Tribute To Joan Wildman: A Jazz Pianist Whose Life Was Improvisation

May 11, 2020

The modern piano keyboard has 88 keys. And the late Joan Wildman was a master of all of them.

Her improvisations would go from low, low bass notes to the very high upper register. She played stride, blues, bebop, eighth notes, quarter notes, intervals, you name it. And sometimes she'd play the inner strings and sides of the piano — not just the keys.

Wildman taught jazz at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 24 years, retiring in 2002. Before and after leaving UW, she led trios, quartets, quintets and also performed solo piano, often accompanying it with her own animations. For Wildman, who died in April, improvisation transcended music, coloring how she viewed everything from nature to sports.

WUWM’s Maayan Silver and her brother, Eitan, were Wildman's students and friends. Silver shares a tribute to Wildman, which includes a portion of a 2016 interview with Wildman: 

  

Joan Wildman was a force of nature. To watch her play was to witness someone who lived for creativity. She was always inventive and never settled. There was a "sunny" portion of a composition of Wildman’s she wrote shortly before her death, called “Both Sides of the Street.”

She wrote in an email:

“We all can conjure up what the “sunny” side of the street looks like….but what about the other side? Which is more important? Do they balance out?”

But Wildman also knew about the darker side. Like battling cancer, and saying no to a drug that might prolong her life because it would make her hands and fingers go numb, preventing her from playing the piano that was so much a part of her.

Wildman grew up in Nebraska and started playing piano by ear when she was really little. By the time she went off to college at 16 she’d heard and loved Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins. As a summer job in college, at age 17, Wildman started playing jazz in a nightclub six nights a week.

But she missed Beethoven and Bach, so she finished her degree in classical music. Above all, she was learning to be a piano player. She needed to develop technique, using both hands, all 10 fingers at a time. 

"And so in that regard, I guess I was more focused on the classical part than on the jazz part. But the jazz part was always there," she said. Wildman even played with the Duke Ellington band when Ellington got sick. "And that just sort of, again, was another spurring-me-on kind of thing," said Wildman.

Eventually, she realized she needed to be involved with music that allowed full improvisation. She said improvisation was "a way of life." It was how she approached the day, reacted with people, how she raised her children, how she cooked food and how she looked at nature. And it's obviously, how she played music.

"I think everybody improvises every day," Wildman said. "I think everybody has an opportunity to improvise very well if they work very hard at it. I think it's an attitude, as I say, it can be your whole life. But just the way you walk down the street."

She said everyone from football quarterbacks to politicians can learn to improvise and use the tenets of jazz, and that only robots are pre-programmed. She passionately believed that each person has a unique creative voice.  

"It's nice to listen to other people, and then turn them off and go look inside yourself and do something," she said. For example, modern saxophone players trying to sound like John Coltrane is a waste of time. "John Coltrane died, you know. And he's got a wonderful bunch of music for us to listen to, but you're you and you live now. And movements come and go, but you are now, and you are you and you need to create your own thing that says something."

And she believed that lesson translates to any undertaking.

"Absolutely. Be not afraid. You know, if you fail at something, if it doesn't work out, well, try something else. That's all. Just keep trying to do something that you feel is right and important and make sense to you," she said.