Rocky Wynder: The People's Player

Tracing the history of Knoxville jazz through the local sax hero's career

Ordinarily, people tend to call active gentlemen of Rocky Wynder's vintage "spry," but he's much more than that. At times, the 82-year-old saxophone player is positively electric; his long, lanky frame perambulates across the floor in a series of quick, almost bird-like movements, and his raspy voice is loud but bright. Longtime friend and fellow sax player Bill Scarlett describes him as "a live wire… always full of energy and talk.

"He's tall and thin," Scarlett says. "But you can tell by the way he moves, he's got a lot of strength in him."

It may come as a surprise, then, that when he lays into one of the jazz standards close to his heart at one of his now-less-frequent club dates, his playing is pure silk, his seductive tones and breathy phrasings encapsulating the essence of love and longing, reaching the hearts and ears of audiences in a way that only the most intuitive players do.

"I'm a people's player," he proclaims, relaxing in the impeccably neat office he keeps in the apartment he shares with wife Catherine off Western Avenue. "I play the melodies, dig it? And when I see the people in my audience happy, then I'm double happy.

"I don't play for musicians. A lot of players do that; they play all fast, de-de-de-de-de, and they forget there's an audience out there."

Wynder is a tad modest, inasmuch as his playing reflects the quicksilver bebop influence of players like Parker—one of his idols—as well as the feathery sensitivity of a consummate balladeer. But for all his years playing and traveling, Wynder has never been one for self-promotion. "I didn't have to have the recognition," he says. "I was always happy with what I was doing, playing a gig here, playing a gig there."

Perhaps prompted by his friend's unassuming nature, local jazz pianist and composer Donald Brown has made special efforts in the last year to shine some of the limelight on Wynder, first by pushing him to record his first solo record ever, Edwin & Catherine, and then by penning a special song, "Tenors and Satin," for Wynder and fellow octogenarian sax players Scarlett and Lance Owens, recorded by the trio on the recent local jazz compilation of the same name.

Brown has lauded Wynder as "one of the greats of our music," and cites his influence on generations of players in Knoxville. "Rocky reminds me of a lot of the great bandleaders I've played with," says Brown, who was mentored by the likes of drummer/leader Art Blakey. "If you keep your ears open and your eyes open, you'll always learn something."

After more than six decades of experience, Brown believes Wynder's story and music are best heard by a wider audience.

Edwin "Rocky" Wynder was born to Edwin and Arnetta Wynder in 1928 in Pensacola, Fla. His father was an airplane mechanic, his mother a nanny, and unlike many accomplished musicians, many of whom grow up in families steeped in music, his impetus for playing came from outside the home, when he heard the clarion call of the saxophone emanating from an empty room at his local high school.

"There was a bandleader over there at Booker T. Washington High School," Wynder says. "He was an alto sax player, name of Raymond Shep. And I loved to hear him play, yes sir."

He arranged to cut Shep's grass in exchange for lessons, and his grandmother bought him a Silvertone alto saxophone from Sears & Roebuck. He learned quickly, and was soon sneaking out to play in clubs with local bands—blues and "boogie-woogie," at first, until they began assimilating some of the big-band sounds of bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Count Basie that were beginning to take hold in ballrooms across the nation.

"I'd join these little old bands, go out and maybe make $2 a night, maybe make nothing," he says. "There was a place in Pensacola we'd play, the Tin Top Inn. Lord man, it was a rough-ass place, what we called a juke joint. Over here someone's having fun, and over here someone's knocking someone's head in with a beer bottle."

In his mid-teens, Wynder left home after successfully auditioning for a spot with the Leon Claxton Harlem in Havana Show, one of the acts in a Royal American Carnival troupe that came through town.

"That's where the hard experience came," Wynder says. "We'd go to this town and we're supposed to play this show, and then, no, you can't have it. Eating pork and beans and bread to survive, stranded in one town and then another, trying to make a dollar to eat or move on."

Wynder's road years lasted the better part of a decade, across any number of small touring bands, and included one memorable meeting with his idol, Charlie Parker, in an alley behind two clubs in Philadelphia sometime in the 1940s. Both men were seated on garbage cans, taking a break between sets. "He was a cool dude, Bird was," Wynder says. "But I was scared as shit. I told him I was so glad I finally had a chance to hear him play. He told me, ‘I came over and heard you, too.' I thought, ‘Oh, shit, Bird was watching me.'

"I had always wanted to play like Charlie Parker, knowing damn well I couldn't. Then I met him, and realized that what he's doing is what he's doing, and what I'm doing is what I'm doing. I woke up and smelled the roses, you might say."

Wynder finally quit the road in 1950, when he found himself stranded in Knoxville. His outfit at the time was a traveling minstrel show, Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam, and they had a date playing the Gem, a black theater on what's now Summit Hill, when the touring manager took all the cash and left town.

"I made up my mind then that I was tired of the damn road," says Wynder. He got a job in shipping and receiving at Knox Dry Goods and relegated his playing to various small bars and honky-tonks around town. He met his wife, and got on at the Tennessee Valley Authority in the latter half of the '50s.

At night, he'd play standards of the day, but also a healthy smattering of popular R&B and the latest craze, rock 'n' roll. Wynder remembers playing songs by the likes of Bill Haley and the Comets at more than one fraternity party at the University of Tennessee. It was at a gig on Cumberland Avenue in 1957 that he first met Scarlett, who had just come to town for a teaching position at UT. Happening into a club late one evening, Scarlett heard a band that made him stop in his tracks. The group was Willie Gibbs and the Illusioneers, Wynder's principal gig.

The whole group was accomplished, says Scarlett—Lance Owens was also on the stage that night—but he and Wynder really hit it off. "I could tell straight off he was talented," says Scarlett. "He was very expressive and personal in his playing. And he could really swing. He had that big sound of his, that great big tone."

Wynder calls Scarlett "my best saxophone buddy," and both men have commemorated their friendship in song; Scarlett with a tune titled "Partners Times 38," to mark the 38th anniversary of their meeting, and Wynder with a special song "Welcome Back Billy" that he wrote in conjunction with Knoxville Jazz Orchestra leader Vance Thompson (Wynder dictated the melody, since he doesn't write music) in 2003 when Scarlett was returning to playing form after a serious car accident.

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But hard times hit again, in Knoxville, around 1960, when Wynder left for a decade-long stint in Washington, D.C. He still worked day jobs, and at nights availed himself of D.C.'s active, jazz-friendly club scene.

"Oh, yeah, that's where it was," Wynder says, still remembering with some relish his first brushes with his boyhood idols. "I met the giants while I was in D.C. Because you could go out the door of one club, and someone who was just as bad as the cat you were listening to would be playing across the street, and again up the street from there."

He recalls meeting John Coltrane at the Crystal Caverns, and watching a young Miles Davis drive a motorcycle through the front door of the Showboat Lounge, and trying to pull sax great Gene Ammons—for whom Wynder often subbed—off the floor to play a show after an evening of overindulgence.

But D.C. turned sour for Wynder by the end of the '60s, with race riots and civil unrest. And Wynder's club-going lifestyle had resulted in a heroin problem. He moved his growing family—Wynder has four sons now, "and too many damned grandchildren to count"—back to Knoxville, where he sobered up and resumed his working relationship with TVA.

"Heroin was the poor man's powder back then," he says. "Cocaine was the rich man's drug. But I never had to go to no hospital or do no counseling; I worked it out myself. It was a helluva battle. I'd put on a shirt, and a few minutes later I'd have to wring it out. I credit my church family here; they really helped me get clean and get out of that shit."

He resumed playing, albeit on a less ambitious scale, returning to the party gigs and small local club dates that were his bread and butter when he first came to Knoxville at the onset of the 1950s. He remembers that jazz standards were still popular, especially at special events at country clubs or anniversaries. Sometimes, though, at weddings and fraternity gigs, he was called on to play new sounds, like Stevie Wonder and other avatars of '70s funk and R&B.

His playing days in Knoxville hit a new peak in the 1980s, with the arrival of the jazz-friendly Annie's (later reopened as Lucille's) in what would eventually become the Old City. Wynder met Sun Ra drummer Samarai Celestial, who made his home base in Knoxville for several years through the '80s and '90s, and then, in 1988, he met Donald Brown.

"You got a good sense of who Rocky is right from the start," Brown says. "I was impressed with him as a person at first. And the more we talked, the more I sensed he had been through the ropes, paid his dues. Sometimes you can sense someone is a great player, just by the way they talk, before you've heard them play. I had that sense about Rocky."

The two men have played countless dates together since, at Lucille's and Baker Peters Jazz Club and any number of other clubs that have risen and fallen around Knoxville in the last 20 years. Brown sums up his old friend's playing like this: "Rocky swings hard, he knows how to play the blues, and he plays ballads really well. He's a guy that's really rooted in the jazz tradition."

Somewhere in the 1990s, though, Wynder began to ease off the pedal; he had retired from the accounting department of TVA in 1987, and at last began decreasing the number of shows he played, content to leave the late nights and long sets to aspiring musicians of another generation.

Nowadays, his playing is mostly as a substitute, often for his friend Scarlett, or when Brown needs an extra for an unexpected gig. "I've had my fun out there," he says. "I'm just glad to see other musicians working. I'm played many jobs, many nights over the years. I have nothing to complain about. I'm well pleased."

Still, Brown thought his friend needed a push. The aforementioned solo CD, Edwin & Catherine, features a veritable who's who of Knoxville jazzers—Brown, bassist Rusty Holloway, drummer Keith Brown, and guitarist Mark Boling, to name but a few. Featuring a selection of standards plus one Donald Brown original (the title track), it's one of the most beautiful and accomplished local releases in recent memory, the sterling accompaniment still leaving ample space to showcase Wynder's lush, lovely style.

"Donald just told me, ‘Man, it's time for us to do this,'" Wynder says. "It was never a big thing for me to make a CD. But I feel real good about it now. I enjoyed making it, for sure."

Wynder's biggest joys, though, come through a program called Sax Studio, where he gives free saxophone lessons to urban youth the first and third Saturday of every month at the Literacy Imperative on Harriet Tubman Street.

"I'm really enjoying it, teaching these little kids theory and fundamentals," he says. "I just like knowing I'm helping somebody, giving something back that was given to me. A lot of these kids can't afford $30 or $40 for lessons."

He confesses that he's even taken aside a couple of the more precocious students, "starting to show them ‘Satin Doll' and ‘Girl From Ipanema,'" he says with one of his characteristic gleeful chuckles.

"I'm happy playing teacher now,' he says. "That's what I want to do. But if someone needs me to fill in for them, I'm still here. Give me a call. That'll pretty well sum it up."