By Paul Catala
Throughout most of each week and especially Sundays, Stan Wilkerson’s focus is helping turn up the sanctity of services through song.
But outside the church and office doors of Apollo Beach’s Calvary Lutheran Church, Wilkerson is known for his ability to slide along with some of the biggest names in jazz and pop music.
Since the late 1980s, Wilkerson, a professional trombonist, has performed in a variety of musical genres, having taken the stage or set up in the studio with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Yo-Yo Ma, Dave Brubeck, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Stephen Sondheim, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Jon Faddis, Kathleen Battle, Bennie Carter, Joe Williams and Lionel Hampton.
And that’s while he leads the Stan Wilkerson Quartet, playing venues across the Tampa Bay area and all of Central Florida.
Wilkerson, 51, maintains a humble-but-appreciative demeanor as the music leader at Calvary. But over his 30-plus years in the business, he has counted off with some of the best, layering a legacy of sound that belies his rather humble day-to-day career and lifestyle.
“I think I’ve been very fortunate to have performed with some of the greatest musicians of my generation while I continue to work on my craft and improve,” he says.
As a solo trombonist, Wilkerson — a native of Savannah, Georgia — has toured across the United States and Europe, and was invited twice to perform in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President George W. Bush.
During a recent workday in the Calvary office, Wilkerson – who moved back to Apollo Beach in 2016 after serving as music director at a church in Indianapolis – went over a selection of music for upcoming Sunday services.
The church, at 5309 N. U.S. 41, is in the process of relocating and will have a grand opening Sept. 15 at its new location, 1250 E. College Ave., Ruskin.
For Calvary’s 9 and 10 45 a.m. services and his part in “worship design,” Wilkerson says he looks for traditional and popular religious pieces. But after the church doors close and he’s home, Wilkerson says he’s more focused on jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and John Coltrane than the sacred sounds of Lutheran hymn writers like Martin Behm, Johann Franck or Korad Hubert.
“It’s quite rewarding to have played with some of the absolute greatest musicians ever, but there are other great musicians you may have never heard about,” says Wilkerson, who founded Tampa’s Bethel Academy for the Arts in 2007 and stayed there until 2010.
Filling out the current Stan Wilkerson Jazz Combo is keyboardist Kevin Wilder of St. Petersburg, bassist Xavier Chisolm of Tampa, Clearwater’s Pat Close on drums and Vincent Sims of Tampa on guitar.
Wilder, 55, says he known Wilkerson for about 15 years – meeting him to play a wedding at Tampa’s Hyde Park United Methodist Church – and has performed weekly with his various groups for most of that time. He says Wilkerson brings leadership to the band. For audiences, he brings an extensive and varied repertoire of songs.
“He’s all-around a great, great musician,” says Wilder, who’s played professionally for more than 40 years. “He plays church music as well as jazz, he’s easy to work with and he’s multitalented; he’s very adaptable.”
Besides many hours of lessons and rehearsals, to get to his point of musical expertise, it didn’t hurt to have come from a musical family. Wilkerson’s father, Charles Wilkerson Sr., is a nondenominational pastor and a composer. The youngest of six children, Wilkerson’s brother, Steven, plays drums and sings; his brother Cecil is a bassist; and another brother, Charles – now deceased – played guitar and composed.
Wilkerson began playing trombone in fifth grade after his elementary school band director suggested it. In 1996, he received his bachelor’s degree in music from Florida State University and in 1998 his master’s degree in classical trombone performance from Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he spent eight years on the jazz studies faculty.
Since graduation, Wilkerson has been able to back up and play along with some of his musical idols, getting to know of few up close and personal.
For example, in 2000 while living in Baltimore, Wilkerson said Brubeck, the jazz piano great, called to record on a piece he wrote in 1965 called “Gates of Justice,” released in 2001. The experience was “very nice,” he says.
“He (Brubeck) was pretty amazing and incredibly sharp; he was very generous with his time and very down to earth,” says Wilkerson.
In 1997, Wilkerson worked with famed trumpeter Marsalis, performing on a series of music instructional videos for schools in the Berkshires of Massachusetts as well as played in a jazz orchestra in New York’s Lincoln Center under Marsalis’ leadership.
“His (Marsalis) virtuosity as a player is striking. He’s a tireless worker and gives and gives,” Wilkerson recalls of his playing days from 1994 to about 2004 with the jazz great. “He’s very personable and has a huge presence and aura about him while being very generous with his time.”
In addition to Marsalis, Wilkerson in 2000 recorded with American composer-lyricist Sondheim on an original Broadway recording, “Bounce.”
Wilkerson says one of his biggest musical accolades was backing singer Patti LaBelle. In 1999, he performed with her at the Hampton Jazz Festival in Virginia as part of the horn section. He says she is “incredibly talented” and had the audience “eating out of the palm of her hand.”
“It’s always an extra thrill when you get to play for a legend; she definitely falls into that category,” he says.
Wilkerson’s time with the masters also helped him provide invaluable instructions and tips during his teaching career, which included teaching trombone, jazz improvisation and jazz theory at the Peabody Conservatory and Baltimore’s Morgan State University and Gilmore Edison Academy.
In 2004, Wilkerson formed the first incarnation of his Stan Wilkerson jazz ensembles, which can be from three to six pieces, depending on the venue and situation. Although the focus is jazz, his groups often venture into rock and pop, covering jazz-influenced artists such as Chicago, Marvin Gaye and Earth Wind & Fire.
Wilkerson also lends his talents playing in the pit orchestras of Tampa’s Straz Center and with The Florida Orchestra.
Although he’s busy keeping the jazz jukin’ around the Tampa Bay area, working as the director of the jazz band at the University of Tampa, conducting services at Calvary and teaching trombone, among other endeavors, Wilkerson still has some musical goals: to record more instrumental albums. He said his next project will likely consist of jazz-influenced church hymns.
In the meantime, reflecting on his career so far, Wilkerson says it’s been rewarding but far from over.
“The more you know about music, the more you realize you don’t know and still need to learn,” he says. “I’m not nearly done yet.”
Wilkerson’s latest album, the Christian- and gospel-influenced “Unstoppable,” was released Aug. 1, 2017 on iTunes.