A couple of weeks ago, Immanuel Wilkins, 23, was awakened at home in Upper Darby when his mobile phone buzzed with congratulatory messages lauding the selection of his debut album, Omega, by The New York Times as the #1 Best Jazz Album of 2020.
It was a tiding of good news that buoyed the Philadelphia jazz community, which has been challenged during the months-long pandemic. As the world struggles to contain the coronavirus, performance venues have shut down in response, taking Wilkins and his fellow musicians off the stage.
“It’s actually been cool for me,” said Wilkins of his quarantine. “You know, I think the name of the game has just been to roll with the flow. I’ve been basically back home since March, and for the most part in Philly, and it’s been nice to just get the hang of my family and work on music in solitude, which doesn’t get to happen and it’s probably never going to happen ever in my life… I’ve actually just got time to just sit with music and not perform it, which is actually been good. I’ve been able to work on it and realize as much as possible. I’ve been enjoying it.”
I think the name of the game has just been to roll with the flow.
The alto saxophonist’s impressive music career began in the Delaware Valley, where he started his trek playing in church and under the tutelage of jazz masters in music education programs like the Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts.
In between music lessons, Wilkins recalled he would watch his mentors practice and perform at the Clef Club, which, he says, “was a pretty formative experience for me…it felt like a family.”
During those sessions Wilkins would listen to guitarist Charles Ellerbe, who frequently spoke of his time playing with Ornette Coleman. Naturally, Wilkins went online to check out the legacy saxophonist and discovered video of the horn man leading the Prime Time Band performing “Dancing In Your Head” during a concert in Japan.
“That was my first intro to Ornette, and it ended up just changing my whole life. I remember listening to it and feeling like it’s way over my head, but I knew that Ornette was someone I needed to know,” reflected Wilkins as he laughed at the memory of the lessons learned.
“I was in a gap between not liking it, but knowing that this guy is an essential worker. And so, I did the work and checked out a bunch of early Ornette and that taught me about contextual relevance. Sometimes, you need to contextualize a person for you to gain understanding, and therefore, enjoy.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in Music at Juilliard, he established himself as an in-demand performer recording and touring the world with Solange Knowles, Bob Dylan, Wynton Marsalis, and the Count Basie Orchestra. In 2017, pianist Jason Moran hired Wilkins to travel with him playing the music of Thelonious Monk. The musicians’ affiliation grew, with Moran returning to Blue Note records as a producer for Wilkins’ debut album featuring his long-time bandmates, pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns, and drummer Kweku Sumbry. Moran told Jazz Times: “Immanuel … blends traditions in a way that only his generation knows how to do.”
From start to finish, Omega addresses racism in America. Opening with “Warrior,” and followed by songs titled “Ferguson – An American Tradition” and “Mary Turner – An American Tradition.” The 10-song collection offers a raw musical assessment of the past and present.
“Honestly, I like to leave a little mystery in the music,” said Wilkins. “I was thinking about just the idea of what meaning is. Sometimes I find that, in a way, words can take away from what the inherent meaning of the music is. Sometimes there’s musical meaning in the actual music, you know? I don’t even know if there’s a specific thing that I want people to say about the record, yet, all our music has been about a kind of Blackness and Black identity. I think that has come across, especially during this time when it’s been magnified in our society right now.”
Honestly, I like to leave a little mystery in the music
Now, it’s Wilkins who is pondering how he’s going to pay it forward to Philly’s jazz lions and lionesses in waiting.
“I am finding myself in a position where the tables are slowly turning,” says Wilkins. “There was a point where I knew all the young kids from Philly because they were my peers, and now they’re starting to become a younger generation of folks that look up to me, so it has been a nice opportunity for me to give back in that way and, and do what I can to help, although, at this point, it’s just me pointing them to older folks, telling them, ‘Y’all need to be checking out these cats.'”
This story is part of Jazz Philadelphia’s Community News Program. If you have tip or want to write for us (it’s paid!) please contact us. We’re looking for stories on the jazz scene in Philadelphia, first hand accounts of resilience and struggle during the pandemic from musicians and others, and thoughts about jazz in our city. Jazz Philadelphia is grateful for the support of the Independence Media Foundation for this project.