"From the Cotton Club to Carnegie Hall -- Bob Wilber's Salute to Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman" will kick off the Baltimore Eubie Blake Jazz Festival tomorrow night at the Pier Six concert pavilion.
For Wilber, a clarinetist-saxophonist who dates from the swing era, it's a labor of love.
"My main function in jazz right now," he says, "is to try to spread the word on all these great people, the giants of what I call the Golden Era of Jazz, 1925 to 1945.
"The first half will be the music of the Duke, including some of the things from the Cotton Club era and later periods," he says of tomorrow night's program. "For the Goodman section, we have a library of transcriptions of all the Goodman classics from 1935 to 1945."
Wilber's 16-piece orchestra will feature former Ellington band trombonist Britt Woodman and baritone saxophonist Haywood Henry, who used to fill in for the late Harry Carney, Ellington's legendary baritonist. Mark Shane will be on piano, vocalist Joanne Horton will offer some of the songs of Ivie Anderson, Helen Ward and others and guitarist Mike Peters will be featured on the Goodman-Charlie Christian sextet classic "Airmail Special."
The 57-year-old Wilber has been spreading the word for four decades, starting with a New Orleans-style band of Westchester, N.Y., teen-agers, the Wildcats, which he formed in 1946. It included pianist Dick Wellstood and Washington's own Eddie Phyfe at the drums.
As an 18-year-old, Wilber was hanging out in clubs on New York's 52nd Street. "We were listening to Sidney Bechet at Jimmy Ryan's and then we'd go across the street and listen to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at the Deuces. I was interested in creative players whether they were playing traditional jazz or the modern jazz of the day," says Wilber.
Before he was out of his teens, Wilber spent a half year or so as a live-in student of Bechet, who told the youngster to forget about the soprano saxophone and concentrate on clarinet. But Wilber ignored that advice and today is the major traditionalist on the instrument Bechet made famous. On clarinet he names Benny Goodman as a "major influence" and he says that "on alto saxophone Johnny Hodges has always been my favorite by far."
All three of Wilber's horns were heard on the sound track of Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Cotton Club," for which he was both orchestrator and arranger. Several years ago Wilber began touring here and abroad with his Bechet Legacy, a combo that re-creates music associated with the great saxophonist-clarinetist. He has also participated in repertory programs on the work of legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and others. Currently he is excited about a forthcoming Broadway musical based on the life of Jelly Roll Morton, which will have Gregory Hines in the lead role and Wilber as musical director.
"The concept of jazz repertory is to present different styles of jazz, re-creating earlier performances," explains Wilber. "You bring this music to life on a stage and it adds a dimension that you don't get from listening to old records. There's a certain amount of direct re-creation of what happened on the original records, but there's always a certain amount of leeway for the individual to express himself.
"I think it will be the most important movement in jazz in the next decade, the restoration of earlier jazz," he says. "It's not just imitating old records, it's being creative in the idioms of older music. In other words, we play Mozart today and it isn't considered old-fashioned. Why not play Jelly Roll Morton, play King Oliver, play early Duke, play Charlie Parker?"