The elusive discography of Joan Wildman

Who will preserve the late avant-jazz musician’s extraordinary recordings?

Who will preserve the late avant-jazz musician’s extraordinary recordings?

This is the first in a short series of articles Tone Madison is running about the recorded works of pianist Joan Wildman. You can also read some deeper notes on some standout tracks and check back soon for remembrances of what it was like to collaborate with Wildman.

Dig into the career of Joan Wildman and you will find a gulf. On the one hand, the pianist, synthesist, composer, and UW-Madison music professor created boundary-pushing music, left indelible marks on Madison’s music community, and once sat in for an ailing Duke Ellington. On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to actually get a chance to hear much of her work. 

Since Wildman died in April 2020, a few dozen copies of her recordings have made their way to Black Horse Auction, a resale and auctions shop on East Washington Avenue that cleared out Wildman’s belongings at her family’s behest. Included in that haul were several sealed LP copies of the 1987 album Orphan Folk Music. It’s among the most daring works of a musician who constantly sought out new sounds, who understood the distinction between different genres and traditions of music but also never let that get in her way. Along with bassist Hans Sturm and drummer Dane Richeson, Wildman combines avant-garde jazz composition and improvisation with ideas from classical music, folk music, and the electronic frontier, programming her own sounds into the Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer and creating long, sophisticated loops with an Emax sampler and digital delay effects. 

The Joan Wildman Trio released three albums: Orphan Folk Music on LP in 1987, Under The Silver Globe on cassette in 1989, and Inside Out on CD in 1992. On all three, Sturm plays bass and Richeson plays percussion and drumkit; Bob Stright contributes vibraphone to one track on Inside Out, “Prairie Music.” (An earlier iteration of the trio featured Peter Dominguez on bass and Michael Weiss on percussion.) Wildman paired up with bassist/flutist Joe Fonda for the 2015 release Conversations. Around that same time, she recorded and self-released five CDs with a group called the Full House Quintet, with Diedre Buckley on viola, Doug Hill on bass, and Richard Lottridge and Willy Walter on bassoon.

Of the above, only Inside Out and Conversations are available to buy digitally. You can borrow a CD copy of Inside Out from the Madison Public Library, and UW-Madison students or staff can access a few more of her works through the Mills Music Library on campus. “We don’t have a lot, but it seems as if there isn’t a lot available to acquire!” says Tom Caw, a librarian at Mills and an admirer of Wildman’s music. WORT-FM’s formidable music library has also preserved several of these releases. And a local record collector named Marcus Geishert has uploaded all four of Orphan Folk Music‘s tracks to YouTube, though that’s unauthorized and could come down at any time. 

Beyond that, these works seem to be vanishing into the obscure realms of collector-dom—try your luck digging around in record stores, secondhand shops, or on eBay, because that’s literally it. No one has even really bothered to write down a complete list of Wildman’s recorded works. Even resources that obsessively catalog music, like Discogs and AllMusic, don’t account for everything. Wildman played on several other recordings, including the great reedist/composer Roscoe Mitchell’s Four Compositions and Numbers, the UW-Madison music-faculty collaboration Something New, and Sturm’s Altered States Of Bass (2005). 

I only managed to track down most of Wildman’s recordings in the first place because I happened to bump into a couple of record collectors who were talking about them one day, and later because some of Wildman’s collaborators were kind enough to share some of their personal copies. As detailed in an earlier piece, I was at the Monona record store The Door back in January when I heard owner John Sands and his friend Geishert talking about the copies of Orphan Folk Music and Inside Out they’d found through Black Horse. Later I got in touch with Tony Coulter, a DJ at beloved New Jersey independent radio station WFMU, who sent me a digitized rip of Under The Silver Globe, which is perhaps the most adventurous recording of the bunch. Buckley shared her CD copies of Full House Quintet’s five albums, released between 2012 and 2017 under playful poker-themed titles like All In and Raise Ya One.

Of course, recordings are only one part of a musician’s legacy. They don’t capture the life-changing impressions Wildman left on her students at UW-Madison, the countless hours of practice and rehearsal with a host of collaborators, or the nights of live improvisation so crucial to jazz music. Someone listening to these records won’t necessarily pick up on the respect and friendship she shared with musical contemporaries like Mitchell, or the lasting contribution she made to Madison’s jazz musicians and audiences as co-founder of the Madison Music Collective—a non-profit that continues to organize shows for local and touring artists to this day. But it feels wrong that such a rich body of work is so hard to access.

Absorbed in the music

Wildman self-released just about everything that came out under her own name, paying for recording sessions and pressings herself, often serving as the producer too, and apparently never involving a record label or any other sort of music-business middleman. Sturm recalls Wildman negotiating at one point with Chicago-based jazz and blues label Delmark Records, but nothing ever came of it. Copies of Inside Out and Orphan Folk Music include the address of Wildman’s North Side home, printed right on the liner notes and labels. I couldn’t figure out how many copies she made of anything. When I visited Black Horse Auctions, the staff seemed convinced that they’ve got the absolute last copies of Orphan Folk Music on their hands, but who knows. 

Wildman wanted to retain full creative control and avoid unfavorable business terms, so it’s likely that she retained all the rights to these recordings and compositions. When she died, the rights may have passed on to a family member or another party via her will. (A family member and a family attorney declined to comment for this story.) The master tapes? Who knows. Wildman was also an early adopter of digital technology and recorded many of her own sessions at home, including with Full House Quintet, so she likely left behind a considerable amount of digital recordings. She fully embraced the creative possibilities of electronic tools, not just delving deep into the world of synthesizers and samplers but also created digital animations to pair with music, some of which you can see on a YouTube channel she created. Wildman clearly used some kind of early art software to create the cover of Orphan Folk Music, portraying what appear to be dancers in a pixelated black-and-white haze—an image that acknowledges both new frontiers and deeply rooted traditions.

Despite the creativity, pride, and care that clearly went into Orphan Folk Music and the rest of Wildman’s albums, they never got much of a push in the way of distribution or promotion. 

“She didn’t have the publicity gene,” says longtime Madison journalist and author Dean Robbins, who began covering Wildman for Isthmus in the mid-1980s. “She just didn’t care about it, she wasn’t good at it, she was just totally obsessed with making the music. I think she could have had a national or international reputation if more people knew about her, but it just wasn’t in the cards…the music was utterly absorbing to her.”

Richeson and Sturm also say that Wildman showed little interest in self-promotion or the record business. “She had a tender side,” Sturm recalls. “She bruised. For her, to reach out to a record company and get a rejection would be very difficult.” Sturm also points out that Wildman was balancing her music at the time with a full-time teaching load, raising a family, and paying the bills. In that light, creating such inventive, complex music and putting out a small private-press run of albums is no mean feat.

“I think what she really needed to have in her corner was someone who was willing to toot her horn for her,” Sturm says.

Wildman also didn’t dwell too long on promoting any one album because she always had more to explore and more to say. “She did stuff and she put it out, but she was always interested in moving on to new things,” says violist Diedre Buckley. Once, Buckley recalls, Wildman’s synthesizer crashed, wiping out a bunch of the unique patches she painstakingly created. But instead of being upset about losing all that work, Wildman was excited to make new patches. “She didn’t mind, because, ‘let’s move forward, those sounds are old, I’ve done those before, let’s go forward,'” Buckley says.

The Wisconsin State Journal cited Joan Wildman in a 1985 story about the use of synthesizers. Image via

The Wisconsin State Journal cited Joan Wildman in a 1985 story about the use of synthesizers. Image via

Sturm also remembers Wildman as someone who didn’t linger and wallow, creatively speaking: “Joan was all about doing something new. That was what she was always about. A lot of the pieces that you have on these recordings were written for the recordings.” 

Wildman extensively documented her work outside of formal recording sessions intended for public release, including live performances and home rehearsals. “I am fortunate to have a private recording Joan gave to me from an Isthmus Jazz Festival [performance] with her trio. I’m sure she has lots of private recordings but, of course, they are private so [they’re] not available,” says pianist Jane Reynolds. Whether improvising or working out composed material, Wildman made a habit of recording her creative process, often sitting down with her collaborators to listen back, critique, and revise.

“She records whenever you’re with her,” says bassist Laurie Lang. “Anything you do, she’s recording. And then she’s deciding, ‘Did that work? Is that something I want to save?’ So many people have come to her house and played music with her, and her practice is always that she records.”

Wildman discussed the shortcomings of the Madison jazz scene in a 1981 Capital Times story. Image via

Wildman discussed the shortcomings of the Madison jazz scene in a 1981 Capital Times story. Image via

Reynolds says that several of Wildman’s performances at UW-Madison were recorded. I have yet to figure out if anyone on campus has preserved these recordings. Caw didn’t mention them in his complete rundown of the Wildman materials in the Mills Music Library collection. The current head of UW-Madison’s jazz program, pianist Johannes Wallmann, couldn’t point me to much else either. “Outside of what treasures my colleagues might have in their respective teaching studios, we don’t have an archive or storage of recordings in the School of Music separate from Mills Music Library,” Wallmann says. Additionally, Reynolds says that saxophonist Hanah Jon Taylor, another longtime friend and collaborator of Wildman’s, recorded some more recent performances of Wildman’s at his jazz club, Café Coda. 

Wildman was creating, playing, and collaborating until almost the very end. Buckley last played with Wildman less than two months before Wildman’s death of complications from cancer. One of Wildman’s former students, Milwaukee journalist Maayan Silver, recalled in a memorial piece for WUWM that Wildman “[said] no to a drug that might prolong her life because it would make her hands and fingers go numb, preventing her from playing the piano that was so much a part of her.”

Inside and out

Because Wildman had such a long and fruitful career at UW-Madison, and because her fellow musicians respect her so greatly, it’s easy to overlook the fact that she was often going against the grain. Her music combines an insider’s mastery with an outsider’s utter creative fearlessness. Sturm recalls that the Joan Wildman Trio drew on its share of relatively straight-ahead jazz elements, but also on the influence of avant-garde pioneers like Muhal Richard Abrams and Cecil Taylor. (Taylor himself spent some time teaching at UW-Madison in the early 1970s, a few years before Wildman arrived. Imagine the possibilities if their time had overlapped.) This meant that Wildman was often joyfully out of step with prevailing trends.

“The ’80s, of course, in jazz was a time of neo-classicism, and that’s when Wynton Marsalis and his hordes came in, and that was the reigning style,” Robbins says. “That was such a backward-looking style, and it was so conservative, and it was just the exact opposite of what Joan stood for. She was so grounded in tradition in a way—just the verities of jazz, swing, and improvisation, and blues—and yet everything about her was forward-looking, and using those elements in a completely new way and taking the music in a new direction.”

It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Wildman was ignored in her time. Wildman did find an appreciative local audience during her most active years of playing live around Madison, mostly at long-gone downtown venues. Her students would of course come out to the gigs, but they weren’t the only people there—Richeson calls the crowds at the Joan Wildman Trio’s shows “a pretty interesting mix of people.” He also says Wildman was an outlier among UW’s music professors during the ’80s and ’90s.

“My sense is that she was out of the mainstream of the music faculty that I knew there. Not that they didn’t respect her—I think that they just didn’t seem to be interested in the kind of music she was creating,” Richeson says. “She clearly wasn’t a standard jazz improviser. She could improvise around standard jazz tunes, but in a Joan kind of way…. it was always Joan bringing her Joan-isms to standard tunes.” 

Wildman was also a woman in both academia and music. When someone this accomplished doesn’t quite get her due, it’s hard not to wonder how much sexism plays into it. “People just didn’t take female instrumentalists that seriously,” Robbins recalls of the ’80s. “I mean, you could name a few examples of female instrumentalists, pianists who broke through, but she struggled with that. She definitely felt the sexism that was out there regarding women.”

What happens to these recordings?

No one I spoke to for this story is aware of any efforts to reissue the Joan Wildman Trio or Full House Quintet recordings. Tom Caw, of UW’s Mills Music Library, notes that Wildman’s recordings are included in the library’s ongoing efforts to digitize thousands of analog materials. As campus libraries lift their COVID restrictions, members of the public will at least be able to visit Mills in person if they’d like to hear the recordings in that collection.

Most of the people I talked with who collaborated with Wildman were certainly open to the idea of someone either re-releasing this music or at least putting it into some kind of digital form that’s easier for more people to access.

“I don’t know if she necessarily thought about preserving a legacy,” Buckley says. “She was about moving forward and getting better. But I would really like to see a collection of her recordings be available, if nothing else, so that someone else could come in and listen and study, even if it’s only available through one location or inter-library loan or something. I would just love to have her work be collected and available for people to check out.”

Bassist Laurie Lang notes that someone would probably need to get ahold of Wildman’s computer to explore the full extent of her archive. “It would definitely be a labor of love, because there’s probably a lot of stuff on there,” Lang says.

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