Joan Wildman was my last piano teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, almost forty years ago. When I heard the news of her death last night, without missing a beat, I suddenly felt that I was in her living room, the room where she taught. Her grand piano in the front window. Her energy everywhere. I felt for a moment that I was breathing her air.
Joan was midwestern through and through — she’s quoted in an interview as saying “I grew up on a ranch in Nebraska . . . . I rode my horse to school” — and although I don’t know the details of how she became a musician, she made herself into a FIERCE jazz pianist. She was so original and driven. She played no cliches. She had no patience with a student repeating herself. When I left town in 1982, she was on her way to maven (or legend) status. A professor going for tenure at UW and a single-minded creative force, she shifted the paradigm.
In the late 1970s the VSOP Quintet of Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter (although my memory says Joe Henderson), Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams played a concert at the Memorial Union. This was a sort of blend of the Messengers and Miles’ bands, in the decade following their peaks. Joan was not buying VSOP. I believe she attended the concert but was not moved. She wanted her jazz musicians on the leading edge.
Other things I remember. She wished she could study with Monk. She went to Tulane University one summer and researched Jelly Roll Morton. She took up the DX7 and even her synthesizer sounds were original. She made music with Roscoe Mitchell, also a Dane County resident. Joan told a very funny story about driving out to Mitchell’s house, trying to follow the directions he’d given her (no cell phones then) — turn at the farmhouse, turn at the next farmhouse, look for a barn …
Joan and I stayed in touch, but it has been ten years since we had contact. I thank her for including me, for her relentless restlessness, for being her own person, so real.