Joe Wilder, trumpeter and NEA jazz master, dies at 92


Joe Wilder, named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts, in a 1998 portrait. (Photo by Ed Berger)
May 9

Joe Wilder, a trumpeter of understated lyricism and breathtaking range, who toured with some of the biggest names in jazz, helped integrate Broadway pit orchestras and enjoyed a late-career renaissance as a rediscovered master, died May 9 at a rehabilitation facility in New York City. He was 92.

He had congestive heart failure, said a daughter, Elin Wilder-Melcher.

Mr. Wilder performed with such jazz giants as Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, but he seemed to spend much of his career standing just outside the spotlight.

“Of all the living legends of jazz certified by the National Endowment for the Arts,” critic Will Friedwald wrote when Mr. Wilder was named a 2008 NEA jazz master, “Joe Wilder is at once among the least known to the general public . . . and the most prized by musicians, especially his fellow trumpeters.”

Although he recorded only a handful of albums as a leader, Mr. Wilder appeared on hundreds of others as a sideman and was known for his versatility, sensitivity and musical elegance.

He performed classical music, was among the first African Americans to play in Broadway pit orchestras and was a member of the ABC network’s musical staff for 17 years, including a long stint in the house band for Dick Cavett’s late-night talk show.

But he was at his best as a stylish master of mid-century swing and big-band jazz. He toured the segregated South with bandleader Lionel Hampton before World War II and, in the early 1960s, visited the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman’s group on a trip sponsored by the State Department. In February, days before his 92nd birthday, Mr. Wilder was honored at New York’s Lincoln Center.

“Joe Wilder’s trumpet sound remains one of the glories of American music,” jazz scholar Ed Berger, the author of a recent biography of Mr. Wilder, wrote in JazzTimes magazine in 2001.

Mr. Wilder was adept at virtually every style of music. At the same time he was performing in the Count Basie Orchestra, he was studying classical technique at the Manhattan School of Music, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1953. He performed with symphony orchestras, and composer Alec Wilder — no relation — once wrote a classical piece for him.

In 1956, Mr. Wilder released a well-received album, “Wilder ’n’ Wilder,” showcasing his bright, fluid tone and his relaxed but polished approach. His 1959 recording, “The Pretty Sound of Joe Wilder,” has become something of a cult classic among musicians.

By then, however, Mr. Wilder had retreated to the relative anonymity of studio work at ABC, where he was a staff musician from 1957 to 1974. He played for countless TV shows and commercials and, for 22 consecutive years, was a member of the orchestra at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.

He was nearing 70 when he began to gain belated recognition from musicians and aficionados for his graceful sound.

“His solos are immaculately designed,” jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote in the New Yorker in 1986. “He issues a river of sound guided languidly by the notes of the melody and by discreet bends and turns of his own. He makes the song gleam.”

Joseph Benjamin Wilder was born Feb. 22, 1922, in Colwyn, Pa. His father, a bass player and bandleader in Philadelphia, encouraged his son’s early interest in music.

Before he had reached his teens, Mr. Wilder appeared on a weekly radio program in Philadelphia that featured precocious black musicians accompanied by the bands of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, among others.

Mr. Wilder was among the first wave of African Americans to enter the Marine Corps during World War II. One of the officers at his base, pianist and composer Bobby Troup, who wrote “Route 66,” helped arrange for Mr. Wilder to transfer from the infantry to a musical unit.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Wilder integrated a Broadway pit orchestra of Cole Porter’s “Silk Stockings” only after receiving personal approval from the songwriter himself.

“Can he play my music?” was the only question Porter asked.

“This was the first time an African American musician was hired to play a principal chair with a Broadway show,” Mr. Wilder said in a 2007 interview with the International Trumpet Guild Journal.

In later years, Mr. Wilder often performed with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and the Statesmen of Jazz, a touring group of veteran musicians. He made his debut as a bandleader at New York’s venerable Village Vanguard jazz club when he was 83. He continued to perform until 2012.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Solveig Wilder, and their three daughters, Elin Wilder-Melcher, Solveig Wilder and Inga Wilder, all of New York; a son from an earlier marriage, Joseph Wilder of Charlotte; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Wilder did not smoke, drink or curse. In the jazz world, which has had more than a few shady characters, he was known for his steadfast sense of honor.

“Joe Wilder,” trumpeter Warren Vache said, “is the only guy in the music business I would ask to hold my wallet.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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