Wilbert Tillman was a traditional jazz and brass band multi-instrumentalist from New Orleans who played with the Eureka, Young Tuxedo, and Tulane brass bands.
Wilbert Tillman was a traditional jazz and brass band multi-instrumentalist from New Orleans. Tillman played with the Eureka, Young Tuxedo, and Tulane brass bands. He is perhaps most notable for the band he led jointly with Kid Howard in the 1940s.
Tillman was born on March 31, 1898, in New Orleans. The Tillman family boasted a number of musicians, including Wilbert’s cousin, John Casimir, with whom Tillman co-founded the Young Tuxedo Brass Band. As a child, Tillman’s first instrument was the flute, though over his musical career he would also learn the cornet, clarinet, tenor sax, alto sax, brass bass, and trumpet, the last of which he learned from Louis Dumaine.
Tillman served in the Navy during World War I. In 1919 or 1920 he returned to New Orleans and took further musical instruction from Professor James Brown Humphrey, Professor Paul Chaligny, Dave Perkins, Edmond Hall, and Lorenzo Tio Jr. Tillman’s first professional job was playing for the Eureka Brass Band. Perhaps this gig is what began Tillman’s lifelong passion for brass band playing, as the next four decades would see him playing with nearly all the brass bands in the city at one time or another. In the early years of his career, Tillman worked with many talents: the Frank-McCurdy Peerless Orchestra; Willie Cornish, Jack Carey, Buddy Petit, and Chris Kelly; and Petit and Kelly, after 1924.
In the 1940s Tillman co-led a band with Kid Howard, an effort he described as being a significant point in his career. In 1963, when his cousin John Casimir died, Tillman–who had co-founded the Young Tuxedo Brass Band with Casimir in the mid-1930s, after their work with the Tulane Brass Band–took over as leader of the group. Unfortunately, Tillman was forced to retire the position a year later due to poor health. A stroke would bring Tillman’s parading career to a close.
Upon the opening of Preservation Hall in 1961, Tillman could occasionally be found there playing with Billie and Dede Pierce. Jazz historians have noted that Tillman also had an influence on Allan Jaffe, one of the hall’s stewards, and played a role in Jaffe’s musical growth as a tuba player. In 1963 Tillman traveled to Houston to play for the Contemporary Art Festival, along with Billie and Dede Pierce, Andrew Morgan, and Albert Jiles.
Tillman’s quintessential recording is the Young Tuxedo Brass Band’s Jazz Begins album, recorded for Atlantic on November 1, 1958. Led by Casimir and featuring Paul Barbarin (snare drum), Morgan (tenor sax), Jim Robinson (trombone), Andrew Anderson (trumpet), and Tillman on sousaphone, this record is an excellent example of the group’s strength and sound. “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” “Bourbon Street Parade” (written by Barbarin), “Joe Avery’s Piece,” and “John Casimir’s Whoopin’ Blues” (written by Casimir) are all standout cuts off the album.
Tillman died on February 11, 1967, in New Orleans.