‘Time of My Life’ Review: A Lad Gone Trad
Clive Wilson, a British trumpeter and “jazz pilgrim,” crossed the Atlantic after being seduced by the music of New Orleans.
June 7, 2019 5:40 p.m. ET
In the common room of a boarding school just south of London, Clive Wilson, then 13 years old, heard “a tapestry of sound and rhythm” that summoned unfamiliar feelings. “I am not making any sense of what I am hearing,” Mr. Wilson, now 76, recalls in this affecting memoir. “But in that moment, which remains with me today, making sense of my attraction is not important. Something stirs.” “Tishomingo Blues,” as recorded by trumpeter Bunk Johnson and his New Orleans Jazz Band, stirred Mr. Wilson enough to pick up the trumpet he’s yet to put down, and to cross the Atlantic for good, for a life he couldn’t have anticipated.
Mr. Wilson is hardly the first “jazz pilgrim” to resettle, having been seduced by New Orleans music. Nor was he the only young white musician to learn at the feet of the city’s pioneering players in the 1960s, when traditional jazz enjoyed a revival. New Orleans native Tom Sancton, a former Time magazine bureau chief who is also an accomplished clarinetist (and Mr. Wilson’s close musical colleague), recounted a similar arc of discovery in his 2006 memoir, “Song for My Fathers.” Yet Mr. Wilson’s perspective is distinct. In a foreword here, Mr. Sancton asks: “What drove an English public school boy, son of a clergyman, holder of a degree in physics, to cross the sea and embrace the music and culture of a band of aging black jazzmen?”
Time of My Life
By Clive Wilson
Mississippi, 197 pages, $25
Quite simply, the music—which, according to Mr. Wilson, “flew out of them with a joyful abandonment” and was “a complete contrast to normal British behavior.” It was also a relief from boarding-school values (“the British as God’s chosen people”) and “ ‘hell-fire and brimstone’ sermons,” presenting instead a more satisfying spiritual path.
Mr. Wilson arrived in the U.S. just days after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. His U.K. roots made a difference. The older African-American musicians “knew and sensed that we [Brits] hadn’t grown up in a segregated society, with all the baggage that entailed,” he writes. “They could relax in our company.” He settled into “an idyllic bohemian life” during the French Quarter’s heyday. He took private lessons from, among others, trumpeter Ernest “Punch” Miller. Soon, Olympia Brass Band leader Harold “Duke” Dejan invited him to play a second-line parade. Mr. Wilson studied music theory with “proper music professors” at Loyola University and soaked in jazz tradition at Preservation Hall and Dixieland Hall each night.
Still, he needed to adjust: “New Orleans musicians were always talking about red beans and rice, and I couldn’t stand rice.” There were deeper existential dilemmas. “It wasn’t my music,” he explains. “So I discovered a paradox: that to play authentic jazz, I had to play myself, my own ideas, yet I needed to listen to the New Orleans musicians to find out how to do that in their style.” He became a regular on bandstands in parades. He began releasing music from local legends on his own New Orleans music label. He wrote scholarly journal essays about specific musicians, which here form the basis of sidebars that function like stylized solos within his book’s song. (One describes trumpeter Avery “Kid” Howard as “emanating a sense of rhythm even when standing still.”)
Perhaps Mr. Wilson overstates both traditional jazz’s predicament and his place within that culture, arguing that “when we are gone . . . the time of the traditional New Orleans style of music will be over.” Yet like the music, his insider account is both breezy and erudite; it hits hard when it needs to. In one seemingly technical appendix, he writes: “When the bass drummer in a parade accents every eighth quarter note and leaves the next downbeat tacit, his syncopation strongly implies the next downbeat. It’s a beautiful thing to feel.” Even now, on the page, something stirs.
—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal.