In January 1949, when Boston’s modern jazz pot was beginning to boil, the most popular jazzman in the clubs represented a different camp entirely. It was a Sidney Bechet disciple named Bob Wilber. Saxophonist and clarinetist Wilber, who died August 4, 2019 at age 91, was a frequent visitor to the Hub between late 1947 and late 1951. Those were critical years for Wilber, learning years, and he treated Boston’s Savoy Cafe as his personal woodshed. In 1949, Wilber was a near-constant presence at the Savoy, at a time when state law said he wasn’t even old enough to buy a beer there.

Photo of Bob Wilber, 1947
Bob Wilber, 1947

Bob Wilber studied intensively with Sidney Bechet in 1946-47, living in his home and recording with him. Then Sidney sent his pupil to Steve Connolly’s Savoy Cafe, where Bechet himself played a triumphant engagement in 1945. Wilber’s trio opened in November 1947. His high-school pal Dick Wellstood was on piano and the venerable Kaiser Marshall, himself a former Bostonian, played drums.

Wilber toured France in summer 1948 with Mezz Mezzrow, a trip that included an appearance at the Nice International Jazz Festival. In October he was back at the Savoy, with his best-known 1940s band: Henry Goodwin, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, trombone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, bass; and Tommy Benford, drums. This band packed the Savoy nightly. Connolly tore up their contract and announced they were staying indefinitely.

A Citywide Case of Wilbermania

Boston succumbed to Wilbermania. The Savoy—the House That Sabby Lewis Built—became a Dixieland-only venue. The mainly African-American audience who enjoyed Lewis’s brand of swing-meets-jump drifted away, replaced by a legion of white college-age Dixie enthusiasts. Fans formed a “Bob Wilber Dixieland Jazz Club of Boston.” Then they staged a parade.

Wilber spent the holidays in New York, planning a January return to Boston. Both Down Beat and Record Changer reported on what happened when he arrived. On January 3, Wilber’s fans met his train at the Back Bay station. They loaded Bob’s band into a horse-drawn wagon for an old-fashioned tailgate parade. Accompanied by a police escort, they meandered from the station on Dartmouth street to the Savoy on Mass Ave. More than 200 fans followed the bandwagon in a caravan of taxicabs, while more lined the parade route. They stopped traffic. It was Wilbermania!

In 1949, the Wilber band recorded with Bechet in New York for the Circle label. Here is “The Broken Windmill” from that session, and undoubtedly the band had a similar sound at the Savoy.

The Wilberites turned out in force again for Bob’s big 21st birthday party at the Savoy on March 15. That’s worth noting. The man causing all this stir was no older than his most avid fans. And that man, musically restless, was ready to move on.

Nat Hentoff described Wilber’s change in attitude in Down Beat: “For some time he had been becoming more and more uncomfortable because of the clash between his own evolving style and the tightly knit, enthusiastic, but essentially static quality of the band. The group played an unusual variety of resurrected compositions by Jelly Roll, Willie the Lion, and early Ellington, but was hardly alive to the organic changes which were occurring in jazz.” And, Wilber realized, “the largest part of his fervent Dixieland audience was more fanatically cult-conscious than musical, and that Dixieland “was becoming as commercial as Lombardo.”

His fans wanted Bechet solos played note-for-note, and Wilber had no interest in that. Bechet was Wilber’s North Star and always would be, but Bob wanted his own identity, too. (He even gave up the soprano sax, and didn’t play it again until 1965.) In April 1950, tired of the scene, he broke up his band. In September he returned with a more versatile group featuring trombonist Vic Dickenson and trumpeter Sidney DeParis, but that group was short-lived.

Savoy Cafe postcard advertising Bob Wilber, 1949
Savoy Cafe postcard advertising Bob Wilber band, 1949

In October 1950, George Wein asked Wilber to assemble a band for the grand opening of his new club, Storyville. Wein liked Wilbur’s new sound—it was moving in the same musical direction as his own. Bob brought Wilbur and Sidney DeParis to play trombone and trumpet, Red Richards on piano, local man Johnny Field on bass, and the mighty Sid Catlett on drums. Wilber later told Hentoff that Catlett’s sense of rhythm affected him profoundly. This group might stayed together, but problems with the landlord forced Wein to close Storyville in November. The musicians went their separate ways. Wein reopened in a new location in February 1951, and again he asked Wilber to bring in a band. This one included Sidney DeParis and Tyree Glenn, but not Catlett, who returned to Chicago, where he died of a heart attack in March. They stayed at Storyville for eight weeks.

Wilber Meets Modern

Bob Wilber was still in Boston when he studied with Lennie Tristano. In fact, they might have first met at a Tristano concert staged at John Hancock Hall by Wein’s associate, Charlie Bourgeois, in October 1949. Wilber was breaking away from Bechet, and he saw Tristano engaged in a similar breakaway—in Lennie’s case, from the rigidity of bop according to Bird. Tristano was looking for something new, and Wilber always appreciated creative approaches. Wilber didn’t stay with Tristano for long, but he later credited Tristano with developing his ear and improving his technique as an improviser.

Wilber’s wanderings in 1951 must have sorely tested his trad-loving followers. He played with Serge Chaloff, and joined the after-hours sessions at Christy’s in Framingham. He sat in with Nat Pierce and his bandmates there, but it’s doubtful he played with Bird, even though the timing is right—we’d know. And Wilber played with another musician comfortable in all styles, the cornetist/violinist Dick Wetmore. Oh, to hear a recording of that meeting!

Wilber entered the army in 1952, ending his Boston days and interrupting his musical explorations. Those resumed following his discharge in 1954. He formed The Six, a genre-blending group that in the end he deemed unsuccessful. But it was another stepping-stone for Wilber, another opportunity to absorb musical influences and expand his own territory. 

The Savoy was long gone when Wilber visited Boston in later years with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band and Soprano Summit. I doubt he stopped for a haircut at the barber shop that took over its space.

Wilber later moved to the U.K. But he often came home to visit, and Michael Steinman, that man with a camera, recorded him in New York in 2012. Bob celebrated his 84th birthday with a romping “Blue Lou.” I’ll bet Steve Connolly, who hosted Bob Wilber’s birthday party 63 years earlier at the Savoy, would have enjoyed it.