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Capturing a life lived in jazz: A remembrance of guitarist Jack Wilkins

 Jack Wilkins
Jack Wilkins

My best friend Jack Wilkins died on May 5, 2023, after several months of failing health. It was a Friday evening and a month shy of his 79th birthday. A circle of close friends gathered round him as his health deteriorated. In his room at Mt. Sinai hospital, his fiancée Gayle Tapper, who knew Jack since they were teenagers, sat by one side holding his hand, while another close friend’s daughter sat on the other stroking his hair. Another longtime friend gently rubbed his feet. A recording of Christopher Parkening playing Bach played in the background. I remember that at the bottom of the stairs in Jack’s apartment a small landing permanently housed a music stand with a collection of Bach pieces on it. Jack had worked intermittently on them for years.

He was, quite simply, a guitar players’ guitar player, a “New Yawka” born and raised in Brooklyn. He once told me, “My mother played a little piano and sang, and my stepfather played a little saxophone, but I was drawn to the guitar immediately. My older cousin had one and it was lying around my house.”

Chuck Berry and rock and roll were just taking off, and Jack learned a few chords from his cousin and started to play doo wop. He was perhaps 11 or 12 by then. I told him I was 13 or 14 when I first heard Joe Pass, and I had the jazz guitar equivalent of a “Come to Jesus” moment. A light turned on. “For me, it was Johnny Smith,” Jack said. “My cousin was the one who introduced me to him. I’d never heard anything like that. I didn’t know what it was. We did a lot of listening together and I started taking the guitar much more seriously. I became obsessed with becoming the best player I could be.”

By the time he was about 15, he was studying guitar with an older local guitarist named Joe Monte who taught him to read music. “He was a great teacher,” Jack said. “Whatever he gave me, I devoured. Practiced it until I had it down.” He also studied with Sid Margolis, who owned a local music store and helped him become an even stronger reader. “Once I could read, I was on a whole different level of guitar playing from most everyone else, and there was a lot of paying work I could do,” Jack added.

He was part of a fast-fading generation of jazz musicians who learned to play on the gig as much as they woodshedded off it. He was unfiltered, exuberant, funny, smart and uncompromising in his commitment to his craft, and his embrace of life. He made the guitar seem simple to master, as a teacher and a player—when it is anything but.


His mastery was on a par with his musical heroes such as Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, Joe Pass, Chuck Wayne, Wes Montgomery, and Johnny Smith. Several became his friend. The list of names he played and/or recorded with is legion—among them Michael and Randy Brecker, Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Barron, Phil Woods, and Charles Mingus. He toured with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. “I learned to sing and play folk music with him,” Jack explained. For years, he was a featured player in Buddy Rich’s septet, played many Broadway shows such as Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well, toured the far east with Manhattan Transfer, and accompanied such singers as Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughn, Ray Charles, Astrud Gilberto, and Tony Bennett. He released over 15 recordings as a leader, and he was on more than 30 others as a sideman.

He had an often-mischievous sense of humor. We made each other laugh all the time. He once challenged me to a foot race knowing I was wearing wooden clogs. When we started down a partially cobbled street, he laughed so hard at me running like a guy wearing stilts that I ended up beating him. He would tell people that story all the time.

The great bassist Michael Moore told me that in the early days, Jack sometimes seemed insecure about his playing, “which was crazy, because, even then, he was, well, Jack Wilkins.” Michael said that he, Jack and a drummer had a gig for several evenings in the Village, “one of those battle of the guitars things,” opposite John Abercrombie, who played a lot of original music. “Jack was uncomfortable almost every night, for no real reason,” Michael said. “He was playing great. But he hadn’t written a lot of original tunes at that point, so we played standards. And somehow that bothered him.” Jack later remedied that perceived shortcoming, and he wrote and recorded numerous compositions and arrangements.

If you went to Jack’s home, you’d often find the TV on, sound off, tuned to golf, tennis or basketball, while Jack sat on his couch, guitar in hand, some manuscript paper or an original Tin Pan Alley lead sheet on the floor beside him. More often than not, the moment you got there he would enthusiastically show you what he was working on. Jack’s taste was eclectic. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Great American Songbook, including the words to most of the songs and stories about the people who wrote them, and was equally knowledgeable about post-bop jazz, including compositions by great modern masters like Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Similarly, he wanted to know everything about the guitar. He could play authentic Brazilian samba, Cuban rumba, Argentinian tango, pretty decent flamenco, classical pieces at performance level, blues like Lonnie Johnson and B.B. King, terrific bebop and post-bop, right through to synthesized guitar (Alien Army, 1991).

For years, Jack taught a jazz guitar history class at Manhattan School of Music, and later at his home. His “blindfold” tests were challenging, instructive and fun. He once challenged me to identify a sparsely recorded, brilliant guitarist of the 1950s named Billy Bean, who then became an obsession of mine for a while.

Jack Wilkins & Sheryl Bailey - Part 4 of 4 with Bob Miles

In a Facebook post following Jack’s death, the acclaimed jazz guitarist and educator Sheryl Bailey, another of Jack’s close friends, noted that, “He knew more about the history [and] . playing of our genre than anyone I ever met. But what I loved deeply about him was his love of great conversations, his intelligence, his curiosity and his irreverent skepticism. You could get into a deep discussion on just about any topic with him, and it would always be fun and enlightening.”

Indeed, just like his playing, conversations with Jack were often adventures, full of surprises. One evening we were standing at the bar at Birdland, then on 105th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. He turned to me and said something about Charlie Christian being overrated, and not a great player. I looked at him for a moment, chuckled and said, “Are you trying to pick a fight?” He looked back at me, then beamed this “gotcha” mischievous big-kid smile he had.

He was a generous musical partner, as well as a fearsome improvisor. Peter Bernstein, another friend, told me, “Jack was great to play duo with. I was so flattered he asked me to do a gig with him at a music store in Connecticut. And his right hand. Man, he had all this genuine technique. He could play really fast if he wanted to, but it wasn’t tricks. It was practice.” Sheryl Bailey said that, “He had the right hand of doom.”

Route 7 Music Guitar Clinic Jazz Legends featuring Jack Wilkins and Pete Bernstein. Segment 1

Jack and I had a couple of conversations about how, of all the guitarists around in the ‘70s and ‘80s as Jack came to prominence, to my ears he was the one who best embraced John Coltrane’s music on the guitar. He was a musical sponge, transcribing and playing many solos at tempo, but in Trane’s case, it was the spirit of the music as much as anything else that Jack really made his own. I think that was partly because, in their own ways, they were both romantics. People sometimes only hear the stream of notes Coltrane played, or feel the power of Jack’s kinetic energy when he played. But Coltrane had such soul in his playing. And so did Jack. No matter what he played, it was always unmistakably Jack; and he instinctively reached out to you to join him, as either a listener or a player.

Jack would light up when he heard great playing. Then he would explore everything about it and recommend it to others. A friend told me that Pat Metheny once said that Jack (a generation older) was an early inspiration. It would not surprise me if it’s true. For his part, one evening, Jack put on Metheny’s then recently released album, Letter from Home (1989). “Listen to this,” he said. We sat on the floor, wine in hand, and listened to “Have You Heard,” the album’s opening track. It is a breathtaking guitar solo, on a great original tune on a terrific album. After the track ended, Jack turned to me and said, “And he’s a great writer too.” That was all that needed to be said.

As Peter Bernstein said so eloquently, “We have around us all these musical giants. And then they’re suddenly gone and become a part of history.”

Rest in Peace, Jack Wilkins.

Peter Rubie is a musician and writer/editor who learned his trades at the same time in the early 1970s, working during the day in Fleet Street, London and later for BBC Radio News as a writer/editor, and on the weekends and at night studying jazz privately with jazz bassist and teacher Peter Ind, in London. He was the leader of the house band at the original 606 Club (www.606Club.com) venue in the Kings Road, London, before moving to the U.S., in 1981 to pursue a full time career in publishing and playing and studying jazz.