Joe Wilder was 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. Although he performed with such giants as Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, he seemed to spend much of his career standing just outside the spotlight. Although he recorded only a handful of albums under his own name, he 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 Lionel Hampton before the Second World War, and in the early 1960s visited the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman’s group on a trip sponsored by the US State Department.
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. He performed with symphony orchestras, and composer Alec Wilder – no relation – once wrote a classical piece for him.
In 1956, 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, Wilder had retreated to the relative anonymity of studio work at ABC, where was a staff musician from 1957-74. He played for countless television shows and commercials and for 22 years was a member of the orchestra at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.
In the 1950s, Wilder was able to integrate a Broadway pit orchestra for Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings only after receiving personal approval from songwriter himself. “Can he play my music?” was the only question Porter asked.
In later years, Wilder often performed with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and the Statesmen of Jazz. 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.
Joseph Benjamin Wilder, musician: born Colwyn, Pennsylvania 22 February 1922; twice married (four children); died New York 9 May 2014.
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