Bob Wilber (born 15 March 1928) is an internationally recognized American jazz clarinetist, saxophonist and band leader living in Chipping Campden, England. Although his scope covers a wide range of jazz, Wilber has been a dedicated advocate of classic styles, working throughout his career to present traditional jazz pieces in a contemporary manner. He played with many distinguished jazz leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, including Bobby Hackett, Benny Goodman, Sidney Bechet, Jack Teagarden and Eddie Condon. In the late 1960s, he was an original member of the World's Greatest Jazz Band, and in the early 70s, of Soprano Summit, a band which gained wide attention. In the late 1970s, he formed the Bechet Legacy Band and remains an active player, composer, and teacher.
Wilber was active in jazz education, including working as director of the Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble. He has written for films, including The Cotton Club. In his autobiography, Music Was Not Enough, he recounts his privileged childhood, pivotal meeting with his mentor, Sidney Bechet in 1946, and subsequent struggles as a musician in the 1950s and 1960s.
Robert Sage Wilber, a "superb soprano saxophonist, a classic clarinetist, a gifted arranger and composer, and an invaluable preserver and enhancer of jazz tradition," was born in New York City on March 15, 1928. Robert "Bob" Wilber grew up in a musical household and first became interested in jazz when, at the age of three, his father brought home the original Victor recording of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo." In 1935, Wilber moved to Scarsdale, NY and at the age of thirteen he began formal clarinet study under his first teacher: clarinetist Willard Briggs. At that time, he began listening to jazz from New Orleans, Kansas City, and Chicago by such greats as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Eddie Condon, and Frank Teschemacher. Wilber began playing jazz in high school and with his jazz-loving friends formed a "hot club," listening and jamming to records.
Bob Wilber graduated from high school in 1945. While his parents wanted him to pursue the "Ivy League route," Bob was set on becoming a musician. Bob attempted to further his education and compromise with his parents by attending the Eastman School in Rochester, NY in the fall of 1945. However, after one term at the Eastman School, Bob decided to drop out and move back to the city, to "hang out on Fifty-second Street and in the Village."
Bob Wilber's Wildcats:
In 1945, Wilber moved to New York City and soon formed his own band, the Wildcats, which included pianist Dick Wellstood and saxophonist Ed Hubble. The Wildcats were the first jazz group in New York to "do what Lu Watters and Turk Murphy had been doing on the Coast - playing the music of the Hot Five and the Red Hot Peppers and the Creole Jazz Band." The group performed regularly at Jimmy Ryan's club over the next two years, and was recorded in 1947 by Ramp-art Records. Over the next few years, Wilber played and recorded with some of the best traditional jazz musicians of the era. Among them were Muggsy Spanier, Baby Dodds, Danny Barker, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, George Wettling, Jimmy McPartland, Wild Bill Davison, and James P. Johnson.
The Sidney Bechet Connection:
The legendary Sidney Bechet, one of the most accomplished and influential musicians of the post World War I period, played the clarinet and soprano saxophone. Viewed by many as the best clarinetist of his time, Bechet's primary instrument eventually became the soprano saxophone. In 1944, Bob Wilber had become fascinated with Sidney Bechet's sound on soprano saxophone and later that year, when Wilber was sixteen, he was introduced to Bechet through Mezz Mezzrow. Wilber then found out there was an opening for a pupil out at Bechet's house in Brooklyn and so Wilber became a "Bechet pupil." In the spring of 1945, Wilber began studying both clarinet and soprano saxophone under Bechet and eventually lived with him for several months. Wilber often sat in with Bechet at Jimmy Ryan's and they often performed duets. In 1948, Bechet sent Wilber to Nice, France in his absence to perform at the first-ever jazz festival. At the festival, Wilber's group shared the bill with Louis Armstrong and his Allstars. Wilber recorded for Columbia, Commodore, and the Circle label with Bechet and with his own group in the late 1940s. With Bechet's guidance, Wilber was on the road to becoming a skilled musician of both the clarinet and soprano saxophone and developing his own unique style.
In 1948, Bob Wilber formed a trio to play at intermissions at the Savoy Café in Boston. The trio featured traditional New Orleans-style jazz. Eventually, Wilber expanded the band to a sextet and was booked as the main attraction: Bob Wilber and the Dixieland Band. This group featured Wilber on clarinet and soprano sax, Henry Goodwin on trumpet, Jimmy Archey on trombone, Dick Wellstood on piano, Johnny Fields on bass, and Tommy Benford on drums. Wilber gained a strong following in Boston and the Savoy gig lasted through the better part of 1949. The Savoy also led to other opportunities to play in the New York City area through 1950, most notably at Jimmy Ryan's and the Stuyvesant Hotel.
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