Musician Matt Wilson’s latest release is a celebration of his wife and the extended family they shared through music.
The story behind Matt Wilson’s latest release, Beginning of a Memory, begins long ago in a dorm at Wichita State University. Wilson had come to Wichita to study percussion and was soon taken with a young violin student named Felicia who, like him, lived in Brennan Hall.
“The first weekend or something like that I was on the second floor where the laundry was,” he recalls, “I was laying on the couch, waiting for my laundry. This very attractive young lady, vivacious, comes out of this door and says, ‘Hi!’ I kind of perk up and go, ‘Wow!’ I saw her go on by and was, like, ‘Wow!’”
Before long they were on a school trip, performing music in Kansas City. It was during that time that Wilson learned a little more about Felicia.
“We were hanging in Kansas City at the Plaza. I was with some of the percussion guys, and I saw her hanging out at this table with these ladies, and I noticed that she was having an imported malt beverage. I thought, ‘Wow! She’s not only pretty and smart and she can play, she’s cool. She’s not having typical products that are shoved down our throats through commercials.’ I started to get a little more friendly with her and we had our first date on October 23 at the Pizza Hut just south of 21st Street on Woodlawn. We were together from that point on.”
The Wilsons later married, traveled to Boston and then New York City. They had four children, including a daughter and triplet sons. They both carved out careers as in-demand educators and performers. Then, in 2010, Felicia was diagnosed with leukemia. In 2011 she had a stem cell transplant that gave her more time, and, for a period, life for the Wilsons seemed to stabilize.
“A lot of ups and downs. A lot of incredible ups and downs in that time period,” he says. “Immense amounts of gratitude and joy and then just fear and ….”
In 2012 Matt issued the album Attitude of Gratitude, which, in part, expressed the couple's relief to have what they believed was the worst behind them. In 2014 Matt Wilson returned to Kansas to perform at the Wichita Jazz Festival, when he returned to New York, he was aware that something was undeniably wrong.
“I noticed that she wasn’t feeling well, and she was having some problems with her legs,” he recalls. “We discovered that this leukemia had come back in her spinal fluid. She entered the hospital again in early May of 2014. She was there until she passed away on the 15th of June. It was the week after her 50th birthday. It was beyond tragedy.”
Wilson decided to return to the studio to make a new album, one that would celebrate Felicia's memory and life. He chose a close group of friends and some of her favorite songs and went about making Beginning of a Memory.
One new song appears called "Flowers for Felicia." It was inspired by the close friendship the Wilsons shared with late jazz legend Charlie Haden and his wife and Felicia's love of an American classic.
“Charlie and Ruth had sent these beautiful orchids. [Felicia] loved orchids,” he says. “She really loved ‘Wildwood Flower,’ the great country/folk song by the Carter Family. So I combined those two pieces.”
Beginning of a Memory has been receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback in the press, including a five-star review in the jazz bible DownBeat. But accolades and artistic achievement aren't what matters most to Wilson at this moment. Instead, he says, he wants to celebrate the extended family he's grown around him over the last 30-plus years.
“This is a gift,” he says. “It’s a deep gift to have and a deep gift to get to receive. So, welcome the gifts of those people around you and be proud of the gifts you’re offering. Just play and enjoy it.”
Beginning of a Memory by Matt Wilson's Big Happy Family is out now.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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