After hearing of influential saxophonist Morris Wilson’s passing last weekend, we wanted to take some time to look back at his impact in the Twin Cities through his music and social work.
Wilson, known as one of the greatest Twin Cities saxophonists, was a key player in the rhythm and blues, funk and jazz scenes, and touched countless musicians through his mentoring and collaborations.
“He’s the guy that taught us jazz, all the different styles; but he also was a great band leader,” Anthony Scott of Prophets of Peace said. “Morris was just ahead of us. He was a little older than us, and he just had a lot to teach us about music. And that’s everybody — that goes back to Pierre Lewis and Dickie Lowe and Prince and all the North Side guys. Everyone was influenced by Morris.”
Wilson spent some time playing and arranging music for the Prophets of Peace, as well as arranging for the Valdons and performing with the Lewis Connection. Wilson’s credentials also included working with The Temptations, Ike and Tina Turner and Muddy Waters. Wilson’s mastery of music theory made him stand out in the rhythm and blues scene, Secret Stash Records noted.
“He was one of the most soulful saxophone players. When he did solos, it was incredible,” former Valdons member Monroe Wright said. “It came from within him. He would take a solo from a song that was done by a vocalist, and he’d make it his own. And instead of singing words, he sang it through his saxophone.”
When disco began booming in Minneapolis, Wilson spoke out against club owners who hired DJs rather than live musicians, which was especially damaging for black bands. In 1977, Wilson formed the Minnesota Minority Musicians Association, which held stopping the practice as a priority concern. The following year, Wilson organized the Minnesota Musicians and Performers Rally to further his cause — ultimately leading seven protesters down Nicollet Mall with chants like “disco is jive, bring back live,” according to Secret Stash Records.
“I think what’s interesting about that is that [the low turnout] didn’t stop him from doing it. It didn’t work, but it‘s pretty inspiring. He was like, ‘Well this is wrong, I’m going to stage a demonstration regardless of how much local media picks up on it and how much it drives change,” Eric Foss of Secret Stash Records said. “He strikes me as a very thoughtful, community minded individual.”
In the ‘80s, Wilson decided to focus on his social work full time, though he occasionally still played his horn, he told Secret Stash Records.
Friends remember him for his thoughtful sense of humor, immense talent and profound teaching.
“He was a friendly guy,” Wright said. “He was very funny and had intellectual humor. He had a lot of fun, he was always laughing.”
“He was really a fantastic sax player; he kind of reminded me a lot of Grover Washington the way he played,” Scott said. “And for us, for the guys that came from our generation, he was a great mentor for everybody. He played with us, he taught us stuff, he opened up his house so we could rehearse, he was just a good catalyst. He played with everybody; I’m talking about Bobby Lyle, Frank Edwards, he played with everybody. Everyone respected Morris.”
Hear more music from Morris Wilson on this week’s Local Show, which airs Sunday nights from 6 to 8 p.m. on 89.3 the Current and online at thecurrent.org. Morris Wilson will be our featured artist in this week’s “History Spotlight.”