Obituary:Barney Wilen

Steve Voce
Monday 27 May 1996 23:02

Although most people have never heard of the tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen many of them will have heard him without realising it, for he had a fairly large role in the band Miles Davis led to record the soundtrack of Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud ("Lift to the Scaffold").

Subsequently the music became a favourite of television producers everywhere and was used to accompany films with themes as diverse as free-fall parachuting and the hand- milking of cows. Davis's mournful trumpet was unmistakable and his improvisations unforgettable. The only other horn was Wilen's and as a consequence he had an important part which he took on to perfection. Although his was a subordinate role he made the most of it by the quality of his sound and ideas and it was to be his most famous recording.

What was an unknown like Wilen doing in the ranks of a band led by such a superstar? It was a typically odd event in an uneven life which hinged on the fact that his father was an American and his mother French.

Wilen was born in Nice but, when the Second World War loomed in 1939, travelled to the United States with his family. The family returned to France at the end of the war and it was in Paris that Wilen took up first the alto sax and later the tenor.

His playing was notable for the logical flow of his improvisations and his early work showed the influence of Lester Young. His later playing reflected this interest in the work of Sonny Rollins. Wilen became a regular associate of expatriate American musicians in Paris. He made his first recording in 1954 with two of them, the drummer Roy Haynes and the guitarist Jimmy Gourley, and the following year played in the Paris clubs with the drummer Kenny Clarke, the trombonist Jay Jay Johnson and that ailing musical giant, the pianist Bud Powell.

Wilen recorded with another American pianist, John Lewis, in 1956 and again with the vibraphonist Milt Jackson. For the next two years he worked regularly in the Paris clubs with Powell. He made the soundtrack, subsequently issued as a best-selling album, with Davis in 1957 and toured France with the trumpeter.

In 1959 he joined the Jazz Messengers which Art Blakey was assembling to play the soundtrack of yet another film, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. That same year he was the first non-American to be invited to play at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.

After a period away from jazz he appeared with Indian classical players at the Berlin Jazz Festival of 1967, by which time he had abandoned the soft Lester Young-inspired tinges of his playing and had become an exponent of so called "free" jazz. His interest in this waned as the music did, and he left jazz to spend much of the Seventies making anthropological films in Africa. When he began playing again in Paris 10 years later he had retrenched to his earlier be-bop style.

Steve Voce

Bernard Jean (Barney) Wilen, tenor saxophonist: born Nice 4 March 1937; died Paris 25 May 1996.

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