The Gentleman Musician: Remembering Joe Wilder


Volume 114, No. 6June, 2014

Leo Ball
Joe Wilder (Photo: courtesy Ed Berger)

Joe Wilder
(Photo: courtesy Ed Berger)

Joe Wilder, 92, a trumpeter and a member of Local 802 since 1949, died on May 9, 2014. In tribute, we’d like to reprint below an edited version of an article we first published about Mr. Wilder in the February 2004 issue of Allegro. The article was written by the late Leo Ball, a fellow trumpeter, who died in 2007. (Leo worked at Local 802 for 20 years and interviewed many jazz greats for us.)

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, who played cornet, tuba and bass, started Joe on cornet when he was very young, and Joe enrolled in his junior high school band program when he was only 12. His dad lived to be almost 101.

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 after his freshman year, he left school to help support his family. He played 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 left the road to settle in New York and bring up his family, playing one of the trumpet chairs with the Noble 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 Cy 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, “The 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 17 years.

Joe told me he didn’t really consider himself a jazz player, but of course he was widely sought after in that venue. I heard him in person, and have his albums, and, Joe, I hate to contradict you, but you were indeed a jazz player, and one of the best.

He had two major hobbies, one of which was photography, and he did some beautiful work over the years. You almost never saw him without the camera strapped around his neck.

His other talent was that of being a “punster,” which elicited many groans on many dates with his bandmates, but he did come up with some true winners, one of which was once 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?

Mr. Wilder is survived by his wife Solveig and their daughters Elin, Solveig and Inga-Kerstin. Mr. Wilder is also survived by his son Joseph Jr. and six grandchildren. In 2008, four years after this article was first published, Mr. Wilder was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Readers will be interested in a new book about Joe Wilder, “Softly, With Feeling,” by Ed Berger, which was recently published by Temple University Press.