By Gary G. Vercelli
Jack Wilson will be seen in a special screening event via Eventbrite on May 6, 2021. The occasion is the debut of several restored episodes of the heralded Los Angeles television series, Frankly Jazz, that aired on local channel KTLA 5, for twenty-four shows from August of 1962 through January of 1963. The series was hosted by noted Los Angeles jazz DJ, Frank Evans. The UCLA Film & Television Archive recently received nine shows, preserved on 2″ videotape. Three shows will be broadcast via Zoom including a December 1962 show featuring the Gerald Wilson Big Band. Jack Wilson was a key member of the Wilson band at the time and can be heard on several albums produced by Dick Bock at Pacific Jazz. This profile of Jack Wilson by Gary G. Vercelli was originally published in the March 9, 1978 edition of Down Beat magazine.
It has been nearly a decade since pianist Jack Wilson recorded three classic albums as a leader for Blue Note records. Few jazz lovers have trouble recalling Jack’s timeless original compositions, such as “Nirvana” in the Easterly Winds collection, or “Harbor Freeway 5 P.M.” on the Something Personal album. While on Blue Note, Jack was afforded the opportunity to record in a setting entirely free of commercial cliches, with several prestigious musicians, including the late Lee Morgan, Ray Brown, Roy Ayers, Billy Higgins, and Jackie McLean. Jack was the last artist Alfred Lion signed to the budding, independent all-jazz label, before the small company was sold to larger business interests.
Curiously, many jazz audiophiles are not aware that Jack, even before joining the Blue Note roster, had already documented two respectable efforts for Atlantic and three LPs for Vault. Wilson was also active as a sideman on a number of West Coast dates, and attracted the attention of numerous jazz critics with a highly personal sound and his warm, uncluttered approach to the acoustic keyboard. In Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia Of Jazz In The Sixties, the author noted, “Wilson’s experience and diversity have made him one of the most important pianists on the West Coast.”
Although his Blue Note albums met with resounding critical acclaim, they sold only moderately well. It soon became increasingly apparent to Jack that his musical interests and those of the company he was recording for were no longer compatible. Thus, after an amicable parting from Blue Note circa 1970, Wilson vanished from the recording scene, leaving people outside of Los Angeles (where Wilson has lived since 1962) wondering what became of him. Even though Jack has kept his distance from record companies for a good while, he has been busy during the past seven years. He has been approached by a few producers, but rather than record material that would represent interests other than his own, Wilson has committed himself to serious woodshedding, numerous club dates, and an abundance of studio work.
Jack’s television and film credits include instrumental contributions to diverse settings. He has worked for all the major motion picture studios and has been called upon to enhance the soundtracks of various television projects, from Peyton Place and Alfred Hitchcock to the all too short lived KNBC Jazz Show.
Jack openly admits to working as much as he’s needed. “I do as many dates as I can, providing I feel compatible with the musical environment. Over the years, I’ve found it’s important to develop and maintain a certain degree of flexibility in the studios. For instance, I’m called upon to do a lot of organ work, although my personal interests gravitate toward expression on piano.”
While extremely profitable, Jack allows that studio work has its inherent limitations and drawbacks. “I’ve had to pass up more than a few exciting opportunities to go on tour with various singers, because steady studio work necessitates constant availability. Some contractors really resent it if you’re not always around town.
“It’s also very easy to become complacent, if all you do is studio work. Pure jazz is a jealous mistress, who will not tolerate your involvement in too many non-jazz situations! My creativity as an artist demands that I involve myself in other areas besides the studios.”
Over the past few years, Jack has sketched out nearly 25 compositions, many of which were lying dormant in his piano bench when producer Dennis Smith approached Wilson with the idea of recording for Albert Marx’s recently reactivated Discovery jazz label. Jack chose to re-enter the recording studio with bassist Allen Jackson and drummer Clarence Johnston. The players interact in a sensitive manner, and the group has moved beyond the conventional trio sound, with Wilson playing both electric and acoustic piano, often simultaneously. His innovative approach to using two keyboards at once led to the album’s title, Jack Wilson/Innovations.
Since the album’s release, the Wilson aggregation has also been captured live on tape at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California, for National Public Radio’s Jazz Alive series. And so, in 1977, Jack Wilson’s career continues to evolve, and Wilson seems pleased with his present circumstances.
Jack Wilson was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1936. He began playing piano at age seven, after his family had moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jack developed an early interest in sports, but then heard a George Shearing recording of “I Remember April,” and so decided to exercise his fingers on the keyboard more, and his legs on the basketball court less. Jack joined the Fort Wayne musicians’ union at age 15, and soon after organized a quintet made up of local musicians, all of whom were at least 20 years his senior.
“When I chose to attend Indiana University,” Jack said with a broad smile, “my parents were delighted that I wanted to go to a four year school. Little did they know that my main motivation for going to school there was not to study formally, but to gig in sessions with David Baker, Slide Hampton, and Jerry Coker.” Jack preferred the practical education of these informal sessions to the ambience of the ivied halls. He left school after two years of study to move on to Columbus, Ohio, where he worked with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Don Patterson, and the non-yet-famous Nancy Wilson.
Wilson then journeyed to the East Coast where, at the age of 20, he joined Dinah Washington in 1957. Jack spent two invaluable years with Dinah before being drafted into the army, only to rejoin her for a year following his 1961 discharge.
Jack remembers Dinah as a peerless professional with few, if any, limitations. “Dinah could do it all,” recalls Jack. “She was comfortable singing ballads, up-tempo pieces, the blues, whatever. She had flawless intonation, perfect time, and she could really swing.
“I was frightened as hell, and really felt that I didn’t deserve to be with Dinah, playing in New York and touring Europe at such a young age. It was a hell of an education for me, though. Dinah would continually cast me into challenging roles, as an accompanist, a conductor, and a soloist. If she believed in someone, she’d push you into a situation, and would expect you to justify her faith in you. I always felt I was in over my head, but those kinds of challenges really helped me develop as a musician.”
Wilson wandered west in 1962 and settled in Los Angeles, where he busied himself with club dates, studio work, and plenty of practice. By this time Jack, through his association with Dinah, had established himself a solid reputation as quite a formidable accompanist. Some of the world’s greatest jazz, blues, and pop interpreters have called upon the talents of Mr. Wilson, including Lou Rawls, Johnny Hartman, Nancy Wilson, Jimmy Rushing, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Witherspoon, Julie London, Esther Phillips, O. C. Smith, Lorez Alexandria, and Arthur Prysock.
During the mid-’60s, Jack also proved his competence at working in a big band setting. He worked quite steadily with Gerald Wilson’s orchestra, recording Moment Of Truth and Portraits with Wilson bands that included such jazz luminaries as Bud Shank, Teddy Edwards, Carmell Jones, Mel Lewis, and Joe Pass. Further work with Harold Land, Curtis Amy, and others too numerous to mention, preceded Jack’s formation of his own group, which featured Roy Ayers, in 1965.
Jack’s present innovative approach to playing the electric and acoustic keyboards simultaneously came about as a result of his four-year association with vibist Ayers. “After Roy left us to form his own group, a lot of people still requested material that we had performed while Roy was still with us. I was able to use Bobby Hutcherson for a short time, but he was also busy with his own band. Since there weren’t many other capable vibists available at the time, I found that I could simulate the effect of vibes and piano by incorporating the two-piano approach into a trio setting, thereby filling the void that Roy’s departure had created. I’ve had to alter voicings because of the obvious limitations imposed by playing two pianos at once, but the years I’ve devoted to experimenting with this approach have enabled me to develop a quasi-ensemble sound for our trio.”
On Jack’s new album, he uses the electric piano to enhance the sound of and provide a framework for his highly technical, yet sensitive, acoustic work. “Often I lay down a lush chordal undergrowth on the electric piano, which serves as a background for the melodic delineations of the acoustic piano,” explains Jack. “But there are a number of other possibilities. Another way to approach the situation is to play single line melodies on both keyboards at the same time. Occasionally, I’ll even cross hands and play the melody on electric keyboard, while chording on the acoustic.
“We’ve found that we’ve been able to depart from the path explored in a traditional trio setting. Playing two pianos opens up entire new dimensions in sound and texture.”
On certain standards and original compositions, Jack still gravitates toward exclusive use of the acoustic piano. “I find the acoustic best serves my needs on certain modal pieces. The electric piano definitely has its limitations; for one thing, you can’t play it at a very high velocity … the notes just don’t come out fast enough. There are also dynamic limitations; the acoustic piano offers much more flexibility when I’m stating specific melodies.”
All his experimentation on two pianos hasn’t detracted from Jack’s ability to make time for pensive moments at home, his “place of solace.” Wilson is quite vocal about his personal taste in music and the musical situations that displease him. He’s particularly concerned with the commercialized state of contemporary American music and the prospects for young jazz players. Jack feels the educational process, while good in many respects, doesn’t always equip the aspiring professional with the proper improvisational skills needed in the competitive music business. “There just seems to be too much emphasis on collective playing, in large ensembles, at the college level,” says Jack. “A lot of younger players can read well because of this, and that’s important, but it’s not going to serve them as improvisors, when it’s time to blow.
“Jam sessions are quickly becoming a thing of the past, and that’s really unfortunate. The constructive criticism of other musicians really helped me when I was coming up. Today, young players don’t always get exposed to the naked truth of criticism in a classroom situation. Perhaps it would be valuable to simulate recording sessions in the schools. Then you could listen to the playbacks, and analyze what went wrong … ask, for instance, what happened to the time here, why do you always play the same licks when you reach this point, and so on.”
Upon the release of his first album for Blue Note, in 1966, Jack told Leonard Feather, “Eventually, I hope to be able to divide my year into, say, three months of night clubs, three months of writing and playing in the studios, three months working on record dates, and the other three months just taking it easy.” An examination of Jack’s present super-busy schedule reveals that he’s recently been able to fully realize all but the last of these noble aspirations. “I’ve found that when I’m not playing, I’m like a fish out of water,” confesses Jack. “I’ve come to realize that jazz is not only my means of making a living, but also one of my main reasons for living.”
Although carving out a livelihood playing music has led Jack Wilson into many quasi-jazz situations and settings, Jack’s never lost sight of his belief that pure jazz is a sacred idiom.
— Gary G. Vercelli