Rocky Wynder's long career linked the era of tent vaudeville and black speakeasies to a time of upscale-restaurant jazz nights in a reborn downtown. He began his career before rock 'n' roll, and dabbled with R&B, but always favored jazz, especially the small-band, bold-but-often-wistful form known as bebop. He was its most charismatic local proponent, and, for students of jazz, an authentic connection to a vigorous era.
Edwin "Rocky" Wynder died in his sleep late last week at age 83. Some who've seen the tall, skinny saxman perform recently might have guessed he was a quarter-century younger. He played an energetic show at the relatively new Italian restaurant Bella Luna on New Year's Eve. He'd been playing there every weekend; his last gig was at that new venue, about a week before he died.
One of the most durable performers in Knoxville history—he was a professional musician for close to 70 years—he was also one of the happiest. If he wasn't blowing into a tenor saxophone, Rocky was grinning, as if he'd just reached some new height, found some new revelation. And his revelations, gleaned from what had seemed a familiar tune, could thrill an audience. He played every venue with enthusiastic fervor, as if it were the Village Vanguard in 1961.
"He was somebody who was full of life," says Keith Brown, Wynder's semiregular drummer since the 1970s. "He loved to play, loved to be out in the nightlife, enjoyed being a part of things."
Wynder's style could be forceful, "aggressive," as Brown says, but it could also be bluesy and melodic. He knew old melodies like close friends, but his style was distinctive. Brown refers to the "Rockyisms" that were his personal touch.
"When he played ‘Satin Doll,' there was a certain way he would end it. Everybody in town who knew Rocky would do the same thing. He had that kind of effect on people."
Wynder especially admired his own sax contemporaries Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons. He was agreeable to playing requests, as long as patrons didn't feel "entitled"—when people got demanding, Brown would notice Wynder bristle—or when they wanted to hear some Ace Cannon, the R&B jukebox favorite associated with early rock 'n' roll.
At Chantilly's in West Knoxville, a drunk patron offered to buy Wynder a drink if he'd play some Cannon. "If I'm gonna play you a song by Ace Cannon, you're going to have to buy me a drink," he said.
Brown says he had an expression, "Don't feed the frogs to fatten the snakes." Which means don't do something you don't want to do just to please somebody.
Wynder came here accidentally. Born in 1928 in Sarasota, Wynder was playing saxophone for money long before he was old enough to drink. He bopped around the country in the 1940s, following some of his heroes—in a Philadelphia alley, he met sax legend Charlie Parker, and they swapped compliments—but wound up with a traveling act called Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam. After a Knoxville show, the greedy manager skipped town with the gate, leaving Rocky marooned. Wynder found work in town, performing at black nightspots like the Workers Club, a speakeasy on the Keller Building's third floor, but also at country clubs and fraternity parties. He also found a day job, first on the loading dock at Knox Dry Goods, then with TVA. He married, and raised several kids. Late in the decade he joined Willie Gibbs and the Illusioneers, Knoxville's sterling R&B band, as well as the Jazz Giants, the band made up mostly of University of Tennessee musicians. In the early 1960s, he moved to Washington, D.C., one of the centers of bebop. He met John Coltrane and sometimes subbed for the unpredictable Gene Ammons.
After problems with heroin, Rocky moved back to Knoxville, to clean up and work again for TVA. But in middle age he began slipping out in the evenings to play at clubs like Chantilly's or the Strip's Best Italian Restaurant. Then there was the Old City's Annie's, and its successor, Lucille's, which hosted jazz almost every night.
By then, UT's dynamic jazz program, much of it led by Wynder's close friend and fellow saxman Bill Scarlett, was celebrating what Rocky had already been doing for years. Rocky was no academic, but jazz students learned from him, this survivor who'd made a living on the streets, who'd seen the greats when they were inventing bebop, who knew what jazz was for.
Since the 1970s, he's been a constant in Knoxville's small but vigorous jazz scene, one of the busiest musicians in town. In 2010, at the age of 82, encouraged by keyboardist Donald Brown, Wynder released his first solo album, Edwin & Catherine. He also took a lead in the library-sponsored local-jazz project Tenors and Satin, alongside sax contemporaries Bill Scarlett and Lance Owens. Scarlett died less than a year ago.
After a period of semiretirement, he seemed to be playing more often lately, encouraged by artist and sometime singer Cynthia Markert, who helped arrange what was looking like a regular weekend gig at Bella Luna with veteran keyboardist Chico Crawford. On that final show, Saturday before last, his last song was one of his favorites, one he always played when his wife Catherine was in the room: "I'll Close My Eyes."