News and Features

A Jazz Legend – In the Classroom

Composer Hannibal Lokumbe was a student of North Texas educator James Wilson. Photo from vocalessence

April is Dallas Jazz Appreciation Month. In addition to playing concerts around town, the jazz community is honoring people who’ve had a hand in making the scene what it is today. Today, we profile the man who’s receiving this year’s Jazz Educator Award.

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Keith Anderson vividly remembers the first time he met James Wilson. Anderson was a 10-year-old at B F Darrell Elementary School, sitting through an art class.

“And I hated art,” Anderson said. “And this guy comes in and he goes, ‘Is there anybody interested in joining the band?’ And my hand was like, ‘Yeah! I’m definitely into that to get outta this class.’”

Anderson took saxophone lessons from Wilson from 4th grade to 7th grade. It was the beginning of a life in music. [music clip begins]. Anderson has toured the world with fellow Booker T. Washington High School alum Roy Hargrove. He’s currently a member of Prince’s band. And he’s even put out his own albums.

“He said I was a natural at it, so he really just started pushing me hard,” Anderson says. “And because of him, I’m doing it today.”

Thousands of students owe at least some piece of their musical lives to Wilson. He’s been a band director and taught privately both in Texas City near Galveston and at schools in Dallas. Now 79, he spends most of his time at his South Dallas home repairing instruments and working on a new hobby – building lamps. He hopes to sell the lamps and use the money to reopen the South Dallas music store that he operated for many years.

And he’s always got a flute within arms reach of his Lay-Z-Boy.

Wilson discovered jazz as a kid growing up in Dallas. His running buddy was Cedar Walton, who went on to a career as a jazz pianist.

“I was knee-high to a duck when Cedar Walton’s parents took us to a concert in Fair Park,” Wilson said. “We were small, so we were right on the rails. I was looking down at Ella and Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown. Stan Getz was on that job. That’s what the community that I was in was all about – music.”

Wilson has played saxophone and flute in various jazz bands throughout his life. But teaching music will be his lasting legacy. His students have gone on to play on some of the biggest stages in the world.

In 1990, Hannibal Lokumbe (above) performed at Carnegie Hall. The renowned trumpet player and composer played his seminal work, African Portraits. And he made sure that Wilson, the man he calls his “musical father” was in the crowd.

“When I went to the rehearsal, it was so funny,” Wilson remembers about the trip. “He was telling this gray-headed maestro, ‘No! No, that’s not it!’ And he began to sing the way he wanted the things to happen. I was right with his mother, and we sat right on the middle row, and it was just a marvelous performance. It’s said to be one of the longest applause that ever happened at Carnegie Hall.”

Lokumbe was 14 when he began taking lessons from Wilson. Before he learned the nuances of phrasing and improvisation, his teacher sat him down for a talk about life.

“The most important thing he taught me … is the moral aspect of the music,” Lokumbe says by phone from Bastrop, where he now lives. “For example, you don’t have to smoke dope or shoot heroin to be a great musician. I was very fortunate to have him lay that out to me immediately. The first night I played professionally, I encountered a person making a concerted effort to get me to use heroin. So, before I even think about the extraordinary amount of musical knowledge he gave to me, I have to first acknowledge that, because that saved my life.”

Wilson’s practice of caring for the person first and the musician second is what endeared him to his students. Anderson says he could tell even as a youngster that his teacher was never in it for the paycheck.

“Good teachers know how to look further than you can see. They can hear something that the average teacher’s not really looking for,” Anderson says. “I think when you really have a desire to be an educator, it changes your outlook. James was one of those guys.”

The state is littered with people who were fortunate to learn about music from Wilson. But as he reflected recently from the comfort of that easy chair, he says he’s the lucky one.

“It’s a blessing to have a love for people, and young people, especially. And I thank God for the opportunity to have a part in their lives. Makes me feel very, very, very good.”