Farewell to jazz legend Joan Wildman

The beloved pianist taught improvisation to generations of UW–Madison students.

For jazz pianist Joan Wildman, music was life. That may sound like a figure of speech, but Wildman proved it a statement of fact. After a cancer diagnosis last year, the longtime UW–Madison professor bravely rejected a treatment that might have bought her more time. The problem was, the drugs would have numbed her fingers. And that would have ended her ability to create at the keyboard.

University of Wisconsin-Madison music professor Joan Wildman

For Wildman, improvising was a way to make magic in the moment.

Instead, Madison’s avatar of the avant-garde was happily creating until she died, at 82 on April 8. I was lucky to hear a rehearsal tape of a solo piano work, intended for a final performance in March. An ailing Joan couldn’t make the gig, to the regret of her local fans. But the tape shows her genius undiminished.

The composition balances formal rigor with the spontaneity of a born improviser. It sketches a mood—”ethereally earthy” is the closest I can come in words—with stride piano and insistent stabs of dissonance. The left and right hands ruminate in counterpoint: one last reflection on this mortal coil.

I’ve heard dozens of Joan Wildman compositions since discovering her in the 1980s, but I’d never heard anything like this. Of course, that was a common experience. Despite an instantly identifiable style, no piece of hers sounded like the one before.

It’s what made Joan an artist of the first rank. She was always onto something new.

From an early age, this irrepressible spirit delighted in breaking boundaries. She grew up on an isolated Nebraska ranch, taking lessons from a small-town piano teacher who hated modern music. But Joan couldn’t get enough of it, finding kindred spirits in Charlie Parker and John Cage. Though trained as a classical pianist, she found her sweet spot in jazz improvisation, which she later taught to generations of UW students. Improvising was a way to make magic in the moment. In Joan’s cosmology, there was no higher calling.

Allergic to convention, she moved beyond jazz to a category all her own. While rooted in swing rhythms and the blues, she experimented with electronic instruments and free-form collaborations. Her curiosity about new sounds—and, really, about everything—made her more than just my musical hero. She showed that life could be an endless series of discoveries, one more fascinating than the next.

I can’t feel sad for Joan. As a person and a musician, she was fulfilled. But I am sad for the rest of us, who can no longer hear her latest explorations. No more startling performances at venues around the world; no more revelatory rehearsal tapes.

There’s only one way for me to process her death. Joan is onto something new.

Published in the Summer 2020 issue

Tags: Arts, Faculty, music, women

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