Bob Wilber, one of the finest clarinet and soprano saxophone players, died on August 4th at age 91. Bob was a direct link to his teacher and mentor the great Sidney Bechet and Bob passed on his skills to younger musicians such as the Finnish reed player Antti Sarpila. Joe Bebco has provided The Syncopated Times’ readers with an excellent review of Bob’s career but I would like to add some personal reminiscences.
I discovered traditional jazz when I was a teenager in high school in England. In 1956 I was excited to learn that Eddie Condon was bringing a band to the UK. The band was led by trumpeter Wild Bill Davison and it included Bob Wilber on clarinet. I was able to attend the band’s concert in Leicester. The program started with England’s top jazz band, Humphrey Lyttelton’s group, but when Eddie Condon’s band was announced Bob Wilber was missing. Bob, the most sober member of the band, had overslept! Lyttelton’s reed player, Bruce Turner played clarinet in his place and he did an admirable job.
Bob recounts the story in his autobiography Music Was Not Enough. published in 1988—a book that is well worth reading. It wasn’t until the 1980s that I got to finally hear Bob in person and also to meet him. At that time he was the director of jazz studies at Wilkes College in Pennsylvania which was about 20 miles from where I was living. I enjoyed many lectures and concerts given by Bob at the college. These evenings often included guest musicians such a Milt Hinton, Sammy Price, Dick Hyman, and Mark Shane.
My last encounter with Bob was on a “Jazz Alive” cruise on Crystal Cruises, organized by Jazzdagen in 2011. Bob was still playing beautifully and his duets with Antti Sarpila and with Peter Meijers were the highlight of the cruise for me. I ran into Bob in an empty bar on the ship at about ten o’clock one morning and he was practicing scales on his soprano sax. I expressed surprise that he still needed to practice considering his years of experience. He assured me that it was necessary and that he practiced every day. Good advice for any would-be musician.