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Jeffery Wilson

John Robert Brown

Gilad Atzmon

“Music has always been central to my life," says Jeffery Wilson. "Apart from an interruption in the British Army as a junior officer in a cavalry regiment. I was not a musician in the Army. Being a very junior officer, you carry the Guidon (the colours). You wear all the funny uniforms. In the infantry they carry a flag called an ensign, or the colours. Well, in the Cavalry you carry the Guidon, the thing that goes over a horse, but dislodged. I was nicknamed the old title for the most junior officer, ‘a cornet’, which is a subaltern. It really is another language. You have to learn it, I can tell you! My great uncle was copmmanding officer of the regiment. He never called me Jeffery, it was always ‘Wilson’, or other words! Later I auditioned for the Royal College of Music (RCM). Because I'd had a bit of an accident, when I'd broken a couple of bones driving a vehicle into a tree, I got the sympathy vote. They let me into the RCM."

Since being a little boy he’d wanted to be a composer. Wilson relates that at a 'terribly young' age, he loved Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, but didn’t realise that it had been written as a score!

"I’d hoped I’d get in to the RCM as a composer. They said: ‘Well, you’re alright, but you’ve got to play some musical instruments.' When I played the piano they said: 'You can’t do that, you’re damn awful, so you'd better do something else.' The clarinet? 'Well, you’re alright at that.' The saxophone? 'Well; you’re alright.' Percussion? 'Well... you’re alright.' So they let me in on all of them. Over the course of three years I settled on the saxophone. One of my contemporaries was John Harle.

“I had marvellous composition teachers: John Lambert and Herbert Howells, both wonderful men. I was such an idiot. I looked into a room called the Vaughan Williams Room. I said to Howells: 'You're not Vaughan Williams.' I thought it was a joke. He said: 'No my boy. But I knew him.' ”

"I thought I'd got to do something. I’d been studying the G minor Mass by Vaughan Williams. Howells said: 'Well done my boy, well done.' He then sat at the piano and played all of it!" With Howells speaking all the way through, it took 22 minutes. "He made me feel about three inches high. The books are entirely wrong when they put him down as Germanic, out of the tradition of Stanford, Brahms, that sort of thing. Howells knew more about French music than anyone I can imagine. He could write out Scheherazade. And yet you read Grove, where the author speaks of him as Germanic. A big, big mind, and a lovely, charming man.

“If it had not been for John Lambert, I would never have met Messiaen. John Lambert studied with Nadia Boulanger. Because he did that, he was contemporary with all the relevant people. His French knowledge, and his contemporary knowledge, was great. When Messiaen came to Bloomsbury I met him. My French was rubbish, I asked if I could go and study with him. He said no. I asked again. He said no. I asked again. He said, 'Alright, you can come and visit. But that’s it.' And I did. From 1980 I was there intermittently. Wasn’t that fantastic? But that would never have happened without Lambert’s help.

“I love teaching now. I adore it, in fact. But if I’m any good at it, it's because of my teachers. John Lambert used to say: “I couldn’t compose without teaching.” I used to think that was a silly thing to say. Now, I totally agree. He was absolutely right. Such a wisdom.

“I’m Head of Composition at Junior Guildhall, The composers I teach there are outstanding - and humble. I teach at Cambridge as well. That's one-to-one, obviously. At Cambridge I teach analysis and jazz.”

He explains the final years of his own route through music education: “After a postgraduate year at the RCM I did about three months’ worth of a PhD in history, music-related, at Cambridge - but I bowed out, because I had this liaison with Paris, and quite a few commissions.”

Wilson agrees with me that a weakness of much jazz education is that it seems to concentrate on the Aebersold years (1945-1965), which period he describes as a ‘study window'. “The exam bodies say to me that no examiner knows what early jazz is. What if the examiner doesn't know what middle baroque is, or what high baroque is? It’s round the twist. It’s immoral that jazz is being regarded as ‘other’ music, music that’s ‘other‘. Music is a catholic art form; jazz is one element of it. To be honest, what I do in my composition teaching is to integrate improvised elements into the language base. But don’t call it jazz. Duke Ellington wouldn’t call it jazz."

About his early years, Wilson explains that his father played in a skiffle group. "He was a carpenter by trade," he says. "Initially I was a clarinettist. Piano came very late. Other influences included Freddie and the Dreamers, Luciano Berio, and Ludwig van Beethoven. "Later in life I met Luciano Berio, when I played in his piece Miro at ‘La Fenice’ in Venice. We had the artwork of Miro, which I really enjoyed, trapeze artists, and early video displays, quasi-operatic gestures onstage, and mime artists throughout the hall. The critics said it was a failure, an absolute failure. "'Yes, of course it was,' said Berio. 'It's called an experiment.' That was a light-bulb moment for me. That’s what I’m doing now. I’m experimenting; and we'll find something, shall we? A beautiful thing to play?

"I heard the Duke Ellington sacred concert when I was sixteen or so. I can’t remember the exact date. I had bought lots of Ellington on vinyl, including one on which Harry Carney played. I'm a Roman Catholic, so to be in this Cathedral at the front of the stage - I could smell the vinyl. To hear those self professed ‘miserable sinners’ praise God with gospel inflected jazz, well, that really floated my boat. But they smelled the same as the record, apart from a bit of Brylcream! To see Harry Carney play, wearing sock suspenders, with his trousers legs up high, making that gorgeous saxophone sound, it was great. Ellington told that story about being held up against the wall by a gangster. ‘When your dead, your dust. When I'd dead, I’m a headline. Do you know, for the life of me, I cannot remember his name.’ Charming."

First published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, September 2011. Used by kind permission.
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