Learning Experience 

Guitar virtuoso comes to town for gigs, educational outreach

Guitar virtuoso comes to town for gigs, educational outreach

Guitarist Jack Wilkins has amassed a solid reputation as a superior soloist and expert accompanist since his emergence on the jazz scene in the mid-’70s. The list of jazz and pop greats with whom he’s played stretches from Stan Getz and Sarah Vaughan to Charles Mingus, Benny Goodman, and Phil Woods.

Wilkins, who comes to town this weekend for appearances at three different venues, has in recent years become a major figure in another arena: jazz education. It’s partly in this capacity that he comes to town. Friday night, he’ll play alongside Nashville Jazz Institute cofounders bassist Roger Spencer and pianist Lori Mechem at Cafe 123. On Sunday afternoon, he’ll conduct a guitar master class at the Institute.

Wilkins has been a longtime instructor at the New School and Manhattan School of Music, as well as a judge at the Thelonious Monk Institute Guitar Competitions in Washington, D.C. He’s an in-demand tutor who conducts seminars and guitar clinics both nationally and internationally, and he’s also a past National Endowment for the Arts grant winner. He’s an articulate champion for jazz education, although he puts the experience into careful perspective.

“There’s no substitute for playing,” Wilkins said during a recent phone interview from his home in New York. “Nothing beats actually getting out in a live situation and being around other musicians. But there’s also a lot that’s happened in jazz education over the years; it’s a lot better than it used to be. What you’re doing with jazz education is giving students a chance to play; they get to learn big band charts, study music, and learn about the significant players and movements within the music. It’s not a substitute for getting out on the bandstand, but you’ve got to learn the basics, and it’s as great a place as any to get them.”

Wilkins learned about the Nashville Jazz Institute through some friends in town who’d come to see him play in Bowling Green. Though he’s appeared locally before at the Chet Atkins Days ceremonies, he says he’s looking forward to his upcoming trip here.

The Brooklyn native got an early start on guitar, beginning at age 13. His 1973 debut LP Windows, on the now defunct Mainstream label, remains a classic among guitar fans, and was recently published in transcription form by the Hal Leonard Corporation. While Wilkins hasn’t amassed a huge number of credits as a leader, he’s worked as a sideman with numerous jazz giants, among them Bill Evans, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Chet Baker, Earl Hines, and Gerry Mulligan. He’s also been a perennial participant at such prestigious events as the JVC, Berlin, Montreux, and Newport jazz festivals.

Unlike some players who specialize in flashy licks, electronic gimmicks, or bombastic flurries, Wilkins has been praised for his tastefulness, restraint, and fluidity. He attributes this to his influences, among whom he counts guitarists Joe Pass, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, and Johnny Smith, as well as pianist Bill Evans. “Playing with Bill Evans was a great experience, and of course playing with Dizzy was phenomenal. I once got a chance to meet Wes Montgomery; that was unforgettable. But if I had to single out one guitar player, the person who really got me to take the guitar seriously was Johnny Smith. He’s the reason why I wanted to be a guitarist, and he’s someone that’s really been underrated in terms of importance.”

Still, Wilkins disdains being locked into a stylistic straitjacket. “I really consider myself a guitarist who likes to play in an improvised setting,” he says. “Sometimes when people call you a jazz guitarist, they’ve got a real strict definition of what that means. I’ve done pop dates, played in rock and fusion bands, played rhythm guitar for big bands, and done some Brazilian sessions. It’s really more about the music, and what you can do in the situation, than it is about a particular label, even though I certainly love playing jazz as well.”

Last year, Wilkins released the up-tempo, groove-oriented CD Bluesin’ on the String Jazz label, and he’ll soon have a second session, With a Song in My Heart, available in the same mode. This year saw the release of a duo guitar date with Gene Bertoncini, Just the Two of Us, on the Chiaroscuro label.

Much as Wilkins’ discs are worth checking out, jazz and guitar fans shouldn’t miss the chance to see a true virtuoso in action this weekend. In addition to the Friday-night gig at Cafe 123, Wilkins will be playing Saturday at the Wildhorse Saloon with Jimmy Bruno in a program spotlighting Fender guitars and amplifiers. The Sunday master class, which costs $30 and has limited seating, begins at 1 p.m. For more information on Wilkins and/or the Nashville Jazz Institute, call 340-0002.

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