JOE WILDER, HORN PLAYER: ELEGANCE WAS HIS THEME SONG
His death was confirmed by his daughter Elin Wilder-Melcher.
Mr. Wilder, who played cornet and fluegelhorn as well as trumpet, lent his elegant tone to bands led by Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and Benny Goodman. In 1962 he toured the Soviet Union with Goodman. He also worked, in concert and in the studio, with Billie Holiday, Harry Belafonte and many other singers.
A soft-spoken and stately man who never appeared in public without a tie, he developed a clear and even sound that reflected the years he spent studying classical performance as a young man. He aspired to a symphonic career but gravitated to jazz out of necessity.
“The opportunities for black musicians in the concert field were nil,” he said in an interview for the jazz archive of Hamilton College in 1996. His interest in classical music, he added, “inhibited my jazz playing a great deal” early in his career: “I was very stiff.”
Through the 1940s, Broadway was also off-limits to black musicians; few if any performed in the pit orchestras of musicals. It’s not clear who was the first, but Mr. Wilder was certainly one of the first — and even after he had crossed the color line he faced obstacles.
Fresh from stints with Lucky Millinder and Dizzy Gillespie, he was studying classical performance at the Manhattan School of Music and hoping to join the New York Philharmonic when he got a call to play in the band for the 1950 musical revue “Alive and Kicking.”
Shortly after that, he joined the “Guys and Dolls” pit band, which included two other black musicians, Benny Morton on trombone and Billy Kyle on piano. The three were accepted in New York, but when the show traveled to Washington it was a different story.
The pit band there consisted of local musicians as well as some key members of the New York ensemble. The producers had wanted the three black musicians to be part of the Washington band, but decided to keep Mr. Wilder and Mr. Morton out when the local musicians refused to play if they were in the horn section. (Mr. Kyle was allowed to be in the orchestra because, as a pianist, he did not sit with the other musicians.) Race was not an issue in 1955, when Cole Porter himself blessed Mr. Wilder’s choice as first trumpet in the orchestra for his show “Silk Stockings.” And race was rarely if ever an issue for Broadway pit bands after that.
Mr. Wilder played an equally important role, along with the bassist Milt Hinton and a few others, in integrating the studio bands of network radio and, later, television. Mr. Wilder, a member of the ABC ensemble from 1957 until the television networks did away with such bands in the 1970s, was heard on “The Voice of Firestone,” “The Dick Cavett Show” and other programs that used live music.
He later became a fixture in New York’s recording studios and on film soundtracks. In the 1980s he was in the pit band for the hit Broadway musical “42nd Street.”
Joseph Benjamin Wilder was born to Curtis and the former Augustine Brown Wilder on Feb. 22, 1922, in Colwyn, Pa., outside Philadelphia. He came from a family of musicians, and chose the trumpet over the bass, which both his father and his older brother, Curtis Jr., played professionally.
He was a regular on “Parisian Tailors’ Colored Kiddies of the Air,” a weekly Philadelphia radio show that featured young black musicians, backed by all-star big bands led by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other stars. The show was broadcast live on Sundays, when jazz bands were prevented by Pennsylvania law from playing in public. (Reflecting the de facto segregation in the music industry at the time, another Philadelphia radio show featured only young white musicians.)
Mr. Wilder attended Mastbaum Technical High School, which was known for its strong music program but, like most programs at the time, did not teach jazz. After graduation he joined Les Hite’s big band as the first trumpet in a section that also included Dizzy Gillespie.
He worked with Lionel Hampton before serving in the Marines for three years during World War II, and rejoined him in 1946 after his discharge. He went on to work with Gillespie and others before migrating first to Broadway and then to ABC in the 1950s.
Mr. Wilder lived in Manhattan. In addition to his daughter Elin, survivors include his wife, Solveig; two other daughters, Solveig Wilder and Inga-Kerstin Wilder; a son, Joseph Jr., from a previous marriage; and six grandchildren.
Mr. Wilder did eventually achieve his goal of performing in a classical ensemble. After returning to the Manhattan School of Music and belatedly earning a bachelor’s degree, he performed occasionally with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s.
But he was content to be a sideman for most of his career. He released only a handful of albums as a leader, among them “Wilder ’n’ Wilder” (1956), “The Pretty Sound of Joe Wilder” (1959) and “Among Friends” (2003). A week at the Village Vanguard in 2006, timed to coincide with his 84th birthday, was his first New York engagement at the helm of his own group.
In 2008 Mr. Wilder was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for a jazz musician.
Mr. Wilder was often called “the gentleman” by fellow musicians, who respected both his musicianship and his generous, self-effacing demeanor. “He was trustworthy and honorable, and he would never curse,” his fellow trumpeter Warren Vaché remembered. “I once offered to pay him to say ‘damn it,’ and he wouldn’t take the money.”