Meet Charlie Wilson, A Kick-Ass Jazz Pianist

Part of the process of becoming a jazz musician is learning the technical side of a genre that’s extremely demanding.

There’s something else, though, something inside you, something intangible but real—and whatever that is, Charlie Wilson has it, and so does his partner in crime, King Reeves. The two of them will be performing duets together Friday, June 29 at 9:00 PM at the Thompson House, which is what used to be called the Southgate House. Vibraphonist King Reeves and pianist Charlie Wilson have performed together for a couple decades, and they were friends before that. When they perform together you can feel the chemistry of two cats who love each other and love jazz.

On the eve of their next performance, I asked Charlie why he chose piano as his instrument.

“First of all, my mother always played piano and she had a piano in the house,” he said. “She played in the church, and she played in the club where she met Art Tatum.”

If you don’t know him, Art Tatum was a great jazz pianist with dazzling technique. Truly one of the titans of the piano, along with Bud Powell and Bill Evans and a handful of others.

“She used to open for Art Tatum,” Charlie said. “She played for churches, and she was was still playing spiritual music. Art Tatum said to her why don’t you play jazz, so she started playing jazz.”

Having a musical mother and a piano around the house influenced not only Charlie but his brother, Alexander Nelson Wilson, who played baritone saxophone. “He played with Ray Charles, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Jackie Kelso and Johnny Otis,” Charlie said. “The job with Jackie Kelso was five nights a week for years.”

Charlie grew up in Cincinnati but as a young man moved to L.A. When I asked what took him out west, he said, “My brother was out there, and some of my musician friends from Cincinnati were out west. I lived out there five or six years.”

One of the Cincinnati transplants Charlie met up with out there was Frank Foster, a major Basie sideman as well as an esteemed solo artist.

“Frank Foster lived across the street from me in Cincinnati,” Charlie said. “My brother played with him. Roger Spotts played with him, he was also from Cincinnati.”

Los Angeles was also where Charlie Wilson met, and played music with, Don Cherry and Charlie Haden.

The set list Friday includes some material by Thelonious Monk, whose compositions are unusually intricate and demanding, even for the best jazz artists. “My favorite composer, arranger, and musicians of all time is Thelonious Monk,” Charlie said.

Interestingly, in his early days Monk fronted a quartet that was drums, bass, piano and vibes, and the interplay between the vibes and piano was especially intriguing with the knotty, gnarly work of Monk. This should be a great show, and what I’ve been telling friends is if you go to the show and pay ten bucks and it turns our that you don’t like it, I’ll give you ten bucks out of my wallet. That’s how strongly I feel about the music these guys play. They’re the real deal, and they seldom play out. Walter Broadnax of Doc B Productions is hosting the event as part of his new jazz series at the Thompson House, and yes, Charlie will be using a real piano, a brand new one, and a nice one…just that and some vibes. I’ll leave you with some footage I shot one day of King and Charlie playing music at King’s swank little house:

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