Published November 16, 2012
Black Box Cabaret Series puts South Sound jazz masters in the spotlightMOLLY GILMORE
Its not easy for jazz artists to find a place to play original music. And its not a common thing to hear local musicians playing at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, unless they play with an orchestra.Tonight, though, the lights will come up on a new series that melds all of those elements the way great musicians meld their diverse instruments into one swinging sound: The Black Box Cabaret Jazz Series, featuring local jazz musicians playing original music in the intimate setting of the centers black box theater.For the first concert in the series, organized by percussionist Michael Olson, the spotlight will be on saxophonist Bert Wilson, performing with his combo, Rebirth.Hes an amazing saxophone player and a master of multiphonics, Olson said. Over the years, hes become this underground legend among sax players.Among Wilsons famous students: Lenny Pickett (formerly of Tower of Power and now the musical director for Saturday Night Live), Ernie Watts and Jeff Coffin.Olson met Pickett, who stopped to see Wilson on a visit to the area. The famed musician told Olson, I would take the whole Tower of Power horn line to Berts house, and he would give lessons to the whole horn line.Wilson, 73, got his start in show business as a toddler, performing a vaudeville song-and-dance act with his grandfather. At age 4, that career came to an abrupt end when he came down with polio. But a new career was waiting for him.Needless to say, the dancing stopped, he said. The music was still in my head. I woke up in an iron lung, and the music was right inside.Wilson was almost completely paralyzed, and doctors didnt expect him to live. Although he now needs a wheelchair to get around, Wilson regained enough upper-body movement to play, taking up piano at age 8 and later settling on clarinet and saxophone.People look at you, and they say, Oh, you poor man, he said. I say, No, no, no, because the music saved my life.These days, he said, his beloved tenor sax is getting heavy for him to hold. (He also plays the lighter soprano and alto saxophones.) But hell play it at tonights performance.Im having a hard time holding it up, he said. But I would no more stop playing tenor sax than I would stop breathing. In fact, thats when Ill stop.