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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Immanuel Wilkins’ depth of sound has local roots. He began playing every Sunday at his family church in Philadelphia, admittedly long before he understood the significance of his hometown history. Today, the saxophone player and composer has stretched his artistry from Europe to Japan, and collaborated with bold, diverse voices including Jason Moran, Lalah Hathaway, Solange Knowles, Gerald Clayton and Bob Dylan, among many others.

In the spirit of collaboration and apprenticeship, The Jazz Gallery’s Mentorship Series has partnered Wilkins with prolific trumpet player and composer Jonathan Finlayson, who just released his latest record 3 Times Round (2018). And as Wilkins puts together his first album-length recording as a leader, he works to bring what he’s learned from past experiences into his current present, which happens to evolve with each new opportunity.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve had the chance to work with many established artists from a cross section of generations. How have these experiences influenced your self-perception within the lineage of the music?

Immanuel Wilkins: The beginning, for me, was when I was still in Philadelphia. Probably when I was around 15 years old, I started playing with the Sun Ra Arkestra, with Marshall Allen and a lot of those people. And I didn’t realize it then—it look me leaving Philadelphia to realize I was blessed to have a bunch of experiences with true masters of the music, at an age where I wasn’t really ready for it. So I [started] from there. Mickey Roker was also in Philadelphia at the time; he was around, Bootsie Barnes—there was all these people of the really old generation that kind of took me under their wing. And then also, I was doing the Kimmel Center program with Anthony Tidd. Steve Coleman would come down and do masterclasses from time to time with that program. That’s how I met Jonathan [Finlayson] and Marcus Gilmore and all the people in the M-Base crowd. That’s how I kind of got started checking out that music and getting into that stuff.

TJG: Now you’re in New York—you’re playing at the clubs, you’re billing yourself as the headliner. What has developed in terms of the way you see yourself as being a part of this legacy?

IW: I’m trying to think of the defining moment. I think at this point, I more concerned about playing good. I was talking to Kenny Washington today, and he was talking about how he was talking to Dizzy. He asked Dizzy, “Man, how’d you change music like this? What were you and Bird thinking?” and Dizzy was just like, “Man, we were just trying to play good—we were just trying to play.” That spoke to me. I guess my place in the lineage is just trying to continue the line. I’m trying to play good. And if that happens to change things, then good. That means maybe I stumbled upon something worth exploring. But if not, that’s fine, too. I’m trying to play good.

TJG: I’ve talked about the “Philly sound” with people like Johnathan Blake—as something that’s laid back while having that alive, very forward momentum. What’s your interpretation of the Philly sound, and how would you say it has influenced your playing and your approach to music? Or is it something that’s more essential and you can’t really define it?

IW: Okay, the Philly sound. I remember, for me at least, growing up in Philly, we were all trying to sound like Trane. I think John Coltrane has the biggest influence on the Philly sound, at least when I was younger. We would go to jam sessions and cats would call these long modal tunes, and we’d stretch out for like 20 minutes on one chord—as opposed to here. Cats are calling tunes with chords—like, actual changes. I think there are benefits for both. One thing I’ve learned from Philly is that there’s a certain depth that all the musicians who come out of Philadelphia play with: Jaleel (Shaw), Justin Faulkner, Johnathan Blake, Orrin—any of these people. There’s a certain depth to their playing that’s something almost only Philly people recognize. And secretly, I realized it once I got to New York. When I first got here, I was like, “Man, I’m not having any experiences like I was back home.” And I realized that depth is very special to Philly. It’s a certain Philly thing. Honestly, I put it up there as one of the cities close to New Orleans. It’s up there with New Orleans in terms of [being] a serious jazz town that has a deep connection to the music, and a deep foundation for what happens after.

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Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, November 30th, The Jazz Gallery continues our Mentorship Series with a performance featuring mentor-saxophonist Yosvany Terry and mentee-bassist Daryl Johns on our stage. This is the third show for Terry and Johns—earlier this month they performed at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and The National Jazz Museum in Harlem. We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Terry after the show in Harlem to talk about developing rapport with new musicians on the bandstand and the diverging paths of formal education and musical mentorship.

The Jazz Gallery: Your last show in the series was at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and the atmosphere was jovial. Being someone who travels a lot and also a resident of Harlem, how does it feel to play in the neighborhood?

Yosvany Terry: I think it’s a special feeling, especially because the music that we’re playing came out of the community and we don’t get the opportunity to play there as much as we we would have loved to, and just to see what the warmth and incredible reception was. It stimulates musicians who perform in Harlem. It’s special, also, because I’ve been living in Harlem for sixteen years and if I count the amount of times I’ve played in the neighborhood, two hands would be too much. It’s hard to believe.

I’ve performed a lot through the Jazz Mobile, which brings jazz to the community in their truck. So whenever I work with them, I feel a similar way. You see that people really engage with the music. No matter what you play, they feel the connection of being one with the community and the neighborhood. It’s vibrant. It’s an important feeling for us musicians, and especially me, to perform in Harlem.

TJG: What do you learn from playing with younger musicians about the direction and health of jazz today?

YT: More than anything, I would say a different sensibility and approach to making music. I’m the kind of person that likes to play with older people because that’s how I get to learn from their experiences, and that’s the only way one can learn, so I like to think of it the other way around. This has been a wonderful opportunity for Daryl to perform with musicians who are somewhat older than him and a result to get more experience. So I like to think it flows the other way and works to his advantage. Whenever I’m working with a new member in my band, I’m always open to whatever they bring. And yes, I tell them how I hear the music, but it’s in their hands to bring their own sensibility to it. I’m always to new interpretation of the material, because that’s the only way that it stays fresh and renovates itself.

TJG: Is there a difference between instruction and mentorship? Do you think about pedagogy when you are mentoring someone, or is it a different kind of relationship?

YT: The difference between education and mentorship is that you have completely different relationships with the people in question. Once you’re in the classroom, you’re sharing information with students. The level of the students are different, so it can be challenging to create a one-on-one relationship. But when you’re mentoring someone, you have more opportunities for an intimate relationship where you can be super precise and you can be direct, which is conducive to growing and learning this art form.

TJG: In a lot of traditional art forms, there have always been distinctions between apprenticeship and mentorship, but a lot of those practices solidify hierarchical relationships, and insist that younger practitioners “pay their dues”. Do you think it is the same with jazz music?  

YT: Yeah, of course. This is all connected, and it’s coming from the old African ways of teaching—the elders passing information to the younger generation. I’ve never looked at it from a hierarchical form, because the only way you can get experience is to get together with someone that has and has lived through those experiences. It’s something natural, in a way, when we think about how one gets knowledge. The only difference is that now you can go to a college to get a jazz education but, still, once you graduate, you have to learn from elders. So you still have information to acquire. So far, this is the only way that it’s been done and still, today, it’s the way things happen.

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