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November 9, 2004
Saxophonist Steve Wilson has traveled all over the world playing jazz since relocating to New York City in 1987. But he hasn’t forgotten his roots in the Phoebus section of Hampton, and Saturday night he brings his band to town for a concert in the crown jewel of Phoebus, the American Theatre.
“The American Theatre rivals any theatre of its size in terms of sound and atmosphere anywhere in the world,” he told me recently. “We’ve all played in Japan and Europe a lot, in these wonderful European opera houses where you need absolutely no amplification. Certainly the American Theatre is in that category. To be able to present one’s own music in an optimum setting is really the best of all possible worlds.”
Wilson remembers the building before its renovation:
“I believe it was the Lee Theatre. My parents and grandparents used to go to that theatre. I know my mother used to go there as a kid. That’s where they used to see the Saturday matinees.
“It brings me a great deal of joy and satisfaction because these kind of theatres are not in every town, though it seems in the last few years there’s been more developed in towns across America. They have quite a bit of history to them and they’re really important to the community, and I think it’s really fitting that Hampton has a place like this. It’s intimate, it’s the kind of place you can bring the whole family. I think it’s a testament to the old world craftsmanship.”
Sharing his musical craftsmanship and passing it along to future generations is important to Steve Wilson. He’s had quite a career already, leading his own group as well as performing with giants like Lionel Hampton, Dave Holland, Mulgrew Miller, Dianne Reeves, the Mingus Big Band and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. His highest profile gig was a three-year stay with Chick Corea’s Origin.
But he remembers what it was like to meet and learn from some of the greats when he was a student at Phoebus High School and Virginia Commonwealth University, and he’s adamant about returning the favor with young people he has a chance to motivate and inspire.
“We’re very fortunate to be able to do what we do,” he explains, “and part of it is being able to give back what was given to us. As one of those reverends once told me, ‘It’s not yours until you can share it.’ That’s what we’re trying to do.
“We’re doing a workshop with the Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News when we come down there. We’re going to have them open the concert for us, so that they can get some exposure to the community and give the kids a format in which to display their talents.
“We always try to tie in clinics and workshops whenever we go on the road. It develops new audiences, and we have to develop new audiences while they’re still very young. They’re not going to get it on television or mass media, so we have to take the initiative and take the music back to the community. We can’t wait to be given the green light; the musicians have to take the initiative to do that.”
In addition to the teaching opportunities he seeks out on the road, Wilson has a busy load at home in the Big Apple. He has students at Columbia University, the New School and the State University of New York in Purchase. He was in Norfolk in April for a five-day residency at ODU.
His most recent recording was called Soulful Song, released last year on the MaxJazz label. A tribute to the soul music of the ‘70s, the disc featured Wilson’s working band plus guest vocalists, one of whom will join him this weekend.
“We’ve been doing some dates this year with Carla Cook, who’s going to be with us in Hampton. We’ll have a few things from Soulful Song, some other things that we’ve worked out with her and some of her own material. She’ll be on at least half of the program. She’s really fantastic. She’s a very gifted artist, and is certainly one of the most highly respected artists on the scene right now. She really knows music, and she loves being challenged so she fits right in. It ends up being a quintet, not just a singer with a backup band.”
After his childhood years hearing players like Eddie Harris, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Cannonball Adderley at the Hampton Jazz Festival, Steve Wilson’s the headliner Saturday night, bringing his own band to his hometown. The American Theatre will be packed with old friends, fellow musicians and local jazz lovers. It’ll be quite a homecoming for a guy whose values, both musical and personal, were shaped by individuals he knew here.
“I started at twelve,” he recalls. “I really wanted to be a drummer, so I messed around with drums a little bit before saxophone, but I started formal studies on saxophone. When I went to Phoebus High School, we had the Navy Commodores, the showcase jazz big band of the Navy. We got a chance to talk to those guys.
“Local musicians around at the time included Joe Jones, Howard Curtis, Don Warren, and a guy who owns a music repair shop in Hampton now, Sylvester Artis. He was actually a postman at the time and I would be practicing and he’d stick his head in the door and show me the whole tone scale, and tell me what things to listen to---you know, listen to Charlie Parker. And now he’s a very successful music repairman there in Hampton. So I was very fortunate to have a few mentors.”
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