Being raised on a farm has its advantages when you’re a musician trying to make a living in this economy. Just ask bass player-teacher-bandleader-film-score composer and WPRB radio host Willard “Wilbo” Wright.
Wright, of West Windsor, still minds the family nursery he was raised on. Yet he’ll team up with two other musicians Saturday, November 17, at the West Windsor Arts Center for what is sure to be an enlightening show for people who think they don’t like — or don’t understand — jazz. Wright and his fellow musicians in Wing Dam, guitarist John Sheridan and drummer-percussionist Claude Coleman Jr., call their music “go-go boot jazz.”
“Our whole esthetic is to hit it and quit it, to write catchy tunes, get in and get out. So our longest tunes clock in at three-and-a-half minutes,” he explains, adding, “modern attention spans being what they are, we’re reminded that even [bebop saxophonist] Charlie Parker said, ‘if you take more than four choruses, you’re practicing.’ It’s groove-based music.”
Back in the 1960s and into the ’70s on his family’s farm in West Windsor, “It was all farm fields out here, and when you had a bad snowstorm, you were locked in for four or five days,” says Wright.
Fortunately, his parents appreciated music and had a piano, which they kept, of all places, in the kitchen. He and his older sister both took piano lessons from the time they were old enough to sit on the bench and reach the keyboard.
Wright agreed with the notion that being raised on his father’s vegetable farm-turned-nursery gave him a different set of skills.
“It gave me a work ethic. It’s a lot of work. You just put your head down and go. My dad showed me it only takes a few minutes more to do a job correctly, so it’s the same thing, whether I’m working with trees or working like I did last week, on tour in Canada with [blues guitarist] Debbie Davies. I’ll work the hell out of those songs, so I would be inside of the songs; if you get inside them, then any curve balls you’re thrown, you’re kind of ready for them,” he says.
Wright, in his early 50s, has been an in-demand studio and road warrior bass player for the last three decades, and he’s toured nationally with Davies, Princeton-raised singer-songwriter Chris Harford, Yo-La Tengo, UI, Toshi Reagon, Marc Ribot, and other New York City and Hoboken-based groups.
Wright’s father worked for Princeton University on the grounds crew and eventually became a supervisor while his mother worked outside the home as an accountant. In the musician’s youth, his father had a large vegetable farm before scaling it back to a smaller tree nursery. Wright grows trees and is an expert tree transplant specialist.
Wright says he started performing when he joined his first band during his first year at Princeton High School. “I think we were called the Sliding Door. I was playing guitar. We had guitar, organ, and drums, and our organist played bass with his feet.”
“I was always kind of attracted to being on stage. If there was a project in school and we winded up doing a play or something like that, I was always kind of demonstrative, maybe hammy, I always enjoyed that kind of thing,” says Wright.
Following that attraction, he began writing his own songs in his teens and later had the chance to study jazz and rock composition at Berklee.
He attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating in 1983, and put in a semester in 1978 with pianist Kenny Barron at Rutgers University’s jazz performance school, now part of the Mason Gross School of the Arts.
About his early student days, Wright says, “I went to Princeton High School for one year and then our class was the first class to graduate from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School, what they now just call ‘South.’”
Today he’s not only an expert acoustic bass player but also a film score composer, electric bassist, and master guitarist. He teaches bass and guitar to about 20 students each week, and, since the crash of 2008, he has found that the way to make money as a musician is by touring.
What attracted Wright to bass?
“I had been playing a lot of guitar in high school, and somewhere along the line I’d bought a bass. Eventually when the string ensemble started, they asked, would you like to play upright bass, and one thing led to another,” he says. “By the time I got up to Berklee and had to declare, it was a no-brainer.”
Wright’s non-musician parents encouraged his earliest forays into high school rock ’n’ roll bands.
“They were incredibly supportive,” he recalls. “The best thing was even with all the knuckle-headed mistakes or missteps you make as a teenager, they never took music away or said, ‘You can’t play with this band or that band.’ There were tons of opportunities to play before the drinking age changed; there were tons of clubs you could play at,” he explains, “so we played every single one of the Rutgers pubs every single month. You could play five and six nights a week.”
Given that he’s been playing clubs from New Hope to New York City for years, what was his first big break?
“I think it would have to have been with Yo-La Tengo. I still get gigs, such as the sound track I just did; this film maker offered me the sound track to his movie, because when I tell people I worked with Yo-La Tengo, they immediately know.”
Wright says the chance to tour nationally with that band 20 years ago as well as tour with Chris Harford, who was signed to a major record label deal in the 1990s, were his first big breaks.
Harford has also played with Toshi Reagon and That Damned Rock Band as well as the critically acclaimed rock and jazz guitarist Marc Ribot, who worked with Tom Waits’ various bands.
As do many musicians based in central New Jersey, Wright misses the heyday of the New York rock club scene in the 1980s and 1990s.
Aside from the fact there are precious few venues left in Manhattan to play, Wright says that a problem today is that “you can’t afford to get to New York anymore. Now you’re talking about paying at least $50 before you’ve done anything.”
Today he mixes the work that has been with him most of his life. He sells maples, boxwoods, and Andromedas; transports and plants trees for a number of prominent Princetonians; and works with smaller landscape companies. He also teaches bass in private homes and one day a week at Westminster Conservatory, and goes on short tours with nationally known acts.
“The tree nursery thing is more like an avocation,” he acknowledges, adding, “I obviously didn’t pay attention in economics class, because I put my hand up for music and farming. Having a farm helps with taxes and things like that, and I don’t have to join a gym, but I keep it small.”
Wright lives on that small farm with his wife, arts administrator, artist, and writer Tricia Fagan. She works at Mercer County Community College and the county’s cultural and heritage commission.
As if he were not busy enough, Wright got involved as a DJ at Princeton University radio station WPRB more than 20 years ago when he began filling in for the host of an avant-garde show. Now he is on the station playing his own mix of rock, jazz, and other music on “The Clothes Line with Wilbo Wright” every Wednesday from 1 to 3 p.m.
Asked to recall particularly trying times in his more than three decades as a bass player, Wright says things have never been as tough as they are now for musicians.
“It’s actually harder now,” he says. “Musicians make so little money that economic fluctuations don’t even touch you, but with this crash in 2008 it was almost immediate. And things are still in a very precarious state right now.”
At the West Windsor Arts Center on Saturday evening, Wright and his band mates will serve up a mix of originals and covers familiar to people who appreciate jazz.
“We’ll be doing a combination of originals and jazz standards done our own way. A traditional song like ‘Angel Eyes,’ we do in a different way, these are tunes done in a non-ponderous fashion. I don’t want to say it’s jazz for people who hate jazz, but rather it’s go-go boot jazz.”
Go-Go Boot Jazz, Wilbo Wright and Wing Dam, West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, West Windsor. Saturday, November 17, 8 p.m. $20-$18. www.westwindsorartscenter.org