Political correctness advises that age should have nothing to do with how we evaluate the playing of eighty-year old “Wild Bill” Davison and eighty-three year old Newell “Spiegle” Wilcox. Apparently both musicians, as well as lifelong jazz aficionado, drummer and Tonight Show host Johnny Carson thought otherwise:
A few things stand out here. Of course there’s the music, including a beautifully cohesive clarinet solo and an upbeat rhythm section. The walking bass and drum accents underneath the “Dixieland” front line point to musicians playing dynamically but sincerely, rather than faithfully recreating some earlier era or obsessively keeping up with the stylistic Joneses. In other words, this is jazz, on The Tonight Show.
As for the headliners, it’s remarkable to hear them for reasons besides their ability to receive a senior citizen’s discount at the cinema. Wilcox was an important but under-recorded part of Jean Goldkette‘s seminal records, and only started to gain more attention (and a lot more solos) much later on in his life. It may have been due to the trombonist’s longevity, or perhaps it was simply the right time to hear what he had to say.
Davison himself explains that he had been “Wild Bill” for several decades already, and while he seems to hold back slightly for The Tonight Show audience, his crackling tone and driving lead are still a force of nature. He started his career in the twenties, and is perhaps best known for his work with various Eddie Condon and Commodore groups during the thirties and forties. It’s easy to think of artists frozen in time at some supposed peak, but Davison was also a gigging musician who lived and played until 1989. Based on the sound of that horn, he doesn’t seem like the type to rely upon social security for income.
Finally, they’re on The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson, in their eighties (and yes, in the eighties), not only playing jazz but playing “jazz” as defined by two octogenarians, laughing it up with the host and at one point even discussing embouchures. It’s hard to imagine a similar scenario on any current late night talk show. That’s worse than a value judgment, that’s a simple observation.