Bob Wilber, Saxophonist and Clarinetist Who Carried a Torch for Classic Jazz, Has Died at 91

Aug 7, 2019

Bob Wilber, a saxophonist, clarinetist and bandleader who spearheaded a traditional jazz revival in the face of a postwar modernist boom, and kept the faith well into a new century, died on Aug. 4 in Chipping Campden, England. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his wife, JoAnne “Pug” Horton, an English jazz and blues singer who was also his close musical collaborator for more than 40 years.

Wilber was revered among jazz traditionalists for his profound commitment to the idiom, his melodic flair as an improviser, and his singing, mellifluous tone — especially on soprano saxophone, the instrument favored by his teacher and mentor, Sidney Bechet. In a field that valorizes (and often carefully monitors) the authenticity of musical expression, Wilber’s early apprenticeship with Bechet, one of jazz’s first important soloists, always counted for more than a mere endorsement.

But Wilber was a precocious, persuasive talent by anyone’s standard: he was still a high school student, in Scarsdale, N.Y., when he formed a band called The Wildcats with peers like pianist Dick Wellstood. The Wildcats became a fixture at Jimmy Ryan’s, the Dixieland haunt on Manhattan’s fabled 52nd Street, and recorded a few 78s for Commodore Records; their version of “Willie the Weeper,” a 1920s standard, appears on a compilation called The Commodore Story.

“Wilber is amazing,” critic and historian Dan Morgenstern wrote in his notes for that 2-CD set. “He has absorbed Bechet’s vocabulary and speaks it fluently, and he plays with authority. Of all the revivalist players, these were the best — and they would soon leave mimicry behind.”

The Wildcats were self-conscious about their place in the music’s lineage, admiring Chicago trad-jazz players like cornetist Jimmy McPartland and saxophonist Bud Freeman, colloquially known as The Austin High Gang. In some circles, The Wildcats, a new batch of cheery white anachronists, became The Scarsdale High Gang. (When Whitney Balliett profiled Wilber for The New Yorker in 1977, the piece ran with a different coinage in the headline: “The Westchester Kids.”)

For Wilber, who revered not only Bechet but also the work of African-American jazz originators like Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, there was no inherent trap in emulation of the past. “We didn’t want to imitate their records,” he said in a 1998 interview for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. “We wanted to play in their style but be creative at the same time.”

Wilber’s pursuit of that goal brought him into close contact with likeminded souls as well as the music’s pioneers. He performed at the historic Nice Jazz Festival in 1948, with a Mezz Mezzrow-led band that included Baby Dodds, who had played drums on Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens.

A couple of years later, Wilber had the distinction of leading the first band booked at George Wein’s Storyville, in 1950. That group featured another major drummer and Armstrong associate, Sid Catlett, in what would be his final gig. (Wein, who would go on to create the Newport Jazz Festival, remembers this engagement as life-changing, mainly for the power of an Armstrong cameo.)

For all of his devotion to history, Wilber was interested in modern jazz, going so far as to study with pianist-composer Lennie Tristano. In 1954, after serving two years in the Army, he even attempted to bridge a divide: The Six, a collective he formed with two former Wildcats, trumpeter Johnny Glasel and drummer Eddie Phyfe, sought to reconcile bebop’s advances of color and line with the lyrical buoyancy of classic jazz. The band recorded an album but failed to find traction either at Jimmy Ryan’s, among hidebound trad fans, or at Café Bohemia, among bop enthusiasts.

Wilber had more success in a throwback lane, working in ensembles led by trumpeter Bobby Hackett and clarinetist Benny Goodman. He was a charter member of The World’s Greatest Jazz Band, a Dixieland outfit formed in 1968. He left its ranks after five years, to form Soprano Summit with his fellow reedman Kenny Davern; it released more than a dozen albums, most of them prized by jazz traditionalists in an era of fusion and other upheavals.

Robert Sage Wilber was born on March 15, 1928, in New York City. He inherited his love of jazz from his father, an amateur pianist who had a successful career in textbook publishing. (His mother died of cancer when he was six months old.) Among his formative memories was hearing the original Victor recording of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” on his father’s record player, around age three. About a dozen years later, he attended Ellington’s Carnegie Hall debut, experiencing the first performance of “Black, Brown and Beige.”

Wilber was a fixture on 52nd Street well before he began working there; as a kid he saw everyone from Coleman Hawkins to Charlie Parker. He started out on clarinet, adding the soprano saxophone to his arsenal around the time he began studying with Bechet — in 1946, on Quincy Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Bob Wilber and Sidney Bechet at Jimmy Ryan's, in June 1947
Credit William P. Gottlieb

“It was an old, ramshackle, three-story wooden house with French windows that Sidney said reminded him of New Orleans,” Wilber recalled in his 1987 autobiography, Music Was Not Enough. “He owned the property and rented out the top two floors, while he occupied the ground floor and the basement. Hanging beside the front door was a modest sign that read ‘Sidney Bechet School of Music.’ We arranged for lessons by the hour. I was his first and, for a while, his only pupil.”

Wilber, who was scraping by, also took up residence in Bechet’s house for six months or so. At the time, Bechet was working regularly at Jimmy Ryan’s, and the two would often play duets. “My style was naturally close to Bechet’s,” Wilber later recalled, “and when I started to change it, all he said was ‘That’s all right, that’s all right. He’s finding his own way.’”

Along with Horton, he is survived by Elizabeth Wilber Gongde, his daughter from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce. 

During the mid-to-late 1970s, when jazz historicism began to assume official outlets, Wilber found himself in demand again. He served as a musical director for the New York Jazz Repertory Company, founded by Wein, and as director of the Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble. He was also involved in period recordings for Hollywood films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, starring Richard Gere, Gregory Hines and Diane Lane. (Wilber’s work on the soundtrack won him a Grammy in 1985, for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band.)

A feature in The New York Times during this era captured the attitude that Wilber brought to his task, not only in institutional settings but also on his own bandstand. “In the same way actors in a repertory company do the plays of Shakespeare one night and the works of John Osborne the next,” he said, “our group interprets the works of many other jazz greats no longer with us, rendering their styles as closely as we can while giving something of ourselves to the job.”

The sprawl of Wilber’s discography bears out that point — no less on recent albums for Arbors Records than on his output for Concord Jazz or Commodore. According to Horton, he kept his eye on the target ‘til the end. “For the two days, as he lay dying, we were playing the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens,” she said. “So he went his maker listening to God.”