April 24, 2020
Upper Darby-raised, Julliard School of Music graduate Immanuel Wilkins could have done anything. He started playing violin at age 3, moved to the piano at 4, was a child of the church, and his parents had an eye toward classical music for their smart son.
So, why jazz?
“When I was in third grade, I found out you could get into band a grade early if you had your own instrument,” said Wilkins. “I asked my parents for a saxophone, and they asked me to prove how much I wanted it, before they bought one. I figured out a song from church, and the sax rendered itself… resonant.”
No. Why. Jazz?
“I don’t associate myself with the word as much as the deed. Like all black music, there’s a certain freedom about it. The music, the culture, the community of it drew me in. But, it was always there.”
As a saxophonist-composer who studied outside of Philly – as well as outside the realm of music, and into experimental film—the community of Philly jazz means something more. “It took me leaving here to know and miss all of its most amazing things,” said Wilkins.
“When I mention Mickey Roker, Marshall Allen or Jamaaladeen Tacuma to players in NYC, they’re like ‘you’re around THOSE PEOPLE?” Considering the state of music education, let alone jazz, mentors as such are lost. Masters are lost. Wilkins knows he is lucky to have these heroes at his fingertips. “I’m part of the last generation that will be around those masters,” he said.
Wilkins and Philly‘s young jazz lions must make themselves into mentors, become the next teachers and players to hold sway and gentle command over future generations. “I think my generation—visionary in its own right—will pick up that mantle. In my opinion, there hasn’t been a revolutionary talent in jazz the last 10 or 20 years. Jazz used to change drastically every ten years. Was a hard line moved between 2000 and 2010? Not really. Between 2010 and 2020? That’s where we come in.”
How Wilkins will lead the revolution comes down to taking the traditions and influences of his past—maintaining the love and inspiration of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Benny Carter, Charlie Parker and Henry Threadgill—and twisting it into his own stately, sophisticated swirl. His debut recording, Omega —produced by Jason Moran on the Blue Note label—will show off Wilkins’ talents toward the expectedly unexpected.
“I’m a traditionalist to people that are non-traditionalists and I’m a non-traditionalist to people who are traditionalist,” he said with a laugh. “Let’s do it all. One of my main goals has been to bridge the gap, and how do I get people who look like me at my shows. The answer is… honesty. Being true to myself—how I create, write, and improvise. We’re all product of truth and faith.”
“We have to treasure the mentors and the masters.”