While other budding jazz musicians of the 1940s were enamored of the daring bebop innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Mr. Wilber looked toward the past for inspiration. He found it in the music of the 1920s.
“What happened,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, “was that the companies began to reissue recordings of Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, and I found them totally fascinating. I found myself becoming more and more immersed in traditional music, because it felt so close to my own feelings.”
Mr. Wilber formed his first band, the Wildcats, as a high school student and sought to emulate the styles of Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton and other jazz stars of the 1920s. He went on to become a champion of early jazz and won a Grammy Award for his arrangements of the music of Duke Ellington in the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola film “The Cotton Club.”
He was, in the words of New Yorker magazine jazz writer Whitney Balliett, “a gifted arranger and composer, and an invaluable preserver and enhancer of jazz tradition.”
Mr. Wilber was particularly drawn to the music of Bechet, a clarinetist and soprano saxophonist who grew up in New Orleans at the same time as Armstrong. Mr. Wilber met Bechet in 1946, when the elder musician was living in Brooklyn.
“He had a ramshackle house with a sign, ‘Sidney Bechet’s School of Music,’ ” Mr. Wilber told the New York Times in 1980. “I was virtually the first student and the only serious student. After a month Sidney suggested I move in with him.”
Mr. Wilber slept on Bechet’s couch for a few months, studied with him during the day, then accompanied him to jazz clubs at night. He copied his mentor’s full, robust tone on soprano saxophone and absorbed his tales of the dawn of jazz.
“Sidney was a very articulate man, with a real sense of the importance of what he was doing, and of the necessity to pass it on,” Mr. Wilber told the Los Angeles Times. “He discussed the whole artistic idea of what you do as a player — the idea of telling a story, of how to approach theme and variations, and how important it was to convey a feeling.”
When Bechet was unable to travel to France for a concert in 1948, Mr. Wilber went in his place, performing in a group that included drummer Baby Dodds, who had played on Armstrong’s early recordings.
He shared the stage with countless major jazz figures, including pianists James P. Johnson and Ralph Sutton, trumpeter Bobby Hackett, drummer Sid Catlett and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, and for a time played tenor saxophone in the band of one of his idols, clarinetist Benny Goodman.
“I still see the ’30s and the ’40s,” Mr. Wilber said in 1993, “with all the great musicians who came on the scene in those years, as a golden era, musically.”
Robert Sage Wilber was born March 15, 1928, in New York City and grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y. His father was a publishing executive who often played ragtime piano at home. His mother died when he was an infant.
Mr. Wilber said he was first drawn to jazz at the age of 3, when he heard a recording of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” By his teens, he was regularly visiting Manhattan jazz clubs, from Harlem to Greenwich Village.
He attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., but left after one semester, hoping to break into the New York jazz world.
“I said, ‘Well, Dad, I just want to hang around and listen to all these great musicians, maybe meet them, maybe get a chance to sit in and play with them,’ ” Mr. Wilber said in a 1998 interview for the Fillius Jazz Archive at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. “He says, ‘Son, you want to spend the rest of your life blowing your lungs out in smoky dives?’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s what I want to do.’ ”
After his apprenticeship with Bechet, Mr. Wilber mastered the styles of other jazz stars, including clarinetists Goodman and Artie Shaw and saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins. He played in an Army band in the early 1950s and had a long secondary career in classical music, recording works by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.
In 1969, Mr. Wilber was one of the founders of a group immodestly called the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, which found enthusiastic audiences for its Dixieland concerts and recordings. He and Kenny Davern toured the world in the 1970s as the Soprano Summit, with each musician alternating on clarinet and soprano saxophone in dueling, high-energy performances. He later led the Bechet Legacy Band with Horton, his British-born wife.
Mr. Wilber’s first marriage, to Shirley “Ricky” Rickards, ended in divorce. In addition to Horton, his wife since 1978, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Elizabeth Wilber Gongde of Boston.
Along with his work on Coppola’s “The Cotton Club,” Mr. Wilber arranged and performed music for a 1991 Italian feature film about Beiderbecke, a cornetist who died at 28 in 1931.
As a leading preservationist of jazz history, Mr. Wilber re-
created a celebrated 1938 Carnegie Hall concert by Goodman on its 50th anniversary. He was musical director of the New York Jazz Repertory Company and in the 1970s and early 1980s directed the Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble in Washington. At a 1981 concert, he performed the music of Bechet and Hodges, a longtime alto saxophonist with Ellington.
“Probably no one is better equipped to examine the legacy of these musicians than Wilber,” music critic Mike Joyce wrote in The Washington Post. “He studied under Bechet, who in turn had influenced Hodges. But, more importantly, Wilber plays the saxophone with the deceptive ease and naturalness common to both men.”
Mr. Wilber maintained an active schedule well into his 80s, releasing numerous albums. He performed with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 2009 and four years later appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival with pianist Bill Charlap and clarinetist Anat Cohen.
As much as Mr. Wilber admired his mentor Bechet, he often said the musician whose spirit he sought to capture was Armstrong.
“The great things that have happened in jazz are the things that have been based on Louis Armstrong’s inspiration,” Mr. Wilber said in 1993. “I really feel that he was the inventor of jazz as we know it. ”
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