Though it’s one of the coolest sounding musical instruments, the baritone saxophone is one you don’t hear very often. It’s five inches longer than the tenor sax, is heavy and awkward, and it’s hard to play and keep in pitch. The ‘60s generation might recognize it from old soul music, where its bottom-end “bah-dops” funkified several hits.
Harry Carney brought the baritone sax into the jazz realm when he joined Duke Ellington’s band in 1927 but the best known jazz bari man was Gerry Mulligan, who ruled the roost from the early ‘50s until his death in 1996. The most famous contemporary bari saxist is probably Lisa Simpson, Bart’s sister, a cartoon character.
Glenn Wilson is no cartoon character, but he is very affable and very good, perhaps the best of his generation. He brings his bari sax to Old Dominion University next Monday for a concert with John Toomey’s trio. I asked him last month how he came to play the big horn.
“Well, I’m six-foot-six for one thing!” he exclaimed. “The reason I actually became a bari player was because when I was in high school, the college band director at Youngstown State also taught at my high school. He said, ‘We need a bari player in the jazz band. If you come up to the college, you could play in the jazz band if you play baritone. And so I sort of just fell in love with it.
“My high school band director says I always wanted to play it but he wouldn’t let me because he needed me on alto. I played baritone in marching band for one year before I became the drum major. I always felt it was a voice that wasn’t explored as much and it left more room open for interpretation.”
His high school band director was a big fan of Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich, so the teenaged Wilson found himself listening to lots of jazz. And he was coming of age during rock’s great but brief horn band era:
“I played in a band in high school that did Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, that kind of stuff. Then I actually put my way through college playing in a Tower of Power band.”
While studying at the Dana School of Music at Youngstown State, he met the musician who would become his main man on the instrument.
“Pepper Adams, a great baritone saxophonist, actually came to my college,” he remembered. “We brought Thad Jones and Pepper Adams in because Harold Danko, a great piano player who was playing with Thad at that time, was a graduate of Youngstown. I was Pepper’s roadie, taking him to dinner and running him around town. When I moved to New York, we became pretty good friends and he let me sit in with his band, which was really a thrill. He was my main influence as far as baritone players.
“Gerry Mulligan was obviously the guy, but his sound was always so soft and fluffy. I was into a rougher kind of sound, so Pepper really appealed to me.”
After graduation, Wilson headed to Manhattan to try his luck in the jazz Mecca. He played with Latin legend Tito Puente for a year, worked in Buddy Rich’s big band for a while, and found himself in demand as a jazz journeyman through the 1980s.
“In New York,” he said, “you never know who’s gonna call or what you’re gonna need. You always had to be ready to go; you had to have your passport up to date.”
But when his son was born, he and his wife discovered that the Big Apple was a difficult place to raise a child. They decided to move to Richmond, where his wife's sister lived.
“It worked out well---my wife got adjunct at VCU, and I was doing software programming and working for a company there. I was still playing a lot---we had a little circuit, Baltimore, Washington and your area there. I actually played more in Virginia than I ever did in New York. We got a gig at Bogart’s [in Richmond] and we were there for nine years.”
Besides leading his own “Jazzmaniacs,” he also worked with Bruce Hornsby, appearing on two mid-‘90s albums, Harbor Lights and Hot House, and playing in Hornsby’s traveling band for a while.
“We were doing a video for VH-1 on ‘Rainbow’s Cadillac,’” he laughs, “and in the middle of the thing, Bruce points to me and says, ‘Blow!’ And the camera goes on me, and I’m looking at him. I didn’t know I was gonna blow! There was this very pregnant pause, like ‘why is the camera on this guy that’s not playing?’ They made a video of that. It was in the video!”
After ten years in Richmond, Wilson and his family moved to Normal, Illinois.
“Right now I’m a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois,” he said. “I’m getting a masters degree in jazz performance. My wife is an acting teacher at Illinois State University, which is in Normal.
“I really want to teach. My jazz mentor passed away unexpectedly and then shortly after that my father passed away. My mortality hit me, you know? If I’m ever going to pass any of this on, all the stuff I’ve learned, then I’ve got to do it. They would like to hire me here when I finish my degree.”
But he still enjoys coming back to Virginia occasionally to play with old friends like John Toomey, Jimmy Masters and Howard Curtis. And he loves working with young musicians, offering inspiration and practical advice, just as Pepper Adams did for him thirty years ago. As for his own career, Glenn Wilson is humorously philosophical.
“I’m in the lost generation now,” he concludes with a hearty laugh. “You’re either a young lion or you’re an esteemed veteran. When you hit sixty, you’re a veteran and they want to see you just because it’s a novelty. So, if I can hang in there ten more years or so, maybe things will pick up!
“A lot of guys quit or give up or die. If you can get around that, you’re OK.”
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