Extraordinary Surprise: Immanuel Wilkins

Clef Club Music Education Program Founder reflects on the saxophonist, composer, and arranger

By 1998, the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz had established its reputation as a highly respected Jazz education institution based on its sought-after student ensembles, and its outstanding alumni. The Clef Club’s ensemble program is based on development levels: beginners, intermediate, and advanced. Students’ promotions through the levels are based on achievement and ability rather than age. When an eight-year-old Immanuel Wilkins came into our program with an alto saxophone, he displayed an eagerness to perform jazz. The young musician was ready to learn from his instructors and mentors on how to become an effective improviser.

Immanuel’s supportive parents, Robin and Garcia Wilkins, gave me their full support concerning his musical development. Without hesitation, I recommended local legendary jazz educator Rayburn Wright as his saxophone instructor. Mr. Wright was also the instructor to Jaleel Shaw and Yesseh Ali.

In addition to teaching woodwinds, Ray was the founder and Director of the Clef Club Lab Band.  This big band consisted of adult student musicians under the tutelage of Mr. Wright. The Lab Band developed into an impressive large ensemble.

After several years of studying saxophone with Ray and being a regular student in the Clef Club Music Education program, Immanuel was presented as a featured soloist with the Clef Club’s Lab Band. This young prodigy was featured on Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” exhibiting poise and musicality beyond his years in 2009.  At 11 years old, Immanuel Wilkins’ performance received a standing ovation from a packed house at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz.

At that point I knew that Immanuel Wilkins had what it takes to become a great musician. The lauded New York Times agreed when Immanuel’s debut “Omega“ captured the #1 ranking for the Best Jazz Albums of 2020.