|Mike Hennessey pays tribute to Putte Wickman, the hugely underrated clarinet virtuoso who died from cancer on February 14, 2006, after an illustrious sixty-year career in Jazz. Putte was once described by Buddy De Franco as|
SWEDEN'S NATIONAL TREASURE
By Mike Hennessey
The gap between the level of recognition given to American Jazz musicians and that accorded to Jazzmen from other parts of the world is an oft-recurring theme in Jazz literature, including - to be fair - some which is of U.S. origin.
But it has to be said that inadequate evaluation is not something from which only non-American Jazzmen suffer. Just to take one example, Bud Powell has never really had his fair share of appreciation.
Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that it is more difficult for non-Americans to achieve a fair international assessment of their talents than it is for U.S. musicians. However, it is also true that many non-Americans fail to be accorded the status of international stars simply because they just don't qualify.
But it is beyond question that Putte Wickman, although a super hero in his native Sweden, was massively underrated internationally throughout his sixty-year career. That is not simply a matter of opinion; I maintain it to be an incontrovertible fact.
The level of public and critical recognition accorded to Putte Wickman was extraordinarily minimal. He receives no mention whatsoever in John Chilton's Who's Who of Jazz (1985), in Jazz the Essential Companion (1987), in the French Dictionnaire du Jazz (1988), in the German Jazz Lexikon (1988), or in The Guinness Who's Who of Jazz (1991). He is given just fifteen lines in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (1994), and the Leonard Feather/Ira Gitler Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz (1999) notes that Putte Wickman is "considered by many to be Sweden's foremost clarinetist" - a perfect example of damning with faint praise, as Dan Morgenstern, a stalwart admirer of Putte, observed in his notes for the Wickman album, Kinda Dukish. The Swedish newspaper, Expressen, had already hailed Wickman as Sweden's foremost clarinet player some twenty years earlier.
But the recognition and approbation accorded to Putte Wickman by his peers was abundant. As Dan Morgenstern pointed out, anyone with ears who had heard Wickman would have changed that Jazz Encyclopedia comment to "considered by many to be one of the world's foremost clarinetists." And he goes on to point out that these would include such peers as Buddy DeFranco and Kenny Davern.
Buddy DeFranco is on record as saying: "I have known and listened to Putte for fifty years. He is one of the handful of clarinetists I consider to be world class. Putte is Sweden's national treasure and a good friend, who is rich in integrity, talent, and humor. He's the best."
Putte was born Hans Olof Wickman in Falun, a small town in southern Sweden, northwest of Stockholm, on September 10, 1924, and grew up in the neighboring town of Borlänge.
As a child he taught himself to read music and, from the age of seven, studied classical piano for five years, still largely teaching himself. His parents wanted him to become a lawyer, but he persuaded them to allow him to attend high school in Stockholm. And it was in Stockholm, at the age of fifteen, that he had his first encounter with Jazz music, listening to the records of his fellow students. (He said later, with typically dry Wickman humor, that he was probably the only fifteen-year-old in Sweden who knew nothing about Jazz.) It was that exposure to Jazz that set Putte Wickman firmly on the path to a career as a professional Jazz musician.
As he had no ready access to a piano in Stockholm, Putte was given a clarinet by his mother as a Christmas present when he was sixteen. He took to the clarinet immediately, diligently applied himself to mastering the instrument, and listened intently to recordings by his early heroes, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. Later he was influenced by Buddy DeFranco, Tony Scott, and John LaPorta. Clarinet remained his sole instrument throughout his career. I once asked Putte why he decided to take up the clarinet, and he replied, "I have been asking myself that for years."
By the time he was twenty, Putte had sufficient command of the clarinet to become a full-time professional musician. In 1944, he joined Arthur Österwall's Quintet at Stockholm's Nalen Club and, after spells with the bands of bassist Simon Brehm, singer/pianist Charlie Norman, and violinist Hasse Kahn, he began leading his own small groups, with Reinhold Svensson on piano, which regularly toured the Swedish folk parks. His band was resident at the Nalen club for more than a decade.
In 1949, there came a major step towards international recognition for Putte and several more of Sweden's leading Jazz artists when the Swedish All Stars - Gösta Törner (t), Putte Wickman (cl), Arne Domnerus (as), Carl-Henrik Norin (ts), Reinhold Svensson (p), Simon Brehm (b), Sven Bollhem (d) and Alice Babs (vcl) - appeared in the first Paris International Jazz Festival. The engagement was arranged by Nisse Hellström, a leading Jazz concert promoter and publisher of the Jazz magazine, Estrad, who persuaded the festival's artistic director, Charles Delaunay, to hire the group. "But," Putte recalled later, "we didn't get paid. Nisse arranged things so that we played a couple of gigs in Gothenburg and Malmö to earn the money to pay for the charter flight to Paris."
Further international recognition came in June 1951, when Leonard Feather came to Stockholm to record a group called the Swinging Swedes for the Cupol label, with Putte, Reinhold Svensson, Simon Brehm, guitarist Rolf Berg, and drummer Jack Norén. And in January 1954, the Swinging Swedes recorded two more sides, this time for the Metronome label - with Wickman, Ernie Englund (t), Åke Persson (tb), Carl-Henrik Norin (ts), Johnny Ekh (bar), Bengt Hallberg (p), Red Mitchell (b) and Bobby White (d).
In the mid-1950s, Wickman led a big band at Stockholm's Grand Hotel and made numerous recordings both as a leader and sideman. Between 1949 and 2005, he featured on more than fifty albums, including sessions with Buddy DeFranco, Eddie Daniels, Ken Peplowski, Georgie Fame, John Lewis, Shelly Manne, Svend Asmussen, Jan Lundgren, Ulf Wakenius, Jan Johansson, Rune Gustafsson, Roger Kellaway, Hal Galper, Jimmy Raney, Red Mitchell, Nat Pierce, and the Ernie Wilkins Almost Big Band.
In 1959, Putte made his first visit to the USA where he contacted agent Willard Alexander and, over the course of several weeks, played a number of gigs in New York, including an appearance at Carnegie Hall. But he later told Danish writer Thorbjörn Sjøgren, that he was not happy with the engagements that Alexander had arranged or with his plans to promote him. Said Putte, "I was content with what I had going back home, and I never regretted leaving the States. I think you are better off as a Jazz musician in Sweden than you are in the USA."
During the 1960s, Putte ran the big band in Stockholm's Gröna Lund Tivoli and also led a group at his own club, Putte's, in Hornstull, of which he was part-owner. He extended his repertoire to include more commercial music and formed a dance band which became very successful.
In addition to his extensive Jazz and popular music activity, Putte Wickman, who was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, also played regular church music concerts and appeared with symphony and chamber orchestras. The Swedish composer, Sven-David Sandström specially composed a clarinet concerto for him. Said Putte, "It gives you a kick to stand in front of a symphony orchestra, playing music that you have to be really sharp to execute - but the important thing is that I can play what I want to play." And playing what he wanted to play was a top priority with Putte Wickman throughout his career.
In 1994, Putte Wickman was presented with the Illis Quorum gold medal, the highest award that can be conferred upon an individual citizen by the Swedish government. In the same year he was nominated for Denmark's prestigious Jazzpar Prize and, in 1998, he was one of the first Swedish musicians to receive the French Django d'Or award when the program was extended to Sweden and had the title, Master of Jazz, conferred upon him.
When I congratulated Putte on this last honor, his wry humor was once again in evidence. He said, "I got that because I am so damn' old." The following year Putte was awarded the Jussi Björling grant.
Dag Haeggqvist, head of Gazell Music AB, worked with Putte Wickman for more than thirty years and recorded nine albums with him for the Gazell label. Dag recalls:
"Putte was an independent man, extremely well organized and self-disciplined and possessed of a sharp sense of humor. He was totally committed to his craft. He worked so much in Sweden and was so highly regarded there and in the other Scandinavian countries that he was not too disturbed about the relatively low level of recognition he received elsewhere.
"He had a crystal clear sound, impeccable intonation, a phenomenal technical facility, and an elegant style, and he dressed as immaculately as he played."
"He was highly efficient and conscientious, and he expected the people who worked with him to be likewise. He had inherited a coffee wholesaling business and, no doubt, in the course of running that, he developed a good business sense."
Putte Wickman is survived by his wife, Dr. Sylvia Wickman. The funeral took place in Borlänge on March 10, 2006.
|A Valediction from Buddy DeFranco|
"It was really a terrible blow for my wife, Joyce, and I when we heard of the death of Putte Wickman. We loved him. He was such a great guy, had a wonderful sense of humor, and was a marvelous musician. He was one of the best players ever. I would rank him as being in the same league as Eddie Daniels, Ken Peplowski, and Ron Odrich.
"Clarinet is not an easy instrument to master, and few people really manage to do it. But Putte certainly did.
"I first met him many years ago when I played in Stockholm with Jazz at the Philharmonic. He came backstage to meet me, and we got along well together. Later on, when I played in different locations in Sweden, he would always come to see me, and we developed a firm friendship.
" He invited me to play dates with him in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark a few times - and it was a real joy working with him. He had so much to offer. He had a great technique on clarinet, there was elegance and refinement in his playing - and he could swing.
"The level of recognition of his great talent outside Scandinavia was far below what he deserved. In fact, it was abysmal. He should have had worldwide recognition as a master clarinetist. But Putte was not too disturbed about his lack of international renown. He just got on with enjoying what he did and was happy to be popular in his own country. He had a good understanding of the whims of this business.
"I shall really miss him - he was the kind of guy I thought would live for ever!"
By Mike Hennessey
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