Morris Wilson was a jazz musician who could play R&B. But the saxophonist wasn’t one to compromise — with either his music or his life.
“He was fierce in what he believed. He never backed off — right or wrong,” said Maurice Jacox, a Minneapolis saxophonist and singer.
Wilson died Jan. 8 of a heart attack at Hennepin County Medical Center. He was 76.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Wilson was the man when it came to jazz saxophone in the Twin Cities.
“He was a hard-edged person who always took time to talk to other players,” Jacox said. “He was a mentor, and a wonderful man.”
Jacox called Wilson “a fierce, fierce musician and uncompromising player” who never got the recognition he deserved. An outspoken activist, Wilson sometimes railed against racism in the music business and the lack of opportunities for black musicians in Minneapolis clubs.
“When disco was hot, he tried to reinvent himself as black Moses, wearing turbans and robes and playing R&B,” Jacox said. “When he deviated from what he did best, he got lost. What he did best was hard-ass jazz.”
Preoccupied with baseball, track and football, Wilson didn’t get into music until junior high, playing trumpet in the Franklin Junior High big band. It was Richard Green, future Minneapolis school superintendent and an avid record collector, who turned him on to the saxophone.
In his early teens, Wilson got tips from the famous sax man Lester Young, who lived for a time on Minneapolis’ North Side. After high school, Wilson played in Twin Cities R&B bands but heard such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Illinois Jacquet jamming in local clubs. Wilson also looked up to and learned from such older Twin Cities players as Percy Hughes, Irv Williams and Dave Karr. In the late 1960s, Wilson spent nearly a year touring in the band behind the Temptations. He also gigged with blues stars B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Mojo Buford.
Like most musicians, Wilson worked day jobs, including as an interviewer for the Minnesota State Employment Service and as an assistant to band directors in two Minneapolis junior high schools. Neither job seemed related to the history degree he received from the University of Minnesota in 1971. He was a single father raising twin daughters.
“He tried. No one can be a successful parent by themselves,” said daughter Staci Kochendorfer. “His mother helped out, his aunts helped out. He always had a band and they were always in our basement. My grandmother put a bathroom in the basement so the guys [in Wilson’s band] wouldn’t come up.”
Daughter Shannon Kochendorfer called him “very demanding. It was his way or no way. It was not always smooth sailing with him, especially if you wanted to have your own opinion about things. Musicians have to be selfish in a way because they get lost in the music to the exclusion of other things, like relationships. I accept that for the person he was.”
In 1985, Wilson starred as the aforementioned jazz man Young in the Penumbra Theatre production of the play “The Resurrection of Lady Lester.” In a Star Tribune interview at the time, Wilson explained that he liked the challenge of taking on a dramatic role.
“I have always liked challenges, and this is the biggest one of my life other than raising my two daughters,” he said. “Raising them is the proudest thing I have done in my life.”
The saxophonist had been absent from the scene in recent years because of kidney dialysis.
In addition to his daughters, Wilson is survived by a son, Kevin Kirkendahl, and three grandchildren.
Services will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at Cremation Society of Minnesota, 4343 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls.