The Wild Woman of Jazz

Composer, trumpeter and singer-songwriter Sarah Wilson technically grew up in a vineyard, but her coming of age as a musician took place in New York City. At her first performance as an Artist Fellow at the de Young tomorrow, Friday, May 25, Wilson presents new work inspired by both the rolling hills of the Napa Valley and New York City’s wild women of jazz.

Wilson began her yearlong fellowship last November with a 10-day residency at Stags’ Leap Winery, where the vineyards—their colors and moods—served as muse for the new compositions Night Still and Color, both of which will be featured in tomorrow’s performance.

Stags' Leap

Photo by Sarah Wilson

As collaborating partners, Stags’ Leap Winery and Z Space will support Wilson as she creates and presents new work around the Bay Area during her fellowship. The Stags' Leap Winery Artist in Residence program began 20 years ago, but Wilson was the first musician to be selected after a succession of poets laureate, painters, sculptors and conceptual artists.

Excerpts from Wilson’s blog during her residency at the winery reveal some of the stories behind the music:

November 7, 2011

Wrote new composition Color over the weekend inspired by view of vineyards. Explored how light moves across vines and the spread of color within the leaves. I really love this piece—hopeful, buoyant.


Photo by Sarah Wilson

Tonight I watch the sun set over the hills illuminating treetop silhouettes. New piece so far is haunting, thorny—want it to be slow, not forlorn, not melancholy—something else.


Photo by Sarah Wilson

A deep heavy sigh. Night sound as comfort. Working on interplay between piano and bass. Hear muted trumpet and violin. Guitar playing a counterline. I want a heavy, complex beauty with this piece.


Photo by Sarah Wilson

November 11, 2011

Today: gloomy, grey threatening to rain, great day to work. Further refinement of Night Still. When it gets sunnier, I'll delve back to Color. Yesterday late afternoon took some photos of Petite Syrah vines around 4 p.m. Color might need a bridge, another melodic concept awash in color.


Photo by Sarah Wilson

Wilson rounded out her residency at Stags’ Leap by collaborating with the video artist David Szlasa.


Photo by Katrina Rodabaugh

Working together, Wilson and Szlasa went back to Dry Creek Valley (where Wilson grew up), to capture video of the winery that evoked the dynamic interplay between the visual landscape and Wilson’s music.

In addition to the two compositions created at Stags’ Leap, Wilson will also present three works written in tribute to her female jazz mentors: composer/pianist Carla Bley, trumpeter Laurie Frink and composer/pianist Myra Melford.

After seeing Carla Bley (whom Wilson has never met) at a Knitting Factory concert in 1999, Wilson “Suddenly, realized I could get up on stage and perform as the composer; it freed me up immensely. I was drawn to her presence, her composing/arranging prowess and her unique approach to jazz.”


Carla Bley. Photo by Klaus Muempfer

While living in New York, Wilson studied with Laurie Frink for many years. Frink’s mentorship gave Wilson the strength, power and motivation to keep playing the trumpet in a world almost entirely inhabited by male musicians. According to Wilson, “[Frink] not only taught me technical skills on the horn, but made me believe in myself and why I play music—it’s ultimately a very personal journey that has nothing to do with how I fit or don’t fit into the jazz paradigm.”


Laurie Frink

After first encountering the music of Myra Melford (a recent recipient of the Alpert Award in Music) at a NYC Merkin Concert Hall performance in 1997, Melford became Wilson’s personal hero. “From that moment forward,” says Wilson, “I was completely inspired by her genius compositions, her fireball spirit and energy and the heavyweight position she held in jazz.” Wilson would go on to meet her idol and learn from her the composing techniques of Henry Threadgill (Melford’s own mentor.) Wilson and Melford became very close and, “Magically, she became my mentor and subsequently, a dear friend.” Melford has since played in several of Wilson’s own projects over the years. Of their relationship, Wilson says, “I rely on her immensely for support and guidance. Her music always blows me away; it is transcendent and always inspires me to keep exploring and experiencing the joy in music.”


Myra Melford perfroming at the de Young. Photo by Scott Chernis

Wilson credits the inspiration and support of these three women with providing the foundation for her musical trajectory, their influence so strong that Wilson asserts without them, she “Wouldn’t be playing music today.”

Join Sarah Wilson, the de Young’s own wild woman of jazz, for a visual and audio journey at her concert tomorrow, Friday, May 25 at 7:15–8:30 p.m. in the de Young's Koret Auditorium.

Friday Night programs and the concert are free.