World War II veteran Joe Wilkinson isn’t surprised by his love and only a little by his natural aptitude for music.
After all, his grandfather was still playing the piano when he died just before turning 95, and his father played by ear.
“I guess it was just in the genes somewhere,” said the 90-year-old retired Tulsa architect who will produce and perform in this year’s Memorial Day “Salute to Veterans” at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.
Fans and friends who attend the Tuesday concert series at the Jazz Depot, 111 E. First St., are already familiar with Wilkinson’s many talents.
“Yeah, I go down there and try to horn in their act,” said the native of Buffalo, New York, who has lived in Tulsa off and on since 1938. “I’ve been going down there probably roughly five years. We moved back 10 years ago, and that’s when I started getting back into the music scene.”
It’s part of a musical journey that began with playing ukulele and harmonica in the back seat of his parents’ car. His mother enrolled him in classic piano training at age 12. That lasted for two years.
“When we moved to Tulsa, my mother realized I was not going to be a concert pianist and had me take popular chording,” he said. “It’s a system of playing several notes together and creating chords out of them. Most everything I found had a very definite sequence. That was when my mathematical mind realized there is a method to this madness.”
When the family rented a house in Oklahoma City, Wilkinson’s bedroom was a closed-in porch with an old upright piano on one end and a windup Victrola on the other.
“So I bought Glenn Miller’s ‘Little Brown Jug’ and tried to learn how to play it. I found I could slow the thing down, so I brought it down to (the key of) C. So I lived my life in C for about 60 years before I started working with vocalists who had to do it in different keys. What really got me interested in playing was realizing I could do it by ear.”
A 1941 graduate of Tulsa’s Central High School, he later played in a band while studying for his architecture degree at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
“The war started in ’41, and along in ’43 those of us in college had a tendency to go out and enlist. It was an extremely patriotic war. There were people who were not going (to war) or trying to avoid it but, for the most part, people decided to do something and get it done. That’s why it didn’t last that long.”
He ended up first in Fort Riley, Kansas, and later trained at the University of Nebraska to prep for field artillery. But there were so many casualties from the Battle of the Bulge, that college kids like himself were “being sucked into that program” and suddenly sent as replacement riflemen to the front, he said. His squad contained 18 men — 11 were sent abroad and killed. He wasn’t sent.
“I think it happened because my MOS (military occupation specialties) was typist, and the (Army) Signal Corps were looking for guys who could type for encoding and decoding messages.”
He was shipped to New Guinea, a staging area for the re-invasion of the Philippines, with the U.S. Army’s 304th Signal Corps Battalion.
While there he received a note from headquarters ordering him to go audition for a band.
“That’s when I found out that somehow the Army knew that I was a hack musician,” said Wilkinson, chuckling. The band already had pianist Rudy Martin, so Martin taught Wilkinson how to play bass using the chord systems.
He played with the band and the Army Men’s Chorus whenever there were people to entertain or celebrities paying a visit. When composer Irving Berlin came over on tour, Wilkinson was his bassist.
But the weather in the South Pacific didn’t exactly help performances.
“It rained every day for at least 10 minutes really hard at about 4 p.m.,” Wilkinson said. “It was every afternoon, and the jungles were really wet. It was just miserable.”
The weather was also tough on the pianos on the military base. The backboards were made of plywood, which warped in the extreme humidity.
“Those things wouldn’t stay in tune at all.
“And the guys noticed, so they would get a wrench out there and try to correct them.”
The music they played was mostly big band and swing — Glenn Miller, the Woody Herman Band, Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey.
He said his love and knowledge of music came in handy when he met his wife, Joanne. They were dancing, and she bet him that he couldn’t name the song they were dancing to or play it. The song was the 1947 jazz standard “Green Dolphin Street.” She lost the bet and won the guy.
For his wedding gift, she bought him a Steinway Vertegrand previously owned by Tulsa oilman Thomas Gilcrease. Wilkinson went on to design a niche for the piano in three of the homes he and Joanne have shared.
Music has remained an important part of his life no matter where he has lived. At home, he learns new melodies on his spinet keyboard and uses headphones so as not to bother his wife.
At Monday’s concert, he said he may break out into a little “Stardust” or maybe “Body and Soul.” But some newer songs have attracted him like the haunting melodies of “Somewhere in Time” and “Paradiso.”
At last year’s “Salute to Veterans,” he sang and played “Kalamazoo” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” but this year someone else will perform those songs.
“My voice is aging faster than I am, and I’m not quite as brave as I used to be about doing that.”
And he won’t be the main piano man. That role falls to Tim Shadley with an assist from Larry Mitchell, he said.
This will be his third time to produce the two-hour show, which will emphasize patriotic and World War II-era music.
And it will be his last.
“I have had an extremely good time working with all the different vocalists and learning how to accompany somebody, so that helped get me to where I felt comfortable doing this, but Joanne is telling me this is my swan song. It does take a lot of time, I will acknowledge that.”
And how does he feel being a veteran producing a show that salutes other veterans?
“Well, I think most veterans are of the same mindset that I am,” Wilkinson said.
“We don’t relish fanfare for what we’ve done, but we certainly take pride in the fact that we are still here and we are still in a country that we think is worth fighting for.”