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Alec Wilder composed songs for legends like Frank Sinatra and Marian McPartland, yet he lived his life out of three suitcases – two of which were filled with books.

A bonafide eccentric best known for his popular song, I’LL BE AROUND, Alec Wilder wrote 100s of chamber works barely known. Despite commercial success, Wilder battled demons that tormented him both personally and professionally.

This is his story.

Alec Wilder composed songs for legends like Frank Sinatra and Marian McPartland, yet he lived his life out of three suitcases – two of which were filled with books.

A bonafide eccentric best known for his popular song, I’LL BE AROUND, Alec Wilder wrote 100s of chamber works barely known. Despite commercial success, Wilder battled demons that tormented him both personally and professionally.

This is his story.

Alec Wilder (February 16, 1907-December 24, 1980) was born Alexander Lafayette Chew Wilder in Rochester, New York. He studied composition and counterpoint privately at the Eastman School of Music, but as a composer was largely self-taught. Wilder said he wrote music because it was the only thing that could content his spirit. He declared, “I didn’t do well in terms of financial reward or recognition. But that was never the point.”

Wilder shunned publicity and was uncomfortable with celebrity. A deep distrust of institutions, combined with an extraordinary shyness verging on an inferiority complex, prevented him from circulating and operating in the composer’s world in the ways generally expected.

Alec Wilder’s music is a unique blend of American musical traditions – among them jazz and the American popular song – and basic “classical” European forms and techniques. As such, it fiercely resists all labeling. Undeterred, he wrote a great deal of music of remarkable originality in many forms: sonatas, suites, concertos, operas, ballets, art songs, woodwind quintets, brass quintets, jazz suites – and hundreds of popular songs.

Wilder, at his best, represents a fascinating amalgam of three quite different composer-archetypes, here all rolled into one: Gershwin, Poulenc, Villa-Lobos. In its baldest outlines, Wilder’s oeuvre is unusually diverse and characteristically American, a synthesis of the brilliant song writer (Gershwin); the not-too-intellectual, traditional and determinedly conservative composer of easily accessible American-style Gebrauchsmusik, making use of popular and jazz elements as a matter of course (Poulenc); and a sometimes uncritical, too-casual writer who writes too much too easily – like Shakespeare’s old bromide about loving too well but not wisely (Villa-Lobos).

Alongside his more complex sinuously winding melodies, Wilder could also create tunes of haunting simplicity. I’ll Be Around, his most famous popular song is surely an extraordinary example of the latter, while “The ravishing theme of Serenade from the Jazz Suite for Four Horns is a superior representative of the former, a melody worthy of an Ellington, a Gershwin or a Schubert, and arguably one of the most beautiful melodies composed in the 20th century.” (G. Schuller)

Many times, his music wasn’t jazz enough for the “jazzers,” or “highbrow,” “classical,” or “avante-garde” enough for the classical establishment. In essence, Wilder’s music was so unique in it’s originality that it didn’t fit into any of the preordained musical slots and stylistic pigeonholes. It’s non-stereotypical specialness virtually precluded any widespread acceptance.

It is a relative rarity for a composer to enjoy a close musical kinship with classical musicians, jazz musicians and popular singers. Wilder was such a composer, endearing himself to a relatively small but very loyal coterie of performers, successfully appealing to their diverse styles and conceptions.

Alec Wilder with Mitch Miller to his right.

 

Mitch Miller, whom Wilder met at Eastman, and Frank Sinatra were initially responsible for introducing his music to the public. It was Miller who organized the historic recordings of Wilder octets beginning in 1939. Combining elements of classical chamber music, popular melodies and a jazz rhythm section, the octets became popular — and eventually legendary — through these recordings, which preceded by years the much-studied Third Stream movement of the 1950s fostered by composer Gunther Schuller, a strong Wilder advocate.

In 1945, Frank Sinatra, an early fan and avid supporter of Wilder’s music, persuaded Columbia Records to record an album of Wilder solo wind works with string orchestra, Sinatra conducting. The two men became lifelong friends and Sinatra recorded many of Wilder’s popular songs. His last song, A Long Night, was written in response to Sinatra’s request for a “saloon” song.

If he never was one to get grants, receive commissions or win prizes, it was because he never sought them. Nonetheless, his awards eventually included an honorary doctorate from the Eastman School of Music, a Peabody Award for the National Public Radio series “American Popular Song,” cohosted by Loonis McGlohon, an Avon Foundation grant, the Deems Taylor ASCAP Award and a National Book Award nomination — all having to do with American Popular Song: “The Great Innovators, 1900-1950.” He included almost everyone who had written a song of quality, but not one word about himself or any of the hundreds — maybe thousands — of songs he wrote. The Alec Wilder Archive and Reading Room in the Sibley Music Library, Eastman School of Music, was dedicated in 1991.

No one will ever be sure just how much music Wilder wrote. Sketches of music — sometimes entire pieces — were often written on small scraps of manuscript paper while he rode a train, sat on a park bench or waited in an airport terminal. Scattered about in private collections of Wilder’s friends were many compositions that never reached performance or publication. He wrote almost entirely for friends, and most of his pieces were gifts to them or their children.

Most of Wilder’s chamber music was unpublished until the last years of his life. Now, a quarter of a century since his death, it is heartening to see new recordings released by a younger generation discovering his music for the first time.

For a full length biography of Alec Wilder please visit, alecwildermusicandlife.com 

My name is Robert Levy. I hold music degrees from Ithaca College and the Univ. Of North Texas.

From 1979-2004 I was Professor of Music and Director of Bands at Lawrence University in Wisconsin until my retirement.

I first met Alec Wilder in the mid-1960s and our friendship sustained/continued until his death in 1980.

Through the years he composed more than seven chamber works for me, which I was fortunate to record.

Since his death I have created the website: alecwildermusicandlife, served as President of the organization Friends of Alec Wilder, presented a number of lecture presentations at colleges and universities about the man and his music, and performed and conducted many of his compositions including for the annual NY city concerts of his music for more than thirty-five years. 

In preparation for ultimately producing a documentary film on his life, I traveled about the U.S. and recorded more than fifty videotaped DVD interviews with Wilder’s friends and associates among them singer Tony Bennett, writers Studs Terkel and William Zinsser, composers Gunther Schuller, and David Diamond, jazz pianist Marian McPartland, and record producers Mitch Miller and Orrin Keepnews.

I chose nine of the interviewees and included them in both a twenty-five minute and five minute Pilot film.

  

My purpose in creating a full documentary film on Wilder’s life is simply to bring long-overdue recognition to a misunderstood, unclassifiable American artist. Those donating in support of this project will be honoring the gifts and contributions of a man, who in spite of himself created music that is deserving of far wider recognition and appreciation.
Thank you for donating to Alec Wilder – I’ll Be Around!
GV

George Voland

$55.00 October 15, 2020