Jack Wilkins

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Originally published in the May, 1995 issue of the newsletter of the Cincinnati Jazz Guitar Society.

When talking to Jack Wilkins, you hear the phrase "to me" more than any other. While the opinions he expresses are deeply held and reflect great thought, he seems intent on not forcing those opinions on others.

Jack Wilkins
Photo by Bill Magness

Born in 1944, Wilkins began playing very early and played "the rock and roll of my day". He did not attend college to study music but studied privately with several teachers, even studying classical guitar for five years and piano for two years. His first professional gig was at 18 and he played with many local bands in his native New York.

Since those humble beginnings, Wilkins has played with a wide range of the truly great musicians of our time including (to name only a few) Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, Tony Bennett, Gerry Mulligan, Ray Charles, Mel Torme, Bill Evans, Zoot Sims, Dizzy Gillespie, Manhattan Transfer, the Brecker Brothers, and Phil Woods.

Currently, Wilkins lives in New York city, plays several nights per week, travels, records and is on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, NYU, and Long Island University.

His latest recording, "Alien Army" is available on the Music Masters label.

TB: Do you have a favorite style of music?

JW: Jazz of course is my first love, but if the music is good it doesn't matter what it is. It's got to be well done. It's got to be tasteful and quality. Jazz per se is not necessarily that. It depends on the players.

I listen to everything. To me it's not even a style. To me it's all the same - it's music. I listen to everything as a musical experience rather than a jazz experience or a folk experience. For me, I listen to everything as either stuff that works or doesn't. It's not even good or bad. I don't want to put a thing on it like that. It has to do with the quality of what you're listening to.

TB: Where the player's heart was when he was playing it?

JW: Oh indeed. I get a lot of feeling from listening to groups like the Beatles. That's great, great music. I would prefer to hear the Beatles than a bad jazz band. (laughs) And the Beatles have jazz elements in their music.

TB: Do you like teaching?

JW: Yeah, very much. Especially when they're good.

TB: If you had one thing you would like to get across to a young student, what would that be?

JW: If I had to pick one thing to say, I would probably say "Listen." A lot of guys just get up there and wank away. Listen to who you are playing with. The music is created by interplay, not by a particular solo somebody plays.

When I hear a great solo, I hear a band playing. I don't just hear the soloist. I hear the whole thing. It's just the lead voice perhaps.

It's very hard for a young student to understand that. He doesn't understand how you could listen and play at the same time.

TB: You see that in a lot of older players too.

JW: Well, yeah. Most players actually. It's the minority that will listen to each other. Most guys just get up there and blast off. See you later and it's over.

Jack Wilkins
Photo by Bill Magness

TB: When you are playing, are you consciously trying to express yourself or are you trying to touch the listener in some way or is it some combination of those?

JW: In a certain way you do all that. But it's nearly impossible to pinpoint it. You are in the moment. You can't think about all those things. You have to think about just making it happen. You have to just let it happen. You might be conscious of communicating with the bass player or the drummer or the piano player. But in the heat of the moment you can't think about that. It's an instinct at that point. But this requires years of playing and jamming and sessioning. It's not something you just do the first day you pick up the guitar.

Playing and practicing are just two different worlds. It's impossible to put the two of them together. What you practice and what you play are hopefully two different things. Otherwise you might as well just type it and send it in. (laughs)

TB: Do you do much composition?

JW: Yeah, I have had my moments of that. It goes in cycles. Sometimes you feel in the mood to write, other times not. I do a lot of arranging right now for the 5 Guitars Play Mingus. Arranging is writing in a way.

It is very hard to sit down and say "I'm going to write music today". Unless you have some project in mind or record or concert tour. You have to have a motive to write. For me that is.

TB: What is your opinion of jazz critics?

JW: I think they are often not on about what they are saying. Oftentimes they just pick up on the wrong things. Some of them are great, like in everything else. But what do they know? (laughing) Really, when you think about it, what the hell do they know?

But I suppose they serve a function for people who don't know what is happening with music. They can tell them that this guy is great or that guy is great. But people who are interested in jazz are supposedly intelligent enough to make up their own mind. Don't you think?

I never paid any attention to a critic ever - about anything.

TB: Is that right?

JW: Well how could you? I mean, what do they know? Do they know more than I know? I've been doing it my whole life and most of them have never touched an instrument. How could they sit there and be critical of anything? But they get people to go and hear music. Critics are for the average folks.

And of course critics go to a thesaurus and find the most irritating words. People never use the words critics use.

TB: How much do you practice?

JW: I go through binges of practicing like I do with writing. Sometimes I don't practice at all. Sometimes I don't touch the guitar for days.

TB: Really? And you still maintain those chops?

JW: Yeah, but you have to remember I have been playing for 35 years. So I practiced for years and years. I may be a tiny bit stiff when I get started but it takes me no time to get warmed up. For many years I practiced a lot. But now I don't. I play, but I don't practice scales and arpeggios anymore unless there is something specific I am working on. I just can't do it. I don't have the patience. No it's not patience. It's anti-creative, it's anti-productive. For me. I am not saying for anybody else. Don't forget I practiced for years for days on end.

If I get a good sound I can play. If I can't get a good sound, I can't play. It doesn't matter what my chops feel like.

TB: A lot of guitar players pay very little attention to the sound.

JW: Yeah, I don't know why. The sound is to me the most important thing. I will put two hours into getting a good sound rather than practicing notes.

TB: Do you have any thoughts about the difference these days between the players sticking with the reactionary conservative thing and other players bringing in new elements like hip hop?

JW: Jazz was never really a political music. It had its elements just because of the people involved in it. It's an inner-city music. It was mostly a minority group music. But when jazz takes on such strong political connotations, it seems to say it can't go any place, it can't change. And the whole function of jazz is for change and growth and development. If a guy plays one way one year, why does he have to keep playing that way? He has put himself in this political camp, and he can't change. Why can't he change? Everybody changes.

It should be a growth music. It shouldn't be a stagnant, political, "this is what I do" kind of thing.

TB: I know this is a lightning rod, but there was an article in Jazz Times a few months back about racism in jazz and the racial tensions among players.

JW: You mean between black players and white players?

TB: Yes

JW: I don't feel any of that. None at all. I don't have any problems with anyone. You know what you are talking about here? You're talking about television - Phil Donahue. Let's create a tension and exploit it. It's not happening that much. People overreact. I haven't read the article and, look, I'm sure there are people who are angry about a lot of stuff and maybe they have a right to be.

Of all places in the world, the jazz world seems to be more integrated than anywhere. I don't feel any of that (racism). This is the kind of journalism that really irritates me. What does this writer know? Is this a guy who is out there on the road playing? Or is this a guy who just sits and watches Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue? That's bad journalism. Now I haven't read the article and it may have some truth in it. Why did they bother even doing that? They wanted to sell magazines. They're not doing it because they're creating any kind of truth.

Let me tell you about truth. Truth is an extremely difficult item to find. You won't find it on the TV anywhere. You won't find it in the newspaper.

TB: Where do you think you find it?

JW: You have to look for it. You have to go out of your way to look for it. I find it in my music. Playing, that's my truth.



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