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Originally published Saturday, June 8, 2013 at 8:06 PM

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Jazz saxophonist Bert Wilson dies at 73

Bert Wilson, a jazz saxophonist sought out for lessons by players from all over the world, died Thursday in Olympia, Wash. He was 73.

Seattle Times jazz critic

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Bert Wilson, a jazz saxophonist sought out for lessons by players from all over the world, died Thursday in Olympia.

Mr. Wilson was 73. The cause of death was a heart attack.

“He did things on the saxophone that nobody else could do,” said his wife of 12 years and his companion of the last three decades, flutist Nancy Curtis.

Following the lead of avant-garde players such as John Coltrane — with whom the sax man once jammed, in Los Angeles in 1966 — Mr. Wilson developed techniques for playing two, and sometimes three notes at the same time, called “multiphonics.” He also extended the range of the tenor saxophone several octaves above the instrument’s normal range, using special fingerings.

In 1997, JazzTimes magazine called Mr. Wilson “a major contemporary figure of the tenor saxophone.”

Some of his students over the years included the Dave Matthews Band’s Jeff Coffin, Los Angeles ace Ernie Watts and Tower of Power member Lenny Pickett.

“He was a very patient teacher,” said Latin percussionist Michael Olson, who lived next door and studied with the saxophonist. “But he didn’t let people slide, either.”

Born in Evansville, Ind., in 1939, Mr. Wilson contracted polio from a public swimming pool at age 4. Thereafter, he was in a wheelchair. When he was 10, he heard the music of Charlie Parker in a Chicago hospital school, an experience he often said affected his life far more than polio.

After high school, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became interested in the avant-garde “free jazz” of Ornette Coleman, and in 1966 moved to New York, where he lived alone on the sixth floor of a building with no elevator.

“They would carry him up two flights,” said Curtis, “then take him over the precipice to the roof of the next building, where they’d go up the elevator.”

In New York and Los Angeles, Mr. Wilson recorded with fiery alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons, drummers James Zitro and Smiley Winters and trumpet player Barbara Donald.

In 1979, Olson and keyboardist Michael Moore, of the band Obrador, having learned Wilson was living alone and “miserable” in Woodstock, N.Y., threw a benefit concert to move Wilson to Olympia.

From that time forward, Mr. Wilson was an active participant in the Northwest jazz scene, performing at the Earshot Jazz Festival and other major events and doing a weekly Olympia gig with saxophonist Chuck Stentz at the Water Street Cafe.

Mr. Wilson was a colorful, ebullient character who spoke in a gravelly voice in rhythmic cadences, calling men “brother” and women “baby” or “darlin’.” One of his favorite sayings was “If you're not groovin’ and swingin’, you’re not doin’ it right!”

He loved telling stories about his life in jazz.

“It reminded you of going to your grandfather’s house,” said Olson. “He would talk about playing with Rahsaan (Roland Kirk) and the time he played with ‘Trane.”

Mr. Wilson left behind many recordings as a sideman and as the leader of his own band, Rebirth. His last album was “Dedicated to Friends and Mothers” (Pony Boy), in 1998.

Curtis is planning a memorial celebration of Wilson’s life but has not yet announced the time and place.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com


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