The Gentleman Musician: An Interview With Joe Wilder

Volume CIV, No. 2February, 2004

Leo Ball

Trumpeter Joe Wilder walked into my office for his Allegro interview immaculately dressed, as always; suit neatly pressed, matching tie, shoes shined, truly a picture of sartorial splendor. I mentioned to him that I couldn’t ever remember his being dressed otherwise, and he told me a cute story. It seems he went to hear a Jazzmobile concert in Harlem featuring some of his longtime playing buddies, and he wore only a T shirt with slacks. When they spotted him, there was no “Hi Joe, How’ya doing Joe,” only “Hey, guys, look at Joe Wilder without a jacket and tie – it is him, isn’t it?”

In all the time we’ve been friends, I’ve never known Joe – like Bobby Hackett – to put down any other player. It seems he’s always able to find something redeeming in even the worst of us. He turns the word “gentleman” into two words – he’s truly a “gentle man.”

Joe was born in Colwyn, Penn. in 1922, and the family moved to Philadelphia when Joe was still a young boy. His dad, a cornetist, started Joe on the instrument when he was very young, and Joe enrolled in his junior high school band program when he was only twelve. His dad lived to be almost 101 years of age, and died not too long ago, a pain that Joe feels to this day.

Joe had three brothers, the eldest being a fine bassist. The two best cornet players in the band were Joe – and Rosario Pino, his best friend in school. The head of the music program, Ms. Alberta Lewis, made arrangements for Joe to audition at the University of Pennsylvania for the music program at Jules E. Mastbaum High School in Philadelphia, considered to be one of the best in the country. Alumni include Red Rodney, Buddy DeFranco, Leon Cohen, Ralph Shapey, Ralph Clemson, John Palma and John LaPorta – all destined to become top professional players.

Joe’s friend Rosario was not interested in pursuing a professional career in music, and went on to other pursuits; he remains Joe’s close friend to this day. But Joe himself aced the audition, and was enrolled at Mastbaum High.

Joe blossomed into a fine classical player, but always had an interest in swing bands. Shortly before graduation, he left school to play first trumpet with the Les Hite Orchestra, considered a top band of the day. Joe’s section mate, playing the jazz chair, was Dizzy Gillespie, a longtime friend of Joe and his family.

Joe was launched on his career, and never looked back.

His credits are endless, but a brief history of his musical travels after the Hite band includes a short stay with Lionel Hampton. Then, due to World War II, he was drafted into the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune.

Joe was part of the first group of 1,000 black people recruited into the marines, and after boot camp, was trained in special weapons. It so happened that Captain Bobby Troup – later to gain fame as the author of the tune “Route 66” – was the morale officer at the base, and was aware of Joe’s trumpet-playing abilities. He pulled the necessary strings to get Joe into the band.

Joe was later promoted to assistant bandmaster, and remained in the band for the whole three years he spent in the Corps.

After discharge, he rejoined Lionel Hampton, followed by stints with Jimmy Lunceford, Herbie Fields, Sam Donahue, Lucky Millinder, Noble Sissle and finally Count Basie in 1954.

Joe married in 1957, and this union has endured for 46 years, producing three beautiful daughters (I’ve seen their pictures).

He left the road to settle in New York and bring up his family, playing one of the trumpet chairs with the Nobel Sissle orchestra at a famous club called the Diamond Horseshoe. During this engagement, Joe was called to play a Broadway show called “Alive and Kicking.” Sissle told Joe that he would hold his chair for him for four weeks, but no more. The show actually lasted around six or seven weeks, but when it closed, Sissle was kind enough to give Joe back his job.

Broadway soon beckoned again, this time with “Guys and Dolls.” Sissle gave Joe the same deal, but, of course, the show was a major hit, and Joe never returned to the Diamond Horseshoe.

After this, he was hired on first trumpet for the show “Silk Stockings,” the first time a person of color was allowed to play a principal chair on a Broadway show. This was a Cole Porter show, and when Sy Feuer, the producer, asked Cole how he felt about the show having a black principal trumpet player, Cole’s answer defined the man. “Can he play my music?” The answer was, of course, “yes,” and Cole replied, “Well, that’s all that matters.”

Joe played first trumpet on one more hit show, “Most Happy Fella,” before leaving the Broadway scene for riper fields.

By this time, he was recognized as one of the outstanding trumpet players in town, and the top work followed – recordings, jingles, and thanks to friend Billy Butterfield, a chance to sub on a show at ABC, where his playing caught the attention of contractor Frank Vagnoni.

Joe went on staff at ABC in 1958, and stayed for seventeen years. He continues to stay active, and although he told me he doesn’t really consider himself a jazz player, is widely sought after in that venue. I’ve heard him in person, and have his latest album, and, Joe, I hate to contradict you, but you are a jazz player, and one of the best.

He has two major hobbies, one of which is photography, and he’s done some beautiful work over the years. You will almost never see him without the camera strapped around his neck.

His other talent is that of being a “punster,” which has elicited many groans on many dates with his bandmates, but he has come up with some true winners, one of which was repeated to me by fellow trumpeter Burt Collins.

It seems Burt and Joe were on a two trumpet jingle date where the music called for a slightly intricate unison to be played by the trumpets and the percussionist, who was playing chimes.

The percussionist made a couple of incorrect entrances, at which point Joe turned to Burt and said, “This fellow should be awarded the ‘No Bells’ prize in music!” Get it?