Berklee Today

Faculty Profile: Phil Wilson: 40 Years and Continuing

By Mark Small

  Professor Phil Wilson

The word "family" is one that comes up frequently in conversations with Phil Wilson about music and his career. Significant family units in his life include his own, the Berk family, and the very large musical family he has created among the musicians who have been part of his Thursday Night Dues Band, the International Dues Band, and the Berklee Rainbow Band over the past 40 years.

Wilson enjoys talking about the distinguished family tradition that he inherited. "Education was always considered a serious and reputable profession in my family," he says. "We have a 100-year tradition of teaching in Ivy League prep schools." Wilson's maternal grandfather was the founding headmaster at Belmont Hill School in Belmont, Massachusetts. Wilson's father was assistant headmaster at the same school for 19 years before becoming a history professor at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire where Phil went to school. Given such a pedigree, it is not surprising that when Wilson wanted to attend Berklee after graduating from the academy, it was a hard sell to his parents. "I wasn't allowed to go because Berklee was not accredited to grant degrees back in 1955," Wilson says. "It was a huge disappointment to me."

Ever since he started playing piano at the age of four, music has been a passion for Wilson. He credits a very wise piano teacher, Betty Krieger, for ultimately directing him to the trombone by the time he was 10. "I was improvising on piano from the very beginning," Wilson says. "Betty could sense that I had a reading problem and discovered that I was dyslexic. She told my mother that I would have an easier time reading music on a single-line instrument." As a fan of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Roy Eldridge, Wilson wanted to play trumpet, but his family couldn't afford one. There was, however, an old trombone lying in the loft of the Phillips Exeter Unitarian church. "I was given that trombone on Christmas Eve," Wilson recalls with a smile. "Immediately, I went out playing it for a carol sing, and I'm still blowing it. The trombone became my musical voice."

In the Wilson family's eyes, an acceptable alternative to studying at Berklee was for Phil to enroll at New England Conservatory of Music. He stayed only two years though. He spent most of his time at Berklee's 284 Newbury Street building, where the bands were always short on trombonists. He played with Herb Pomeroy's Big Band and Peter Cutler's band before going out on the road with the Dorsey Brothers Band. That period began a stretch on the road that would last nearly a decade. Wilson worked with organizations ranging from North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) to the Woody Herman Band.
"The NORAD band would spend three months in Hollywood recording and another few months performing and recording in New York," says Wilson. "It enabled me to make a lot of connections that have helped my career. I went with Woody Herman in 1962. There were 12 members of that band who had come out of Herb Pomeroy's Big Band including Bill Chase, Paul Fontaine, Eddie Morgan, Jake Hanna, Gordon Brisker, and me. When you look at Woody Herman's band, you see that Woody ran a family-type organization for 50 or more years. If you look closely at the Dues Band and Rainbow bands, which I have run for 40 years, I've also taken a family approach."

Wilson came off the road in 1965, and began teaching trombone and arranging at Berklee. "With my background, I never thought of teaching as a secondary endeavor," he says. While at Berklee, Wilson has enjoyed continuing success outside the school as a jazz trombone soloist and arranger. One high-water mark for Wilson was receiving a Grammy Award nomination for his arrangement of Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." It was one of three charts Wilson penned for the Buddy Rich Big Band in 1967. The recording is historical in that it became the last big-band instrumental to make it on top-40 radio.
Wilson has been dedicated to his teaching and to his students and continues to instruct as well as perform with current and past students. "I have never separated teaching and performing. "In my mind, it's all the same thing: communication." Wilson has communicated much to his students over the years and has seen many go on to great musical careers themselves. During the past four decades, Wilson's bands have included Alan Broadbent '69, Ernie Watts '66, Terri Lynne Carrington '83, Cyrus Chestnut '85, Hal Crook '71, George Garzone '72, Roy Hargrove '89, Antonio Hart '91, Abraham Laboriel, Sr. '72, Abe Laboriel, Jr. '93, Tony Lada '72, Rob Mounsey '75, Tiger Okoshi '75, Greg Osby '83, Makoto Ozone '83, Danilo Pérez '88, Bill Pierce '73, Claudio Roditi '70, and John Scofield '73, and others.

"Looking over the personnel in my band through the years, you find that there have been many amazing players," Wilson says. "Berklee has always been a place where students could come to study the music that turns them on. I am thankful to the Berklee family for the opportunity I've had to earn a living doing what I should be doing for 40 years."
With the bestowal of a Berklee honorary doctorate upon Wilson this spring, he has honored his family's educational legacy, albeit in a less traditional way than his forebears did. When asked what his future plans are, Wilson replies, "I am not eager to retire, I'm having too much fun doing this. The Rainbow Band is like a family. These kids are wonderful and they keep me young. When they stop keeping me young, maybe I'll think about slowing down."