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Spotlight: Matt Wilson

Jazzed Magazine • November/December 2014Spotlight • December 3, 2014

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By Christian Wissmuller

Cited as one of the bright new lights of contemporary jazz when he first began to make a name for himself nationwide in the early ‘90s, drummer/bandleader/composer Matt Wilson has spent the ensuing years cementing his place as one of the most respected (and genuinely liked) figures on the scene.

Wilson is a supremely skilled and distinctly melodic drummer whose enthusiasm, passion, and conviviality – for music, yes, but for seemingly all aspects of life, as well – have earned him fans around the globe, amongst aficionados as well as fellow practitioners of jazz. He’s performed or recorded with the likes of Joe Lovano, Lee Konitz, Elvis Costello, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, Bill Freisell, John Zorn, and… well, presumably you get the idea. The dude has got chops and personality to spare – it’s no wonder folks are champing at the bit to play with him.

A Note from Matt Wilson
This is my first interview since my dear wife Felicia passed away in June from leukemia. She was a remarkable woman. She was a devoted mother, an amazing violinist and, as a teacher, made a positive impact in the lives of many young musicians. I would like your readers to be made aware that her love, support and guidance played a huge role in my development as a person and musician. I am who I am because of her. No one makes this journey alone and she was always there for our family and me. Felicia will forever be a part of every sound that I offer to the universe.On behalf of myself and my children – Audrey, Henry, Max, and Ethan – I would like to say thank you to everyone in the jazz community. Your love and support has been overwhelming and we appreciate your kind words and caring deeds.With Love and Gratitude,

Consistently topping innumerable critics’ and readers’ polls for the better part of the past two decades, Wilson’s also been one of the most strident and visible advocates for the music he loves. Matt and his bands – The Matt Wilson Quintet, Arts and Crafts, Christmas Tree-O, The Carl Sandburg Project, and Topsy Turvy – maintain an almost unbelievably active schedule leading workshops and lessons at schools and festivals, worldwide.

Matt was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to speak with JAZZed about what drives him, why he enjoys teaching and playing jazz, and the lessons he’d like to impart to today’s students of the form. He proved to live up to (more than!) his reputation as a thoughtful, kind, and exceedingly astute musician and scholar. Given recent personal hardships, we’re all the more thankful that Matt Wilson shared his time and thoughts with us and, now, with you…

JAZZed: Let’s start by talking about your early development as a musician. What first attracted you to music? To jazz? To drums? I’ve read that a television appearance by Buddy Rich made a powerful impact on you – true?

Matt Wilson: That is true, seeing Buddy on Here’s Lucy sparked my interest. My mother also had a theory. I was born with a severe clubfoot, so I was in a cast constantly from birth until I was able to walk. Because I loved music, she would play and place my toys around me. She claimed that was my connection to the drum set. Playing and reacting to the music with my toys around me. Seems logical, right?  I believe my affinity for the swing feel came from Roger Miller’s King of the Road, which is one of the records my mom would play for me. The two-feel on the bass is so swinging.

So we’re talking really early interest in music then. How about influences from somewhat later on?

A friend in junior high had a recording called (Buddy) Rich vs. (Max)Roach. Hearing Max Roach totally changed my approach to playing the drums. His melodies really spoke to me and he soloed with bass accompaniment – something I love to do because of listening to him.

When I was 13, I received a three-LP box set, The Drums, on ABC/Impulse as a Christmas gift. Those recordings exposed me to a wide range of masters of jazz drumming. I heard Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne, Baby Dodds, Paul Motian, Dannie Richmond, and many others, who all became my heroes. It was the first time I had experienced music with no steady time feel – Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” with Milford Graves on drums. It really fascinated me and I loved it. I dug it all and I thought the artistry and individualism of these masters is what jazz drumming was all about. These recordings were wonderful teachers. 

Speaking of teachers, who were some early instructors who had a significant impact on your evolution as a musician? What about their approach connected with you?

I was fortunate to have a wonderful band director, Charlie Knapp, back in Knoxville, Illinois. He  was really encouraging and actually gave me my first gigs when I was in eighth grade, playing casuals with his dance band that played weddings and supper clubs. I learned American songbook tunes standards like “Just in Time” and “Darn that Dream” playing in that band. When Arts and Crafts played at Chicago Symphony Center back in 2007, Mr. Knapp and his wife attended the concert and I was so proud to introduce him to the audience. 

That’s fantastic that you’ve maintained a relationship so many years later. Were there any other teachers who played a significant role?

My first private teacher was John Larson, father of Adam Larson, the fine young saxophonist who is making quite the name for himself here in NYC. John was a remarkable teacher for me. He emphasized playing music and I studied mallets, timpani, and theory with him, as well. When I was learning grooves, like the bossa nova, he accompanied me on electric bass. Isn’t that hip?


In 1984 I received an NEA  jazz apprenticeship grant and studied that summer with Ed Soph. Ed is a brilliant teacher and really opened up my ways of playing and sounds. We focused on playing a loose drum stroke and how to move with ease and flow around the instrument along with really focusing on playing the ride cymbal, the brushes, and improvising. He also utilized songs as a way of learning mechanics. He really challenged me and I believe that, through him, I learned to learn. 

I am grateful to have had these teachers that stressed playing music on the drums and not just “chops.” Thank you, gentlemen! I would also like to thank my parents who took me to my lessons, workshops, and gigs. They loved being with the musicians.

smileCan you discuss a little further some of those early gigs and the difference between learning in a classroom, or with  teacher, as opposed to learning “on stage”?

I believe we practice and learn ways of playing our instruments with the primary goal of playing songs with other people. We want to blend and welcome the communal feeling of welcoming and allowing music. That is where the fun is for me and I do have fun! The bandstand is where that education and celebration occurs.

I was fortunate to have apprenticed with many great older musicians, even at an early stage. I played in all kinds of bands and received guidance. I still do! 

Can you expand on this?

One early example was playing with an older lady, Marge Fanning, who played piano. We were playing “Sweet Georgia Brown” and I had been begging for a drum solo all night. So she obliged and allowed to me  express “ myself. I was maybe 14 and I just went nuts – probably sounded like I was building a metal shed in a hailstorm.  At the set break she said to me, “Matt, when the rest of us solo on a song, we play the song.”


I got it, fortunately, and I have loved playing on song forms ever since. 

There are experiences one only can get on the bandstand or the atmosphere of a musician’s gathering. I remember playing with the great Newt Graber’s bands in Wichita and learning so much while playing along with and learning about cool records and such from musicians while driving to the gigs or on breaks. I dug the hang then, and for all of you that know me, I continue to adore that essential part of the musician’s culture – the hang!

I would like to also point out that I have many folks I consider mentors in this music. There are too many to mention and I would feel bad to leave anyone out, but I love you all for what you have shared with me.

Can you talk a little bit about the lasting effect of your time at Wichita State University and working with the legendary Dr. J.C. Combs? What about working with him resonated with you?

Here’s a story: We were recently at the Wichita Jazz Festival with The Matt Wilson Quartet. We had a hang at percussion teacher Dr. Combs’ house the night of our arrival. I really got him stirred up describing all of the crazy projects he has produced. He was sharing the conception about pieces like “War Games- A Concerto for Percussion and Professional Wrestlers.” He was really going: scheming and getting excited and you could just feel his creative energy flowing. I looked over the at the guys [in my band] and they were enamored. I heard Kirk Knuffke lean over to Jeff Lederer and say, “This is where [Matt] gets this energy.” It made me so proud to hear that.

When we got back to the hotel, Chris Lightcap pulled me aside and said, “ That J.C. Combs is a genius!” I could not agree more. The man has a such an imagination and he is an impresario. He is definitely one of the most creative people on the planet. I love him.

Let me tell you about how much WSU means to me. When Felicia died in June, Dr. Combs and his lovely wife Karen came out for the funeral, as did the dean of the School of Fine Arts, Rodney Miller. That is family, folks. I was so moved by them being there for us.

That is so cool. Again, it’s inspiring that you’ve maintained so many of these relationships. Shifting topic: I know that, personally, I started hearing your name after you had moved to Boston and began playing with Either/Orchestra, John Medeski, Charlie Kohlhase, and the like. Can you talk about your time in Boston?

We moved to Boston in 1987. My wife went to graduate school in violin performance at New England Conservatory. I was used to playing five nights a week in Wichita, so when we got to Boston, I hit the ground running: going to gigs, meeting folks, sitting in and playing sessions.

Felicia and I heard and met John Medeski our first weekend living there. I played my first gig with Charlie in October of ‘87. John and Charlie recommended me to Russ Gershon and that is how I started with the Either/Orchestra. I am very proud of the legacy of the players that are part of the E/O family. I also wanted to mention great musicians like Bob Nieske, Dominique Eade, Allan Chase ,and Jon Damian, among many others, that were and remain inspirational.

What, then, was behind the move to NYC? Can you talk about your early days in the city?

Well, sometimes just know when it is time to move on. Both Cecil McBee and Andrew Cyrille urged me to come to New York and so we made the move. Again, without the love and support of Felicia, this adventure would have never happened.

It was so exciting to be here in New York. There seemed to be a real sense of community at many layers. I felt the best part was getting to play and apprentice with masters and explore with my peers. Now that I am older, I am grateful to play with many fine young musicians on the scene.

I would like to point out that I am thrilled to see community spirit thriving in many scenes throughout the U.S. in towns like Denver, Des Moines, Columbus, Ohio, Iowa City, and many others. Regional scenes are vital to the music. Be proud and cultivate community wherever you are, folks!

Your bands are actively invested in sharing with the next generations and teaching young jazz scholars through your many workshops and clinics. Can you talk about why the band is so passionate about music education?

Author Seth Godin said, “Real learning happens in bursts and often those bursts occur in places or situations that are out of the ordinary.” The workshop allows for such energy to be experienced. I believe our goal is to liberate the students. I like to say, “take the tarp off” and encourage exploration and welcome possibilities. 

I would like to express that it is really easy for us to come in and get everyone all riled up, but then we leave. The real heroes in education are those teachers who inspire the students, daily. My hat’s off to those folks! 

One-on-one instruction affords an entirely different dynamic. What do you like most about conducting private lessons?

Experiencing students making progress and really tapping into the flow. I had a student last week at Sarah Lawrence play a swing ride cymbal melody and sing “Slow Boat to China.” He just started playing this fall, but he is really getting it. I was so excited I just proclaimed to him, “This is why I is do this.”

I love seeing students express themselves and offer beauty to our world. I believe I enjoy that as much as playing. I had an ensemble play so beautifully recently that I cried during their performance.

What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of teaching music, particularly jazz?

I believe it is to inspire students to work beyond their instrument and to listen and study a wide spectrum of the music – to immerse themselves in the culture by being on the scene. Collect stories and be part of stories. I guess I just ultimately I want them to care to know

Any words of advice to young musicians?

Learn your craft, first and foremost. Develop what you offer to the music but also focus on how you receive the music. Put together bands and get out there and play. Offer music that is unexpected and surprises us. Be curious, courageous, and vulnerable. Do not play it safe. Welcome folks in to what you do. Play music with honesty, clarity, and grace. Have fun please and do not be afraid to express it. 

Be good cultural citizens by advocating for the music and creating community. Surround yourself with people that lift you and inspire you. Rumi said, “Be with those who help your being.”

Be a kind, caring, and grateful person. Create your own good luck.

Now let’s get out there and do it!

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