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Sons of Miles
BARNEY WILEN: If You're Good At It, Do It
by Mike Zwerin
4 June 1998

After a solo with Miles Davis' band in the Club Saint Germain during the winter of 1958, 21-year-old Barney Wilen unhooked his saxophone, came to the bar, ordered a double and said: "You know what Miles just said to me? He said: 'Why don't you stop playing those terrible notes?'" Not having a low insecurity threshold, Wilen immediately went back to the bandstand to play some more of whatever you call them. It would take more than words to kill Barney.

His healthy ego can be traced in part to inheritance. His father, an American, was a dentist before becoming an inventor. He collected big royalties on patents covering flippers, goggles and other underwater gear just before the demand for them went way up.

Born in Nice in 1937, Barney grew up "right in the middle of that F. Scott Fitzgerald French Riviera scene. My father was Suzanne Langlen's tennis manager for a while." The family left to escape the war but "we were on the first boat back after it was over."

In addition to his father's strong personality, Wilen can look back much further on his French mother's side of the family for ancestral inspiration. Talking about ancient relatives, he said: "Pierre Josef de Tremblay was Richelieu's secretary. And the Michaux brothers were counsellors to Czar Nicholas during the Napoleonic wars. These were the guys who had the brilliant idea to burn down Moscow.

"Blaise Cendrars, the poet, who was a friend of my mother's, was the one who convinced me to be a musician," Wilen continued. "My mother used to hold regular literary teas to bring people together. I remember particularly various friends of Marcel Proust and Consuelo de Saint-Exupery [widow of the writer/airman] and so on.

"My father wanted me to be a lawyer or go into real estate and he you might say ‘sequestered' the alto sax my uncle Jesse had given me just before I was going to take part in a contest sponsored by the Hot Club de France. I hustled like mad and eventually found a baritone sax, which I had never played before.

"Everybody said I sounded like Gerry Mulligan. Gerry was big that year, so I didn't mind. Our band won the contest.

"'Do what you want,' Cendrars told me. 'Don't think about what other people say. If you like it and feel you can be good at it, do it.'"

In the early 1950s, teenager Wilen opened a youth club featuring jazz. Family connections combined with energy and talent coaxed help from the city of Nice, and from his father's friend Jacques Medecin; then a journalist. After that he was the mayor of Nice and since then he's been in and out of exile in Uraguay.

Playing every night, he got better fast. Wilen, which comes from Wilensky and is "either Polish or Russian, I'm not sure," moved to Paris in 1957. He was one of the few European born players that Americans were willing to play with. He accompanied Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk on the soundtrack of Roger Vadim's film "Les Liaisons dangereuses," and was very strong being featured with Miles on the soundtrack of Louis Malle's movie, "Lift to the Scaffold."

Inherited money and a multi-talented free spirit occasionally took Wilen away from jazz. After hearing some recorded pygmy music in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, ha arranged financing, put a team of filmmakers, technicians, journalists and musicians in four Land Rovers and left in 1970 to "go to Africa and look for and record these people."

Barney Wilen

Moving back and forth several times with revolving personnel, the project preoccupied him for a total of six years. Because of an accumulation of problems like the war in Biafra, a plethora of land mines, a period in prison, some bad planning and intense social pressure, they never did record (or find) the pygmies. "All the pygmies seem to have left by the time we got there," Wilen said.

He was the model for the central character in a six-part story called "Barney," about a jazz musician, which ran in the French adult comic magazine "A Suivre" (To Be Continued). The story was collected into a hard- covered album.

The hero is insecure, a "loser," a scowler, a womanizer, moody, strung out on heroin, and usually needs a shave. It is neither flattering nor, according to Wilen, accurate. When he asked: "Why me?" the editors replied: "Because you're the rockiest jazz musician we know."

Wilen described himself as a "putter together." Although he worked regularly, and his name was well known in French jazz circles, his reputation gradually faded as a new generation of fine players came of age. His pale, emotionally drained face did not smile easily. Despite an impressive reserve of positive energy, he tended to duck his fate.

He moved back to Nice. He put together, managed and played with a punk rock band called Moko. He also put together a "Jazzmobile" organization, which, like its New york namesake, took music to people in outlying districts on flatbed trucks.

Then he brought the same concept to Paris, renamed "Zapmobile" because of trademark restrictions. The debut concert, called "Me and My Friends," was played on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. Followed by a month-long series of concerts on a barge.

Wilen also put together a musical comedy, a series of sketches about "looking for Charlie Parker's saxophone." The project was not helped by the fact that he'd been "dodging finance companies who were after me for 200,000 francs for three years as an aftermath of my last theatrical production.

"But I'm not worried," he said at the time. "I've been existing more than living lately. I've got nothing to lose - no houses, no automobiles, no major appliances. The moment I do accumulate some belongings they seem somehow to go suddenly down the drain."

PS: Barney Wilen had accumulated more and more critical success and musical knowledge and by the mid 90s, he was stronger than ever and he had a wonderful band with the Franco/Americano Laurent de Wilde on piano. So Barney had become so strong once more that when he died just shy of 60 it was a shock. A loss.

Going suddenly down the drain one way or another seemed to be his karma.

Photo: Barney Wilen
Credit: Christian Rose

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