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Joan Wildman, pianist and restless musical explorer, has died

The retired UW-Madison professor’s career ranged across jazz, classical, and avant-garde music.

Photo by Paul S. Howell.

Joan Wildman, a fearless pianist and retired UW-Madison music professor, died this week after a long and accomplished career that left a profound impact on the music community. 

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Wildman was deeply rooted in the jazz and classical-music worlds, but her work constantly pressed forward, reflecting an ever-evolving interest in avant-garde and electronic music. She also left an imprint on several generations of musicians in Madison, both on and off campus. In fact, she made a point of connecting Madison’s broader music community with the academic music world, frequently playing local clubs and connecting with musicians who didn’t necessarily have an affiliation with the university. In 1985, Wildman founded the Madison Music Collective, a local non-profit that organizes shows from local and touring jazz artists to this day. 

Born to rancher parents on the plains of Nebraska, Wildman studied jazz and classical music in the late 1950s at the University of Minnesota, the Berklee College of Music, and the University of Oregon. She taught at Central Michigan University and the University of Maine before taking a position in 1977 at UW-Madison, where she built up the university’s jazz program until her retirement in 2002. She also published research on music theory and music history, including a 1979 article in the Journal Of Jazz Studies titled “The Function Of The Left Hand In The Evolution Of The Jazz Piano.”

A few years before coming to Madison, Wildman filled in for one of the most influential figures in jazz history, Duke Ellington. An April 1999 article in The Capital Times noted the experience briefly: “While teaching at Central Michigan University in 1974, Wildman was contacted by Mercer Ellington just hours before the…concert to sit in for his ailing father; despite the crowd’s disappointment of not hearing Duke play, her performance was warmly applauded with a standing ovation.” Ellington died two months later. Wildman also discussed the experience with author Kurt Dietrich for the 2018 book Wisconsin Riffs: Jazz Profiles From The Heartland.

Wildman incorporated non-traditional tools into her work, often performing and recording on a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. “Applesauce,” from Wildman’s 1992 album Inside Out, foregoes the ethereal shimmer this synth is known for. Instead, Wildman gets into the guts of the synthesis itself, to create sounds as dynamic and slyly dissonant as her actual playing. (Unfortunately, it’s hard to find most of Wildman’s music digitally, but Inside Out is available on YouTube and Spotify.)  

In a 1994 interview for a UW-Madison oral history project, Wildman discussed her approach to melding jazz with electronic music, explaining that she programmed new sounds into her synthesizer just about every time she played live with it. She rejected what she called the “new conservatism” of musicians like Wynton Marsalis, and welcomed the challenges and possibilities of electronic elements. Keep in mind that synthesizers were rapidly becoming more affordable and accessible throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but there was still a steep learning curve for musicians who wanted to use them in a truly distinctive, expressive way.  

“It is hard to control, and it’s hard to keep the human element in there or make the music sound as if it is created by a human and not just an electronic accident, but you can do it,” Wildman said in the 1994 interview. “It’s very invigorating and very much fun, and there are so many sounds we haven’t heard yet. I just think they’re there, just waiting, and until we find more of them, they’re just gonna be waiting. There just doesn’t seem to be any sense in the world or any reason in the world for those sounds to be out there and people not trying to find out what they are.” 

Wildman also created computer animations and digital graphics in tandem with her music, showcasing a few examples on her YouTube channel. These videos, and the comments Wildman posted with them, capture an artist who continually expanded and reflected upon her creative process. “I’ve long been interested in improvising simultaneous lines rather than melody/chords, which all the great pianist/composers throughout history took for granted,” Wildman wrote in the description for an improvised piece called “Two Lines,” concluding: “I’m still working on it!”

Indeed, though she played live less often in recent years, Wildman was still working on it. Dean Robbins wrote for Isthmus on Friday that Wildman had been planning to perform a new solo work in March, but had to cancel. Robbins reports that Wildman was diagnosed with cancer last year, but rejected treatment because “the drugs would have numbed her fingers.” According to the Isthmus piece, Wildman died on Wednesday at the age of 82. Robbins also profiled Wildman in a wonderful piece for Wisconsin Life in 2017.

Wildman’s collaborators included the great saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell, who also taught at UW-Madison and still has ties to the area. The New York Times noted in 1999 that the two would often meet up in the mornings “to run through Bach’s flute sonatas.” During a June 2018 concert at Trinity Lutheran Church on the east side, Wildman joined Mitchell on harpsichord. Wildman also recorded with Mitchell, including on his 1992 album Four Compositions and on 2011’s Numbers. She collaborated with other jazz luminaries who’ve called Madison home, including bassist and fellow UW-Madison professor Richard Davis and the late trumpeter Doc DeHaven. She still played occasionally in recent years, including solo concerts and improvised sets with saxophonist Hanah Jon Taylor. 

Wildman and Mitchell both arrived in Madison in the late ’70s, and soon began a collaboration and friendship that lasted right to the end. The two shared a creative ethos, formidably grounded in the study of jazz and classical music, but never afraid to experiment and buck tradition. 

“We bonded over the word ‘music.’ We both knew no boundaries, we were both interested in the word ‘music,'” Mitchell says. “That defies categories. For myself right now, I feel like this is one of the greatest learning periods of my life right now. I would definitely need more than one lifetime to accomplish what I would like to accomplish, and Joan was like that too.”

Mitchell recalls playing with Wildman at venues on campus and at O’Cayz Corral, and working together on a version of his signature composition “Nonaah” that he’s still very happy with. The aforementioned 2018 concert was probably the last time they performed together, but they had played together at Wildman’s home after that, Mitchell says.

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“She was always inspiring, always knowledgeable about things,” Mitchell says “I always felt like I could call her and talk to her about anything…. every time we got together, it was about exploring music. Always inspiring, always thinking forward, always looking at different ways to work on our music together.”

Younger musicians in Madison admired Wildman too. “Her music crossed genres and reached a broad Madison audience,” says trombone player Darren Sterud. “Above all of that, she was a wonderful person. I only had the pleasure and honor of meeting her four times, but every time she knew who I was and asked how I was doing.”

“Joan was a great and adventurous creative musician, an inspiring and deeply knowledgeable teacher, and a wonderful person,” says pianist and composer Johannes Wallmann, who currently heads up UW-Madison’s jazz program. “She blazed the way to launching the first jazz studies program in the School of Music, and left a lasting legacy through her music and through her influence on generations of UW students, many of whom have become the bedrock of Wisconsin’s jazz scene. She will be missed dearly by her colleagues and her many former students.”

Madison-based musician John Feith recalled studying jazz improv and electronic under Wildman at UW-Madison in the 1990s. “I admired how much she emphasized avoiding cliches and trying new things. And how she balanced rigorous music theory with free improvisation,” Feith says. As part of an independent study project that Wildman supervised, Feith recorded a series of solo compositions for Wildman’s synthesizer of choice, the DX7. Feith posted one of them, “Fantasia For Solo DX7,” to YouTube in Wildman’s honor:

“Last year I got to talk to her for a while before one of her shows,” Feith says. “I really thought I was going to get her out of teaching retirement to give my son a few master classes in jazz piano. She was very good at encouraging students to do their own thing.”

This article will be updated as more people get back to me with remembrances of Wildman. If you’d like to share one, please feel welcome to email me.

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