Corrections or additions?
This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the March 17,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Wilbo Wright, Forever Avant Garde
When you’re stuck in your rush-hour commute or feeling the walls of
your cubicle closing in, consider this career path less traveled: that
of jazz musician. After two decades, Trenton bassist (and wry
raconteur) Wilbo Wright remains a stalwart, driving force in local
live music. The 43-year-old Wright has gotten used to the scarier
aspects of a free-form career (like shopping around for health
insurance) while enjoying the spontaneity that lets him take off on a
day’s notice to do a weekend tour in Canada or record in New York
"I can’t imagine concerning myself with the things I would have to
concern myself with to own a McMansion," says Wright, who shares a
home in Trenton’s Hookers’ Stroll (a section between Hamilton and
Greenwood) with wife, the writer and art curator Tricia Fagan. While
he has to cope with "the same precariousness that any self-employed
person has," Wright maintains an enviable work philosophy: "It’s fine
to make your own rules as you go along."
One of Wright’s rules is to stay closely plugged to the performance
art and music scenes. He and his group Wingdam – named for
Lambertville’s wing shaped dam in the Delaware River – have several
spring dates lined up at Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon in Trenton.
Wright and fellow Trenton Avant Garde Inc. members (he’s one of TAG’s
founders) also have several performances scheduled at the Arts Council
of Princeton, continuing the spring-series tradition he started in
Mixed in are improv sessions in New York; journeyman back-up for other
local groups; several CD projects; his regular stint as adjunct bass
teacher at the Lawrenceville School (a position he has held for nine
years); private teaching; and his Monday late-night DJ slot at
Princeton University’s WPRB radio, producing his weekly "Clothesline"
show of avant-garde jazz and performance pieces.
"I’ve always been attracted to offbeat and interesting things, the
proverbial moth to the flame," says Wright. "I’m very project-oriented
– that’s the way I work best, with deadlines. If I was just left alone
on an island, I’m not sure what I would come up with."
One of those projects has been with the group Ui (pronounced Oo-ee), a
New York based funk/electronica group that Wright has recorded and
toured with off and on for 10 years. The group includes rock critic
and fellow bassist Sasha Frere-Jones and drummer Clem Waldmann. Ui’s
latest CD, titled "Answers," was released last year and has made a
good showing both at the Princeton Record Exchange and on Amazon.com.
Over the past 20 years, Wright has recorded and toured with scores of
jazz, rock, blues, and avant-garde artists, including the blues/rock
breakthrough singer Toshi Reagon, the indie-rock band favorite Yo La
Tengo, and avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot.
He has performed at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the Knitting
Factory, and CBGBs, and done several European tours. But he also plays
regularly in different group permutations at Grounds for Sculpture and
works Philadelphia’s "faux anarchist" club circuit with a loose
collaboration of percussionists, bassplayers, and tubists that call
themselves the Tibetan Bowlers.
And he has assembled an eclectic portfolio as a local artist: playing
unplugged electric bass at a Fourth of July parade in Marlton,
collaborating with former governors Whitman and Kean on the "New
Jersey and You, Perfect Together" TV spots, and spending two years of
Sundays playing gospel as part of a four-member band at Trenton’s
Union Baptist Church.
Then there is his avant-garde, experimental side. For one Arts Council
program, he and a group of musicians all played instruments fashioned
from a disassembled Honda Civic (his "bass" was the former gas tank).
He played one Trenton Avant Garde Festival as part of the "Giants of
Jazz," with all the musicians playing toy instruments and wearing
clothes that were too small for them – they became giants indeed.
"There is a whole underground community out there, and you keep
running into people," Wright says about his constantly changing
calendar of venues and projects. "You have to keep your face out
Growing up in West Windsor, Wilbo organized his first band – a jug
band – when he was in fourth grade. That first collaboration provoked
the "Wilbo" nickname to replace his real name, Willard Jr.
He earned $10 for his first paid recording, banging on a guitar and
belting out "Sparky the Fire Dog" for the West Windsor’s Dutch Neck
Fire Company. By seventh grade, he was forming rock bands – and by age
15, he was playing guitar, harmonica, and even accordion in local
His penchant for the musically offbeat also goes way back. One of his
earliest influences was his own aunt, Arlene Wright, a country-western
singer and – yes – speed yodeler. "She did that ‘Take to the woods,
Pappy’s drinking again’ kind of thing," says Wright, who claims he
practices his own speed yodeling when he’s alone in his Toyota
pick-up. "I’ve got an old 78 of her from the ‘Arthur Godfrey Show’
where the crowd just went nuts."
He was also influenced by his one year at Princeton High School.
Wright found other students there with like-minded musical tastes –
and a "slamming" band that didn’t waste the first six months of the
school year slaving behind sports teams. His transfer back to West
Windsor was a temporary setback. "It was," he said, "like cricket
Even Princeton University contributed to the fledgling bassist.
Wright’s late father, a 31-year veteran of the Princeton University
grounds maintenance crew, came home from work one day with two albums
he had found on campus propped against a tree. One was recorded by
bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee; the other was from the
groundbreaking jazz-fusion monster group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
"It was one of those bands that eventually imploded from having too
many chops," says Wright, who was 14 at the time and solidly into his
Creedence Clearwater Revival phase. "When I first put it on, I
screamed in fear, ‘What the hell was that?’ It was like this other
universe – and was one of those intros into ‘Ah!’"
He worked his way through Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music
by playing "bop and shop" sessions in a local supermarket and
performing regularly with an Italian wedding band. "The group featured
Francesco, Vincenzo, Luigi, and Wilbo," he recalls. "Most of those
gigs ended in fistfights." (He graduated from Berklee in 1983.)
In the mid-’80s, Wright founded and headed up Headstrong Records in
Trenton, learning the hard way that he wasn’t cut out to be a
businessman. At the time, he was recording with a group called the
Fusionaires. ("The group’s name was a problem," Wright admits. "Glib
was on its way out with the cancellation of ‘MASH.’") It was the first
group to record one of Wright’s own compositions, "Auntie Christ Comes
When asked why he hasn’t moved to one of the country’s musical meccas,
Wright replies that he can’t stand Los Angeles – and mentions that his
musical career remains quite literally rooted in his part-time
stewardship of a family business, the tree farm established by his
father in West Windsor. (Since his father’s death several years ago,
Wright says the farm has become "more like an overgrown hobby.")
Plus his hometown’s proximity to New York and Philadelphia means a
steady supply of work – although Wright deeply laments the passing of
what he claims used to be a much more lively local scene. "It’s a lot
more difficult than it used to be," he says, ticking off the names of
the once-thriving area clubs: Hogan’s on Route 206 in Lawrenceville,
the Cork and Keg in Mercer Mall, City Gardens in Trenton, Hopewell’s
Brookside, even the "hellish" Windsor Manor on Route 130.
"There were dozens of them before the area’s liquor licenses were
bought up by the franchise ‘brass railing’ places," says Wright.
"There are really no more venues."
Wright recorded his first TV commercial last year, "my first real
sound design that I co-composed with two other people." The project,
an advertisement for Hewlett-Packard audio technology installed in
Porsches, was recorded in French and was intended to run in the United
States with English subtitles.
"With the politics of today – a commercial in French about a German
car – that’s never going to see the light of day," he says. "All we
needed was some North Korean reference."
Wright finds variety in the styles of music he plays, as well as in
his spectrum of projects. There’s "noisic" with the Tibetan Bowlers,
and the "rockabilly slap bass" he plays with Ron Kraemer and the
Then there’s his "avant hillbilly" project called Muzzle Loader, and
the "surf" jazz of Wingdam. He and Wingdam guitarist John Sheridan
wanted the group’s name to commemorate their several years of playing
Friday nights at the Lambertville House. (The other names they
considered, he says, were "Shadfest" and "Haunted High School.")
"We fit in a half-assed way into the jam-band thing – but our whole
premise is anti-jam, so it’s weird," Wright says of Wingdam. "Charlie
Parker said it best: ‘If you take more than four choruses, you’re
Wingdam, Lambertville House, 32 Bridge Street, Lambertville,
609-397-0200. Jazz by Wilbo Wright and John Sheridan. Friday, March
26, 7:30 p.m.
Wingdam, Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon, 300 South Broad Street, Trenton,
609-394-7222. Saturdays, March 27, April 24, and May 15.
Wilbo Wright and the Trenton Avant Garde present new music at the Arts
Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, 609-924-8777.
Saturday, April 3, and Saturday, May 1.
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