Grammy-nominated saxophonist and Director of the Jazz Studies Program at the University of South Florida, Jack Wilkins has cultivated an illustrious jazz career in recording, performing, and teaching. Wilkins will be bringing his talents to the Ridge later this month with a concert in tribute to jazz legend, Hank Mobley at the Lake Wales Arts Center.
Wilkins grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. He started playing saxophone in the fifth grade through the Greensboro school district under the direction of celebrated band director Herbert Hazelman. “I was really interested in jazz from the junior high, high school age on,” remembers Wilkins.
His band director was also a saxophone player and told him if he wanted to be like the successful jazz musicians that toured with the likes of James Brown and Ray Charles, he needed to listen to the marquee names in saxophone from the classic era – Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins. Additionally, Wilkins began taking lessons from a saxophonist who was also a jazz fan, exposing him to more legends like Hank Mobley. Though he enjoyed soul and R&B music that featured horn players, Wilkins said, “I was drawn to the instrumental side of jazz music.”
“At that time, a lot of the big bands were touring,” said Wilkins. At various North Carolina college campuses and venues, acts like The Woody Herman Big Band, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, and Stan Kenton and His Orchestra would perform. “I probably saw those bands four, five, six times each when I was in high school,” he said. “Not only did I get to hear the great recordings, I got to hear some great musicians play music live and that was always exciting. I kind of had the bug at that point.”
Wilkins began playing with groups in Greensboro and from the University of North Carolina while he was still in high school. A promising up-and-comer in the jazz community, Wilkins decided to use college as a stepping stone to play jazz music professionally. He sorted through the best jazz programs in the country, had a few auditions, and landed at the University of Miami.
He attended the University of Miami out of high school and finished his undergrad at Appalachian State University back in North Carolina. He did graduate work at the University of Indiana to study with distinguished jazz educator, David Baker. Wilkins has been a professor with the University of South Florida since 1993 where he heads the Jazz Studies program along with professor and accomplished jazz composer, Chuck Owen. In addition to his academic work, Wilkins continues his career as a professional saxophonist and jazz musician with seven albums of his own as well as collaborating on other projects.
Appalachian Roots Lead to Canadian Album
A particularly interesting album in his seven-CD catalog entitled The Blue and Green Project features his own compositions and arrangements that are “based in American root music and inspired by the culture and environment of the Appalachian Mountains.”
Growing up in North Carolina, he was exposed to the bluegrass roots of Appalachia. He recalls going to see renowned bluegrass musician, Doc Watson live, just outside of Boone.
“He used to play at the Hilltop Vacuum Cleaner Center. It was a vacuum cleaner store owned by this music fan. He would clear off the floor and move all the vacuum cleaners out of the way and set up chairs and have about 75 people come and hear music concerts,” recalls Wilkins.
These country, bluegrass, and mountain musicians inspired Wilkins to put together a unique project crossing genres The Blue and Green Project. The concept for the album, according to Wilkins, is steeped in Appalachian mountain culture, environment, and history – the green and blue of the Blue Ridge Mountains along with American roots music influences from blues and gospel to bluegrass and country.
The saxophone isn’t an instrument typically associated with bluegrass music. To merge the two genres, Wilkins penned bluegrass fiddle lines and played the sax along with them with violinist Sara Caswell and acoustic guitar.
“It was fun for me to play fiddle music on saxophone,” said Wilkins. “The thing about bluegrass and jazz is that you have to be really good on your instrument. You have to be a virtuoso technician on your instrument to play bluegrass or jazz because it’s demanding in a lot of notes.”
The native North Carolinian described it as fun to turn his roots into a jazz/ Americana music project. Following The Blue and Green Project, Wilkins did a residency at the Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies. He spoke with the center about his multimedia album The Blue and Green Project which utilized art, film, and music. The Banff Centre, a multi-arts center, was interested in a similar interdisciplinary project based on the history, culture, and environment of the Banff area which Wilkins went on to record and title The Banff Project. Wilkins’ most recent album, The Rundle Sessions, is an extension of his work there. The project, named after Mount Rundle, he described as an international collaboration of sorts with American and Canadian artists featured on the album.
Wilkins’s talent on the saxophone has garnered him Grammy contention. Colleague Chuck Owen, professor of jazz composition at USF is a well-respected jazz composer, leading a 17-piece modern orchestra jazz band, Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge. “We have an amazing group of musicians made up of some of the best musicians in Florida plus some players who come down from New York,” said Wilkins. Together they’ve done six big band albums. The musicianship and arrangement in their catalog of work are well-respected in the jazz community. Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge’s album Whispers on the Wind received four Grammy nominations, voted into the finals for Best Ensemble, Best Arrangement, Best Composer, and Best Soloist.
Soul Station Live!
At 6 PM on March 7, Jack Wilkins will take the Lake Wales Arts Center stage to pay tribute to one of the great jazz musicians of the classic era, Hank Mobley. Wilkins will perform the milestone jazz recording Soul Station by Hank Mobley. The album was released by Blunote Records in 1960 making this performance an anniversary tribute.
“Blunote was known for putting out what some people would call ‘meat and potatoes jazz’ in the sixties. It was very mainstream and usually had a little bit of bluesy sound to it and featured a lot of the best musicians of the time who were regular members of other people’s groups,” explained Wilkins. At this point, Mobley was playing with the Miles Davis Quintet with bass player Paul Chambers and American jazz pianist Wynton Kelly. Soul Station features Mobley, Kelly, Chambers, and drummer Art Blakey.
“Everybody knows each other really well on this record and you can tell because the music flows,” said Wilkins. That’s one of the great things about jazz, he points out – the musical communication. “It gets conversational and even humorous because they make little questions and answers back and forth.”
Completing Wilkins’s quartet for the March 7 concert will be pianist Per Danielsson, bassist Charlie Silva, and drummer Walt Hubbard. “It’ll be a real recreation – a lot of fun for us and I’m sure for the audience as well,” said Wilkins.
“I learned quite a bit from Jack Wilkins. His dedication to jazz education is inspiring. It was an honor to learn from him and later perform together,” said executive director for the Lake Wales Arts Council, Andrew Allen. “Jack will truly honor the legacy of Hank Mobley and his contributions to jazz.”
Jack Wilkins – ”Soul Station Live!”
March 7, 2020 at 6 PM
Lake Wales Arts Center
1099 FL-60 E, Lake Wales, FL