Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction as Desmond Stone proves in his absorbing biography of Alec Wilder, multi-talented eccentric, nomad, composer, songwriter, and author of what is considered by many critics the definitive book on American songwriting, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950.
Born in Rochester, New York, to a wealthy banking family, Wilder never had to worry about money but at the same time he put little value on it, generously sharing with friends. He was an avid letter-writer and valued his lifelong friendships although his bouts of drinking often tested the limits of their patience.
A self-described misfit, he spent his youth as an outsider, eventually finding a home with music which he studied privately at the Eastman School of Music in his home town. While he received the basics there, his unorthodox views did not suit the authoritarian teaching style of the college. Throughout his life, his serious and popular work would defy classification--classical works that were too “jazzy,” popular songs that were too “difficult.” Commenting on the lack of recognition for Wilder’s musical output, Whitney Balliett famously described him as “The President of the Derriere-garde” in a 1973 New Yorker essay. The following year Balliett published a biography of the composer, Alec Wilder and His Friends: A Small Aristocracy.
The range of Wilder’s work was enormous. He wrote for neglected instruments such as tuba and French horn, composed concertos for jazz saxophonists, octets for woodwinds, and music for children. He arranged for radio shows, wrote musical revues, scored films, wrote operas, and composed popular songs (often writing the lyrics himself) many of which became standards such as “I’ll Be Around,” “It’s So Peaceful in the Country,” “While We’re Young,” and “Trouble Is a Man.”
Wilder never burdened himself with possessions. He was constantly on the go and loved traveling by train. He never owned a home and spent most of his life in hotels, most particularly the Algonquin in New York City. His associations provided the anchor in his life. In James Sibley Watson, Jr. he found a father figure, in editor James T. Maher and lyricist William Engvick lifelong collaborators, and in school colleague Mitch Miller, composer/author Gunther Schuller, and filmmaker Jerome Hill supporters for his music and writing. In singers Mildred Bailey, Mabel Mercer, and Lee Wiley, jazz pianist Marian McPartland, and musical comedy star Judy Holiday he found sensitive interpreters of his music and true friendship.
The last of his work to be performed shortly before his death in 1980 was a church cantata composed for a libretto by Loonis McGlohon. A sign of Wilder’s eclecticism, it honored Father Henry A. Atwell, the liberal Catholic priest with whom in 1968 Wilder (the agnostic) and his old friend, photographer Louis Ouzer (a Jew), had produced the choral work, “Children’s Plea for Peace.”
Wilder’s complex body of work may never be completely accepted or understood, but interest in it continues in the form of a well-attended annual birthday celebration in Manhattan devoted to his music and concluding always with the crowd singing the famous Manny Albam arrangement of “I’ll Be Around.”
-- Sandra Burlingame