When Jimmy Owens called me with the sad news that Wilmer Wise had passed away on Jan. 30 and suggested I write some reminiscences of Wilmer, I began making notes of all the memorable times I spent with him over the years and realized that even writing a book would leave out a lot of the great things that he did every day as a master trumpeter in every style of music, a teacher to everyone he met, and a loyal friend to all the people whose lives he touched.
We met in 1969 at the Marlboro Music Festival. I was told by all the musicians there that not only Rudolph Serkin, the co-founder of the festival, adored Wilmer’s playing, but so did all the musicians in the festival! Many of these outstanding classical performers told me that when they played for the great Pablo Casals at his festival in Puerto Rico, Casals himself said that Wilmer was the finest trumpet player who had ever played there.
When I met Wilmer that night and told him about Casals’ appreciation of his talents, Wilmer didn’t brag. Instead, he launched into a perfect imitation of Casals himself conducting a rehearsal, and all the musicians who had heard him do this before roared with laughter.
Wilmer could have been a great actor because of his sense of humor and ability to make spontaneous impressions of anybody who ever crossed his path. In all the variety of gigs imaginable that we did together, he always brought his “A game” and always used his sense of humor to make it fun for the whole orchestra.
At the opening of a show about European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early 1970s, Wilmer played a baroque piece for trumpet and strings and used his piccolo trumpet to give a flawless performance.
After the piece was done, a woman in an evening gown came up to him and said, “My goodness, that was breathtaking! What was the name of that marvelous little instrument you played?”
“Thank you for asking,” said Wilmer. “In musical circles, it is called a trumpet.”
“Oh, but it’s so small,” she said.
“That’s why it is called a piccolo trumpet,” said Wilmer.
“But I thought that a piccolo was that little flute that they play,” she said.
“You are correct,” said Wilmer. “But I am sure that you know what the word ‘piccolo’ means in Italian.”
He then launched into a five-minute crash course in Italian musical terminology, as well as the history of the trumpet as a solo instrument and its evolution from pre-Bach music up to Shostakovich.
Wilmer told her how Shostakovich was inspired by jazz and how he managed to deal with the Soviet disapproval of jazz and was able find a way to utilize it anyway without being sent to Siberia.
Some of the other musicians who were playing the concert were all string players from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. They began eavesdropping as Wilmer continued his crash course. He talked about jazz trumpeters: the short and beautiful legacy of Bix Beiderbecke, the players like Harry James, Bunny Berigan and Ziggy Elman who brought the trumpet into what was at one time considered popular commercial music, and how the jazz masters of the present time like Dizzy, Miles, Art Farmer, Fats Navarro, Chet Baker, Woody Shaw, Freddy Hubbard and Clifford Brown had taken the trumpet to new levels and had inspired musicians and composers of all genres to pay more attention. He said that the high notes he had just played in the Baroque piece were now no longer out of range because of jazz virtuosos like Ray Nance, Ernie Royal, Lew Soloff, John Faddis and Maynard Ferguson, who made those same high notes sound effortless.
That night, and on so many other occasions, Wilmer was a one-man university, and never made anyone feel foolish when he told them about music of all genres as well as his own journey. When he was still a teenager in Philadelphia, Wilmer was already an accomplished singer who had been featured on recordings. But he wanted to pursue a career in classical music and dared to come to the concrete jungle of New York City. As a freelancer, he become one of the most respected and sought-after players.
For 29 years, we worked together in every concert I conducted for Young People’s Schooltime Programs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as for all the parks concerts and community concerts.
During those 29 years, Wilmer only had to miss one series, during our 1979-1980 season. He told me that while we had planned for him to be the soloist in a movement from the Haydn Trumpet Concerto as well as in the jazz-oriented piece I had composed, he hoped he could take a week off because he was asked to play for a major series of film scoring sessions that would pay him five times more than the week at BAM.
“Who can we get who can do what you can do?” I asked.
“There’s a young guy from New Orleans who is at Juilliard this year. He is not only a killer classical player but also occasionally plays with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. He can play it all. I asked him and he said he would make the time so that he could be free to do it. His name is Wynton Marsalis,”
Then Wilmer paused and said, “And you won’t be disappointed.”
Wynton was fabulous and he and Wilmer and the other trumpeter in the orchestra – Henry Nowak – all became friends for life.
Wilmer was a master at bringing people together. In 1984, he was asked to be in the orchestra for a TV special that was to document Leonard Bernstein conducting rehearsals and a performance of “West Side Story.” During a break, Lenny came up to Wilmer and is reported to have said “My God! You are phenomenal! Where have you been for all these years?”
“Right here in New York City,” said Wilmer, without batting an eye. “You can find me in the Local 802 directory!”
When I saw Lenny about a year after the broadcast and mentioned what a pleasure it was to see and hear Wilmer in the program, which had brought such freshness to his score, Lenny said, in his own pontifical way, “He was MAH-H-Hvelous!” That’s the way all of us who were lucky enough to know Wilmer will always feel.
Although Wilmer was younger, our birthdays were just a few weeks apart, and often, since our birthday parties were usually joyous nonstop events, we would visit one another, celebrate, go out to play if we were working that night, and come back a second time for more merrymaking.
And when my kids moved to Brooklyn, we would often spend New Year’s Eve together. Wilmer would tell my kids about his endless adventures and give them history lessons that they would never learn in school.
Let’s all celebrate his life and use him as a role model of how to pursue excellence while always having the time to encourage others to do the same. And let’s remember him as a person who always found the time to make everyone he was with feel that they were special.
It was a blessing to know him.
David Amram joined Local 802 in 1956 and was the first composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic. A pioneer jazz French hornist, Amram is also an acclaimed classical composer and has collaborated with everyone from Jack Kerouac to Charles Mingus, and everyone in between. See www.DavidAmram.com for more.