly—usually in his Manhattan apartment, but sometimes at mine in Princeton.

JoeWilderHe was a natural story-teller, and delighted in the many decades-old clippings or other artifacts I came across, which would evoke a flood of memories and more stories. Just as his playing was noted for its precision and attention to detail, Joe insisted on precision and accuracy in relating the events of his life and especially in assessing his contributions. He was loath to take credit for being “the first” in anything, even when a convincing case could be made for it.

Which brings me to the subject of race. I have never met anyone who was less prejudiced (in the precise meaning of “pre-judging” a person) than Joe Wilder. From his childhood days in Philadelphia, through his early musical experiences in integrated musical groups, his work in the Broadway and network orchestras, not to mention his marriage to Solveig (she is Swedish and he became fluent in the language), Joe has shown his love for all people.

As I noted in the book, his musical abilities may have opened doors, but his personality changed minds. And as Buddy DeFranco said, “Joe taught me the meaning of tolerance and acceptance.” Race did not define him, but as Joe shared his story, it became clear that at almost every juncture, race affected him deeply, both professionally and personally. So, inevitably, it became a central theme in the book, hence the subtitle Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music.

As I learned about what he and his fellow African Americans faced both as musicians and human beings (and I’m sure he didn’t tell me everything), the fact that he emerged without bitterness, without hatred, and with his compassion, humanity, and humor intact, made me admire him all the more.

As the editors at Temple University Press will attest, I was constantly pressing them to expedite publication of the book as I saw Joe’s health continue to deteriorate; it was becoming a race against time. They responded, and Joe lived to see the book. While I had always dreamed of him basking in whatever attention it might bring him, I feel blessed that I was able to sit with him while he held it, to page through it with him and watch him smile with recognition as he looked at the photos of him and his friends, both current and long gone. His eldest daughter told me that her mother and sisters spent hours reading the book to him at his bedside, and that they had finished shortly before he passed away.

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