Joan Wildman, 1938-2020

Today I’m posting two articles, this one on Joan Wildman, the other on another of Wisconsin’s great jazz educators, Harvey Halpaus.

Joan passed away in April in Madison.  Joan was on my doctoral committee when I was completing my degree at UW-Madison.  As I wrote my dissertation on a jazz topic (it eventually evolved into my first book, Duke’s ‘Bones:  Ellington’s Great Trombonists), the graduate school did want a person with a thorough knowledge of jazz on my committee.  I really didn’t see much of Joan during that time, never being in one of her classes.  What I knew was that we had quite different tastes in jazz.  But I discovered that Joan had a much broader knowledge of jazz than my experience with her music suggested to me.

When I interviewed Joan in 2014 for Wisconsin Riffs, I found how much common ground we had, despite our different outlooks.  I really enjoyed our time together.   From numerous others who I interviewed for the book I also discovered how influential Joan had been in Madison, and the high esteem in which many Madison musicians held her.  And Joan was still listening, and still supporting younger musicians.  Here is a slightly revised version of what is in Wisconsin Riffs.

For a good look at Joan’s career with a different spin than mine, I recommend the article Dean Robbins wrote for UW-Madison’s On Wisconsin magazine:



Joan Wildman was born in 1938 and grew up on a cattle ranch in Nebraska. The nearest town was Spalding, a town of fewer than a thousand residents. “Our mailbox was two miles away,” she recalls, “and I rode my horse to a country school.” Being isolated in a rural area, Wildman says, “was good and bad . . . the good part of it was that I was able to do my own thing and to use my own imagination and try things. So I played by ear, even though I was studying piano when I was six.” She first played with other musicians at age twelve, with a nearby family who eventually became Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, a prominent Nashville act.

At age sixteen, Wildman went to college at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, where she planned to be a piano major. The summer after her sophomore year at school, she went to the “big city” of Topeka, where she played in a club and on a local television show. A mentor in a music store in the city assigned Wildman to learn one new tune every day and supplied her with the place to do it—the store. The summer before her junior year, Wildman got a six-night-a-week solo piano gig.

When she returned to school in the fall, she decided she had to play more jazz, so she moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music (then called the Berklee School of Music). But at Berklee, she says, “I missed Beethoven.” So she moved to Minneapolis–St. Paul, where she attended MacPhail School of Music. In her short version of the story, Wildman says, “[I] met my husband, got married, had four kids, moved out to . . . western Minnesota, and then to Idaho, and then got into the doctoral program at the University of Oregon.” Her husband was a trumpet and bass player, and they played together in groups in all three states.

Around 1970, Wildman got a teaching job at Central Michigan University and spent several years there, including one unforgettable night. Duke Ellington, who was in the throes of cancer, played with his band for the last time in Sturgis, Michigan, on March 22, 1974. On March 23, the band played at CMU without Ellington, who had been sent back to New York, where he would die on May 24. At CMU, the band needed a piano player and it was determined that Joan could fill in. “I said I would love to do it,” Wildman remembers. “And being the . . . very innocent naïve person I was back then, the only question I had was, ‘What should I wear?’ ” Duke had no written or printed music for himself, so of course neither did Joan. “So the bass player’s standing right next to me,” she recalls, “[telling me] what tune and what key.”

Wildman got her first full-time teaching job at the University of Maine in 1975. She stayed two years, simultaneously completing her doctorate at Oregon, and then joined the UW–Madison faculty in 1977. She taught music theory and for many years a popular course in jazz improvisation. Area musicians interviewed for this book who spoke about working with Wildman at UW include Lynette Margulies, Chris Washburne, Jackie Allen, Jeff Erickson, and Vince Fuh.

Besides teaching at the university, Wildman quickly became an important member of the Madison jazz scene. When she first moved to town, she brought along her trio from Maine; the members soon found that they could not survive on gigs in Madison and left town. Next, she worked with bassist Karen Horner and drummer Tom Crosby. Eventually, Hans Sturm became her bassist, and Dane Richeson became the “permanent” drummer of the trio, which worked extensively and recorded. Wildman became friends with the avant-garde giant Roscoe Mitchell, best known as one of the saxophonists with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, who lived for some years in Madison.



The Joan Wildman Trio from the 1980s (left to right): Hans Sturm, Joan Wildman, and Dane Richeson. photo by joseph blough, courtesy of joan wildman


Wildman considers it “an important thing” that she was a founder of the Madison Music Collective (MMC). Her desire to establish a support group for musicians to strengthen their position in the workplace was fueled by her group having been shut out of a mid-1980s gig. !e band showed up at the job only to find that the club had closed indefinitely. When the place reopened, she says, “I booked another gig there, stupidly; they did it again.”

“I just thought about that for a long time,” she says, “thinking that something has to happen here. !is is not right. And it wasn’t just my group that had trouble. . . . [So had] a lot of the musicians in town . . . and there was nobody to stand up for them.” In 1985, with the help of Hans Sturm, bassist Dennis Oliver, and singer Liza Lightfoot, among others, Wildman says, the Madison Music Collective “was born under the maple tree in my front yard.” In April 2015, she performed at the Brink Lounge on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the MMC.

In her retirement, Wildman occasionally performs in public (as at the 2014 Isthmus Jazz Festival), and she continues to write and play in private settings. She speaks enthusiastically of her weekly Wednesday sessions with retired UW professors Dick Lottridge (bassoon), Doug Hill (who taught horn at UW but plays bass in this group), Diedre Buckley (viola), and Willy Walter (bassoon). Wildman refers to their music as “orphan folk music.”

While active and visible for many years, Wildman was always seen as a fringe artist, usually labeled an avant-garde player and bandleader. She certainly energized the experimental part of the Madison music scene. Listening to and enjoying her trio’s recordings is not easy; it is challenging, forward-looking music. As large numbers of repertoire ensembles have formed and historically reworked jazz classics have become prevalent during the last thirty or more years, Wildman has thought deeply about jazz’s current state. “The idea of looking back to see where we’ve been is very, very important,” she says. “But it’s how you use that that is the important thing. . . . And if you only use it to keep yourself back there, . . . it is not productive. It’s so important that we find ways to move the music forward. . . . You go to these older guys for inspiration as to how they said it, and then you develop your own voice out of that.”




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