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Matt Wilson: 'Your story is really important'

John Abbott

Musician Matt Wilson returns to Wichita this week to perform at the Wichita Jazz Festival.

The Wichita Jazz Festival, which kicked off Wednesday, is celebrating its 50th year. Matt Wilson, a drummer and Wichita State University graduate, will perform Friday, April 22, at the Crown Uptown Theatre as part of the Leap Day Trio featuring Mimi Jones and Jeff Lederer.

The group was formed at the urging of Wilson’s friend, Jimmy Katz. In 2019, Katz suggested Wilson make a live album at the newly relaunched Café Bohemia in New York City.

A haven for jazz performers, the club’s heyday was from 1955-60, when its stage served as a testing ground for material from Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus and others.

Wilson, Lederer and Jones recorded an album of material there at the end of February 2020 — hence their name — just as the first wave of COVID-19 began shuttering live venues. That recording will be available in wide release later this spring, though Wilson said he should have some copies on hand for sale this weekend.

He recently chatted with KMUW about an upcoming recording project in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, as well as his personal and professional histories with the Wichita Jazz Festival.

Interview Highlights

When I rang, you mentioned that you’d been composing something for an upcoming date. What are you working on?

I’m going to make a record. I’m going to be back in Illinois for a festival in my hometown, Galesburg [in May]. I’m bringing an all-star group with Ben Allison, Tia Fuller, Dawn Clement and Jeff Lederer. I’ll be there early in the week, but I’m also going to [do some recording]. I’m going to record at the family farm, in a field, in the kitchen of the house that’s been in our family since 1850. I’m going to record at Wolf Covered Bridge, which is a famous bridge that had to be rebuilt after it burned down. There’s a gazebo in town where we did summer concerts. It’ll be really nothing in terms of instrumentation. We’re going to do a travelogue and film it.

Was this something you always wanted to do or were you on the way to the grocery store one day and thought, “You know, I really need to go record in a field”? 

[Laughs.] Literally field recordings. I always make the point that your story is really important. Everybody has a story. Our lives are really about gathering stories. I come from a family of storytellers, and I love storytelling. I figured that I could align that with this music. It’ll be fun because there are so many great sites. These places are really special. Part of it is also preservation for my kids or grandkids.

You were a student at Wichita State back in the 1980s. And I'm guessing that during your time as a student, you were able to attend the Jazz Festival a few times.

It was such an important vista of the year because of the bands coming. The very first year I would have gone would have been 1983. Stan Getz played because Danny Gottleib was playing drums and Jim McNeely, Steve LaSpina. I know all these people know. Then Steps Ahead played that night, which was Mike Mainieri, Peter Erskine, Eliane Elias, Eddie Gómez. I met Peter for the first time and Eddie. I didn’t really meet them. I’ve played with them [now]. Eliane lives about five miles from my house. Oscar Peterson played solo piano that day. I saw so much great music there.

And then Oscar Peterson played solo piano that day. I mean, I've seen so I saw so much great music there. Bobby McFerrin, Johnny Griffin; we did whatever we could do to make the hang. We sat at the side of the stage. We had a person who was really good at graphics and could copy the backstage passes. [Laughs.] I’m serious!

So you're coming back to the festival. Tell me a little bit about the performance side of this for you.

The main set is Friday night at the Crown with Leap Day Trio. We made a record at The Café Bohemia right before the pandemic. The 28th and 29th of February 2020. Jimmy Katz, the great jazz photographer, called me and said, “I have an idea! Why don’t we make the first live record back since the Café Bohemia reopened?” It was really open for about a five-year period but in that time there were a lot of great live record made at the club. The Miles Davis Quintet with Philly, Joe Jones, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane; that was kind of their New York home.

So the repertoire, like on “Relaxin’,” “Cookin’,” “Workin’,” and “Steamin’” was pretty much developed there. Cannonball Adderley was discovered there. There’s a Jazz Messengers record recorded there. So I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I talked to Jeff because we collaborate all the time. I had played a little bit with Mimi and knew that would be great. So we got her, and we rehearsed and played there that weekend and it was phenomenal.

Part of what’s bringing you back is the pedagogy side of this. I think you’re in a unique position because this is where you met a lot of your idols as a student and now you’re on the other side of it. 

It’s folk music; it's a real kind of storytelling kind of thing. So education is the information is all right here on the computer, right? But the stories aren’t all the time.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.