Please join me in a conversation with Ruben Wilson, the man who has been coined as the Godfather of Acid Jazz.
JazzReview: What sparked your interest in jazz? Your sound is jazz/blues isn’t it?
Rueben Wilson: Yes, that’s an interesting way to put that question, because when I began playing, I just played what I felt in particular places. People would tell me I was a jazz player. I didn’t know, to me I was just playing some music, so that’s how they categorized me as a jazz player.
I’m from the west coast and we play a lot of funk sounds, although we’re very much into straight-ahead, jazz-type tunes. When I began playing, those were the things I played. I use to listen to Errol Garner who was one of my favorite piano players. Later, my favorite was Oscar Peterson. He was a killer to me. I wanted to play like Oscar Peterson or someone like that. I wasn’t thinking in terms of professional playing. I heard other people playing and I just wanted to play. I decided to take a shot at it.
One night in a club, I showed so much interest in a band [that was] playing, a guy who played the guitar walked up to me and asked me if I played. I said, "not professionally." He asked if I would like to play. I sat down in the band with him and we played some blues. He liked it and hired me, and agreed to come to my house to teach me some songs. It was pretty cool. That’s actually how I got started.
It’s like fate because he came to my house and I had gotten this piano from somewhere like a rummage sale. The keys were broken and we really couldn’t play. He asked me, "would [you] like to play the organ?" It sounded good to me. He had a friend that needed an organist who also had an organ, so I would go by this guy’s house and practice with him. It was like a real challenge to me. It was two things I had to deal with not only did I have to learn about the instrument, but also I had to learn how to play the music on it. I pretty much mastered that. I learned fast and I had a good concept, not on the knowledge of music, but I could hear where the music was going. Fortunately, I was able to play the proper chords.
JazzReview: When was the first time you began playing the piano?
Rueben Wilson: We always had a piano in the house. I have two sisters and two brothers and we could all play. We just had an understanding of music. My mother played the piano and I was around music all the time. My brothers played the guitar.
JazzReview: Who was your earliest influence as an artist either on the piano or organ?
Rueben Wilson: Richard "Groove" Holmes. I remember after I started playing with these guys in the organ business, one night I went to hear him when he was in town. This was in LA. His playing was so fantastic and I just said I could never play an instrument like that. He was so great to me. The way I finally met him was I was playing a Sunday morning jam session in town and he came by. When he walked in that door, I got so nervous. The worse part was he came right on the side of me and turned his head as if to get one big ear. That was nerve racking. Then he told me I was a good player, which was really inspiring.
He told me how he saw me coming to his gigs and said, "I see you sitting there stealing my stuff huh!" We just laughed. He gave me his telephone number and home address and told me if there was anything I wanted to know about the instrument, he would teach me. It was a real big boost. One night he let me play in his place in the band. That was such an honor.
JazzReview: What is it about jazz or blues that makes it such a unique art form?
Reuben Wilson: Jazz originally is a concept of the person playing. Jazz has been called the classical music of America. In jazz you play what you hear and what you feel. Jazz and blues is something that really isn’t separated, because jazz came from blues and gospel. It’s a challenging concept to play jazz. The form of jazz is something that is determined by the individual as he plays.
With me the critics that said, "he’s playing jazz", determined it. What has happened now is, I’ve evolved into music that’s a hybrid of jazz and funk today what they call acid jazz. It was a concept of playing jazz concepts with a rock and roll underline rather than straight ahead jazz. From my understanding, the term [acid jazz] originated in England. A DJ was playing on his show and said, "Now we are going to have some acid jazz." That was the first time the term was used, and he played four of my albums. None of my music was straight ahead at the time.
I thought it would be interesting to have the drummer play funk beats, truly funk beats, and then play jazz-type licks over the top of it. That’s acid jazz. A lot of that actually started with Blue Note because it was Lonnie Smith and Lou Donaldson who were doing that type of thing. But, I was the first person to do it with an all-jazz band. I had people like Lee Morgan, George Coleman, D. Mohammed, Grant Greene and myself. That was the first time a jazz band played that concept with jazz.
JazzReview: So you’re one of the pioneers of acid jazz
Rueben Wilson: I’ve been called the Godfather of acid jazz
JazzReview: In your music there’s so much funk in it, so much energy, so much soul. It flows so freely. Is this done consciously?
Rueben Wilson: Definitely. It’s a conscious thing and it’s about being able to deliver what you feel at the moment. Hopefully, you can pass it on to your audience. So far we have been able to do that. When the audience starts bouncing their heads, you know you’re doing all right.
JazzReview: What’s your favorite part about being a jazz musician is it composing, playing or being on the road?
Rueben Wilson: I would say all three of those things are equal. It’s always wonderful to be able to compose and it’s also important. Being out on the road is part of the job, but composing and coming up with something new, that’s a wonderful feeling.
JazzReview: What comes to mind as some of the most memorable experience you’ve had as a professional musician?
Rueben Wilson: That’s interesting! I suppose to be able to go around the world based on talent and having people wanting me to be there.
JazzReview: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Rueben Wilson: I would hope that more people, a larger audience, would hear my music.
JazzReview: Do you think that in the last 10 or 15 years we have seen resurgence in the popularity of jazz?
Rueben Wilson: I honestly think jazz was really much bigger a very long time ago, probably back in the 40’s and 50’s. I guess you have more jazz players today, but less places to work as a jazz player. But, it goes in spurts; it grows and then seems to drop out. I think jazz has seen its best days. What will happen is new forms of music may grow, like acid jazz. It definitely seems to be growing pretty strong right now outside of this country.
JazzReview: Do you think it’s more popular in other countries than it is in the U.S.?
Rueben Wilson: Yes, but not because it’s jazz. I think it’s because you find more openness to the different kinds of music. It’s not just one and it’s not a competitive thing. You’ll hear jazz and rock and roll all at the same place.
JazzReview: Many musicians say they feel at home when they go to other countries. Why is that?
Rueben Wilson: They are probably being played more and more people are hearing them there. People aren’t seeing them, so they become celebrities as they are. They are heard on the radio and their music is heard on commercials on radio. You have tons of interviews there. It’s just a higher status.
JazzReview: Why did you choose jazz over other genre of music?
Rueben Wilson: Actually I didn’t choose jazz. That’s where they [the critics] put me.
JazzReview: Are you with two bands?
Rueben Wilson: Yes, I’m with a band called Masters of Groove and the other, of course, is The Rueben Wilson band.
JazzReview: I know we spoke earlier about your mom playing the piano. Would you be considered a musical family?
Rueben Wilson: Yes, but no one has played professionally except me.
JazzReview: How long have you been a professional musician?
Rueben Wilson: Since about 1968.
JazzReview: Do you have another CD coming out?
Rueben Wilson: Yes, we’ll have something else coming out in the fall.
JazzReview: Have you set any specific goals for yourself?
Rueben Wilson: I think I’m beginning to get there because if you can do larger concerts and large venues, and make large money, that’s where you’re going to go. I do some large venues and I do want it to grow to a larger audience. That’s the goal I have for myself.