World leading saxophonist

Born: March 15, 1928;

Died August 4, 2019.

Bob Wilber, who has died at the age of 91, was a champion of classic and traditional jazz and one of the world’s leading jazz soprano saxophonists and clarinettists. During a career which spanned more than six decades, he was a living link to the great jazz originals who had inspired him – in particular the legendary Sidney Bechet, whose protégé he was in the late 1940s.

In Scotland, he will be remembered for his involvement in gala or one-off concerts at the Edinburgh and Nairn Jazz Festivals – in particular a handful of reunions of the 1970s jazz “supergroup”, Soprano Summit, and his appearance at the final edition of the much-missed Nairn Jazz Festival, in 2009, with the mighty tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, whose recording career he had helped launch three decades earlier.

Robert Sage Wilber was born in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1928. His father was a partner in a small publishing firm which specialised in college textbooks. His mother died, unexpectedly, of cancer when Wilber was just over a year old, and Wilber and his sister were raised by their father and the second wife he married soon afterwards. When Wilber was six years old, the family moved to Scarsdale, an affluent commuter suburb to the north of the city.

Wilber was just an infant when he first heard jazz – his father, who played some jazz piano, played him the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s recording of Mood Indigo when it had just come out. Wilber would hear the band live, in 1943, when the whole family went to Carnegie Hall for its historic Black, Brown and Beige concert. Not that this was his first experience of live jazz; his father had already taken him to Manhattan’s Café Society nightclub to listen to the elegant pianist Teddy Wilson.

Like many of his peers, Wilber, who took up clarinet in his early teens, became hooked on traditional jazz which was enjoying a popular revival in the 1940s. At school, he helped establish a record club and formed a band. Aged 15 years old, Wilber and his classmates would go into the city every Sunday afternoon to hear some of their favourite musicians playing in a jam session. They even persuaded them to come to the school to give an end-of-term concert.

After high school, the teenage Wilber continued his education in the jazz clubs of 52ndStreet and in Brooklyn, where he studied with the great New Orleans clarinettist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. By 1948, Wilber was so immersed in Bechet’s style of playing and sounded so like him that when the older man was unable to accept an invitation to play at the first Nice Jazz Festival in 1948, his student went in his place.

Wilber’s first band, the Wildcats, comprised contemporaries including the dazzling pianist Dick Wellstood. But it is the second incarnation of the Wildcats which is regarded as Wilber’s most important band because the two white boys were playing with older, black musicians whose careers had overlapped with such pioneering figures as King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

When he was drafted into the army in 1952, Wilber swapped his soprano sax for a tenor. He didn’t restrict his interest to classic and traditional jazz – he explored modern jazz by studying with pianist Lennie Tristano, and he formed a band named The Six which combined elements of traditional and modern jazz. He also studied classical clarinet, and played tenor in a band led by clarinet king Benny Goodman. It wasn’t until the 1960s that he took up instrument for which he will be best remembered – the curved soprano sax, which, he felt produced a sound quite different to the Bechet-like sound he had perfected on the straight soprano.

In 1969, Wilber earned a Grammy nomination for his album The Music of Hoagy Carmichael, which featured his colourful arrangements and his lyrical soprano sax playing. (He won the Grammy in 1985 for his recreations of Duke Ellington’s 1920s music for the movie The Cotton Club.) It was also notable as a comeback for the wonderful swing era singer Maxine Sullivan.

Wilber may have had to talk Sullivan into her comeback but when he called Marty Grosz to ask if he would like to join Soprano Summit, the response was: “My bags are packed.” The much-loved guitarist, vocalist and purveyor of side-splittingly funny anecdotes had been working for the US Postal Service and given up, but Wilber’s invitation launched his career as a solo star who went on to become a favourite of Edinburgh and Nairn audiences through the 1990s and 2000s.

Soprano Summit was created on impulse by a promoter desperate to revive an audience whose enthusiasm was flagging after a full weekend of wall-to-wall jazz. He suggested that Wilber and Kenny Davern “do a duet with soprano saxophones and wake everyone up”. The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington's moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones - a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

"We got a rhythm section together," explained Wilber in Nairn, in 1995. "And we got up and did the number." Davern continued: "We finished it off on two high notes in thirds, and to our amazement people just rose up in applause - 650 folks just screaming with delight - and it was then that we realised that we had something different."

In a typical Soprano Summit number they bounced the melody – usually a tune that was as far removed from the common denominator numbers played by thrown-together bands at festivals - backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, though one sensed that much of the arranging was going on as they played. Wilber and Davern’s intuition about one another's direction also meant that they complemented each other's playing. Even years after Soprano Summit broke up, when Wilber and Davern got together, they still produced spine-tingling music – as anyone who heard one of their reunion concerts in Scotland will testify.

After settling in the Cotswolds in the late 1980s, Wilber performed in Scotland every few years until around 2010, when he made his last appearance at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in an all-star concert entitled Festival of Swing which also featured fellow octogenarian saxophonist Joe Temperley. By this time, he was in the habit of taking control of the line-up with which he was working, and, rather than following the advertised programme which listed him as leader only for the finale, he assumed leadership from the off, putting together a terrific first set which overran by 45 minutes. Nobody in the band said anything, despite being 45 minutes’ overdue their pints, but Wilber – as one musician remembered it – “got a massive bollocking from the wee lady who sold the ice-creams – which had melted in the meantime”.

Wilber is survived by his second wife, the singer Joanne “Pug” Horton, and by his daughter Elizabeth from his first marriage.