Joe Wilkinson produces a Memorial Day Salute to Veterans: Like many jazz and swing performers, eighty-nine-year-old singer-pianist Joe Wilkinson knows a lot of the classic songs from World War II. The only difference is, he was playing them when they were new. As a member of the 304 th Signal Operation Battalion stationed in the Philippine Islands, Wilkinson was responsible for helping keep the Allied lines of communication open during the war. Evenings, he had another responsibility: laying down a beat for the off-duty officers stationed on the island of Leyte. “Over there in the South Pacific, the first thing that happened was that you hit the beach and got it secure,” he recalls. “The second thing you did was expand the perimeter to hopefully take in an airstrip, and secure that. The third thing you did was build an officers’ club. And the fourth thing you did was look for a band.”
To this day, Wilkinson isn’t sure why he was called to audition at the makeshift club on the island; he figures someone had heard him play piano at a boot-camp show back in the States and made a note in his record. What he is sure about is what greeted him when he showed up to try out for the gig. “Here was this big pyramidal tent with a dance floor, a piano, and a bar – and that was the officers’ club,” he recalled with a chuckle. “When I walked in, there was this black guy just playing the keys off the piano. I mean he was good. I later found out he had played with Coleman Hawkins stateside, so he was really credible. “So I sat down to listen to him, just in awe, and he saw me and said, `Are you here to audition for the band?’ I said, `Not as long as you’re in the room.’ “He laughed and said, Well, we’re looking for a bassist. You ever play bass?’ I said no, and he said, `Do you understand chord structure?’ I said, yeah, I did. He said, `Go to headquarters and bring a bass in, and I’ll help you along and see if we can’t get you playing bass.’ So I did, and he did, and I wound up playing bass for the Eighth Army Men’s Chorus.” And when the great American composer Irving Berlin came to the Philippines on tour, Wilkinson ended up as his bassist. “I’ll tell you what: He played piano, and every piano man thinks he can sing. I’m no exception,” Wilkinson says with another chuckle. “But he should never have tried it publicly.”
Unlike Irving Berlin, piano man Wilkinson is an accomplished vocalist, even though he tends to downplay both his singing and his keyboard work, saying, “I’ve been privileged to play with several of the good vocalists around here, and I do take pride in being able to handle that job. But there are really gifted piano men around, guys like Steve Schrag and Scott McQuade. Those guys are giants.” Wilkinson is producing Monday’s concert, which will feature a number of guest artists in addition to Wilkinson himself. He expects the evening to be “about two-thirds” standards from the World War II era.
John Wooley, host of Public Radio Tulsa’s “Swing on This” and a Vietnam veteran, is set to emcee the show. Honor Flight representatives will be on hand at the event to answer questions about their program, which sends World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. for a tour. They get a hearty endorsement from Wilkinson, who recently took the Honor Flight himself. “I did it just this year, and I really was touched by it,” he says. “The people were just overwhelming in their congratulations and their `thanks for what you did’ and all of that. I started to feel guilty because I’m still alive to see it. It was all very heartwarming.” – Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, 111 E. First St., upper level. Monday night from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the depot, from http://www.myticketoffice.com, or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-1008. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10 and high school and junior high students for $5. All Armed Forces veterans will be able to see the concert for free. Free Covered Parking!