‘Wise guy’: from Hurricane Katrina to Penn Jazz Band

Local Life May 20, 2011 0 Comments

‘Wise guy’: from Hurricane Katrina to Penn Jazz Band

By Jim Harris

Bassist, pianist, vocalist and educator Ed Wise is that rarest of birds — a great musician with a knack for being organized. This well-travelled Germantown resident has managed to create for himself a rewarding life in music with a combination of talent, hard work and a little bit of luck along the way.

Ed Wise (left) is seen here with the U of P Jazz Orchestra, which he directs. (Photos by Jim Harris)

Houston-born and raised, Ed remembers sitting at his grandmother’s piano at the age of 10. “For her generation, the piano was the TV and the radio rolled into one,” he said. “She accompanied silent movies in her younger days, and she could make that piano sound like an entire orchestra. That was my first introduction to music.

“Later on, when I scored high on a musical aptitude test in school, they wanted me to join the orchestra and play viola or cello. Neither really struck a chord with me, but then I heard a guy playing a double bass, and it was one of those light bulb moments. I said, ‘I want to play THAT.’

“At age 15, I was in my first band, ‘Last Rites’ (hey, it was the ‘70s) playing bass guitar, but when I saw the Modern Jazz Quartet on TV, I had another light bulb moment. I started playing jazz.”

In a real stroke of good luck, Wise made a friend in high school (Shelly Berg, now Dean of Music at the University of Miami), whose dad knew a lot of professional jazz musicians. So by the time Ed graduated from high school, he had already played with stars like Sonny Stit and Lockjaw Davis, and had even met Count Basie.

Ed went on to get a Masters degree in music from the University of North Texas, where he also taught and directed the jazz band. Next was a four-year stint in Toronto, Canada, where he directed the jazz band of the National Music Camp of Canada.

In 1993 he moved to New Orleans, where there was plenty of work for musicians. His jobs there included teaching at Loyola University, playing on lots of recordings — including his own CD, “Ed Wise and his New Orleans Jazz Band,” — and eight years of working for the Delta Queen Steamboat Company. While there, he rose through the ranks to become bandleader on the company’s flagship steamboat. That’s where he met Liz, from Philadelphia, who would later become his wife. She and her mom were on a cruise.

According to Ed, “After Hurricane Katrina hit, all of the work in New Orleans dried up. I came up here and stayed with some nice folks in West Philly who put me up until I could find my own place. Lots of Philadelphians were opening their homes to refugees from Katrina back then. Then Liz and I visited New Orleans again in 2006 to get married in the French Quarter. It was shocking to me how few people were left there.

“Starting over again in Philly, I knew no musicians. There used to be jazz scenes in all the big cities, but not so much anymore. It’s kind of gone underground. I began attending jam sessions around the city and introducing myself. One of my favorite places was the LaRose Jazz Club (5531 Germantown Ave.), which has sort of become my second home. While attending one of these jam sessions, someone from the Penn Jazz Orchestra overheard me saying that I needed work, and he told me that they were looking for a musical director. Another lucky break. I auditioned for the job and got it.”

Penn Jazz is the jazz band of the University of Pennsylvania. Ed rehearses the students for a concert each semester. They pick the music, and “I just show up and wave my arms till the music stops. Seriously though, I tell them, ‘I’m a professional, and I’m going to treat you all like professionals.’ I work them hard. They’re great kids. So far, they’ve played about 10 of my original compositions.”

Ed has reorganized “Ed Wise and his New Orleans Jazz Band up here in Philadelphia. “We do weddings, society gigs, festivals, you name it.” He also works with the Midiri Brothers jazz ensemble, which plays ‘40s and ‘50s swing jazz.

The list of famous entertainers with whom Ed has performed over the years is quite lengthy, and includes Al Hirt, The Smothers Brothers, Bob Hope, Cab Calloway and many more.

Ed’s musical adventures have taken him across the country and around the world. When I met him for this interview, he was preparing to drive to Texas to play in a Puccini opera in which his daughter Mandy was singing the lead. On average he spends three to four months a year on the road. He’s done 11 festivals in the past year plus two months in New Orleans.

Locally, Ed will be playing June 12, from 11-2 p.m., at the Musikfest Cafe in Bethlehem and on July 1, with Dave Posmentier on piano, at Crossroads Coffeehouse in Roxborough (6156 Ridge Ave.) from 7-8:15 p.m.

Ed, who just turned 56, has four daughters (“they all sing beautifully”) and five grandchildren. His wife Liz is Executive Director of the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust, and they live on a historic property. When I asked him what it’s like living next to a centuries-old graveyard, he replied, “Nice and quiet. Germantown is a fascinating place.”

You can contact Wise at 215-279-0617, ed@edwisemusician.com or www.edwisemusician.com.

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