Ed Berger Remembers Joe Wilder

Written by on May 19, 2014

On May 9, the legendary trumpeter and bandleader Joe Wilder passed away at the age of 92. He leaves behind an extraordinary legacy.

Shortly before he passed, Mr. Wilder witnessed the release of his biography, Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music, a collaborative project undertaken with the scholar Ed Berger.

Ed Berger, who is also an instructor at our Swing University program, shares his thoughts on the passing of Mr. Wilder:

With Joe Wilder’s passing at the age of ninety-two, the jazz world lost another direct link to the music’s glorious past. Indeed, Joe’s wholly original sound and improvisational approach were formed by his experiences in all jazz styles combined with his extensive classical training. But beyond the universal appeal of his impeccable musical taste and technique, to those fortunate enough to know him, Joe Wilder was as great a person as he was a musician. The qualities that set his playing apart—warmth, compassion, sophistication, and humor—were simply a reflection of the man himself. As Wynton Marsalis wrote in the foreword to our new Joe Wilder biography, Softly, With Feeling, “Beyond the excellence of his playing, as a man he has such dignity and feeling and is so engaged and intelligent…Joe is soulful. You’re always happy when you see Joe Wilder.” Joe had many ties to Jazz at Lincoln Center, and always looked upon JALC as part of his extended family. From touring with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in 1992, through the many memorable NEA Jazz Masters events over the years (the announcement of Joe’s own induction was made at Dizzy’s in 2007), and culminating in his last public appearance on February 19 of this year when his birthday was celebrated in Dizzy’s, JALC was an important part of Joe’s musical life.

In 2008, I was blessed to have been asked by Phil Schaap, himself a good friend of Joe’s, to give a course with Joe at Swing University. I can’t describe the feeling of sitting next to Joe each week as we traversed the incredibly rich landscape of his life and career. He was a master story teller, and his interactions with a knowledgeable and engaged audience further enhanced this experience. Joe’s final appearance this past February for his 92nd birthday celebration at Dizzy’s was nothing short of a miracle. His health had been failing, and right up until the day of the event his very presence was in doubt. But when he arrived that evening, accompanied by his loving family, it was as if the clock had been turned back. Impeccably dressed (of course!), he entered the club unassisted, greeting the legions of friends, fans, and fellow musicians, who surrounded him. And he remained for the entire evening, smiling as an all-star assemblage of his closest musical colleagues serenaded him. The look on Joe’s face was priceless as Wynton stood before him and played “Cherokee,” an homage to Joe’s iconic 1956 Savoy recording, followed by “Happy Birthday.” Although it turned out to be both a celebration, and ultimately, a farewell, it was an unforgettable evening. The Wilder family has asked that in lieu of flowers, checks may be sent to a fund established in his name to help underprivileged students continue their jazz studies. There could be no more fitting way to honor his memory. Joe was a Juilliard faculty member for the last decade, and touched the lives of countless young musicians there and at many other institutions.