NEA Arts Magazine

Joe Wilder

Solo Instrumentalist

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Joe Wilder

Trumpet player Joe Wilder. Photo by Tom Pich.

Joe Wilder has played trumpet with a virtual Who's Who of jazz -- Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, and Benny Goodman, to name just a few.

Wilder was born in 1922 into a musical family led by his father Curtis, a bassist and bandleader in Philadelphia. Wilder's first performances took place on the radio program Parisian Tailor's Colored Kiddies of the Air. He and the other young musicians were backed up by such illustrious bands as Duke Ellington's and Louis Armstrong's. Wilder studied classical music at the Mastbaum School of Music in Philadelphia but turned to jazz, joining his first touring big band, Les Hite's band, in 1941.

During the 1940s and early '50s, he played in the orchestras of Jimmie Lunceford, Herbie Fields, Sam Donahue, Lucky Millinder, Noble Sissle, Dizzy Gillespie, and Count Basie, while also playing in the pit orchestras for Broadway musicals.

From 1957 to 1974, Wilder did studio work for ABCTV while building his reputation as a soloist with his albums for Savoy and Columbia. He also was a regular sideman with such musicians as Gil Evans, Benny Goodman, and Hank Jones, even accompanying Goodman on his tour of Russia. He became a favorite with vocalists and played for Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Eileen Farrell, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, and many others.

He is the only surviving member of the Count Basie All-Star Orchestra that appeared in the classic 1959 film The Sound of Jazz.

NEA: Tell me about how you first became interested in jazz.

JOE WILDER: Well, I listened to all these jazz programs on the radio because my father did. And as I used to listen, there was a cornet player who used to come on. His name was Del Staigers and he was a fantastic cornet soloist. There were other people too that were on his level and above. But he was the one that I heard because he would be on the air and he had a high-pitched voice and I thought that was funny, but he played so beautifully. I used to say, "Geez, I wish I could play like that." And I was studying from the Arban trumpet book; that's what most of these guys used for their students and what they themselves had been taught from. It had all these cornet solos in there. So after you had learned all of the beginning things you got a chance to play some of these cornet solos, and I could always hear him playing. So that was one who inspired me. I was really interested in playing like that.