It’s been nearly two decades since Atsushi Miura routinely stepped out from slicing yellowtail behind the sushi bar at Tokyo Rose and climbed on stage to perform his trademark satirical ode to local culture—one that served to bring down the house full of indie rockers, goths, and punks with its title chorus “I hate Charlottesville/too boring/I hate Charlottesville/nothing, ohhhh.”
The topic of whether or not Charlottesville has a healthy local music community is still widely debated. Overall there is something for everyone. Ask the fans and you get a picture of a thriving scene led by a variety of Billboard charted names and those climbing the Pitchfork lists. The club kids are excited about a once quiet scene now bolstered by touring bands that roll through the ticketed venues on a nightly basis. Ask the musicians, and you’ll get a high percentage of complaints, all mixed with gratitude for the increase in opportunity and exposure that comes from gigging in the town that Starr Hill Presents pinned to the booking map.
In between lies another stratum of live music. While many local musicians play around town frequently, and others are selective, trying to avoid overexposure, it’s the regulars who take up residence and hold court, providing the everyday currency for our musical image, as they do in vibrant locales such as New Orleans.
Scattered along the Downtown Mall and across the city, when the theaters let out, dinner rush is over, and the evening crosses into late night, resident musicians punch in and take the stage. Most of these acts book their own gigs, haul their own equipment, then settle up and load out at the end of the night with little fanfare other than a black-slap and a drink. There are no meet and greets, catering or handlers to be found, and it’s only the occasional overwrought newbie who fawns over their performance or asks for a signature.
The regulars reach an audience never defined by class or creed. They play for the chat-while-listening crowd, the loner drinking away the pain, the hustler on the make, the elderly woman sipping in the corner, and the gregarious co-eds with their newly minted IDs. They play to be heard, and to unleash the muse, stoking the fire within and building a following that over time becomes a family.
Profoundly talented musicians play regular gigs at Blue Moon Diner, C’ville Coffee, Durty Nelly’s, Escafe, LaTaza Tiki Bar, Miller’s, Rapture, The Whiskey Jar, Wild Wing Café, and in the surrounding breweries and wineries. And if local music has a soul, it can be found at Fellini’s #9 on Mondays when Wilfred “88 Keys” Wilson plays and sings, “You wander down the lane and far away/leaving me a song that will not die/love is now the stardust/of yesterday/the music/of the years/gone by.” —Tami Keaveny
Wilfred “88 Keys” Wilson at Fellini’s #9
Every Monday evening at Fellini’s #9, Wilfred Wilson’s lithe, well-worn fingers tap out tunes that, to the cultured ear, are recognizable as jazz standards, the soundtrack of post World War II America. Professionally known as “88 Keys,” a nickname given to him by Clarence “Dinky” Monroe that reflects his propensity to use every note available to him, the 87-year-old Wilson wore a short-sleeve blue collar shirt and brown suspenders when I went to see him play, like a cross between Thelonious Monk and a ’60s factory floor manager.
Playing “Moon River,” “Almost Like Being in Love,” and “Over the Rainbow,” his music exists in a time warp, transmitting the energy of an age when Nat King Cole and Johnny Mercer filled the airwaves, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire tapdanced across the silver screen, and bars were places to drink, dream, and forget. It was also a time when, in Charlottesville and the rest of the segregated South, the best jobs for African-Americans were in entertainment and service.
Born in 1926, Wilson grew up on Page Street, in what used to be Vinegar Hill. His mother was a music teacher, who “didn’t have a whole lot of students, but I think I was one” he said, and his father was a waiter and a bartender in the club car for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. From an early age Wilson knew it was music and music alone that interested him. His mother taught him to play the piano at age 7 and a few years later he took up the trumpet.
“I’d just bang on [the piano] and make noise—disturbing the peace,” said Wilson. “Pianos were pieces of furniture in everyone’s house. I’d try all the pianos in the neighborhood.”
Wilson’s professional music career began in the Army during World War II. He was in special services, the entertainment division of the military, and co-directed a show called “The Regimental Rhythm Revue,” which was so good that it was put on a six-month tour throughout Western Europe, playing at bases in Geneva, Naples, and Reims for GIs. When he came home in 1947, Wilson missed the Army life.
“I got in the reenlistment line, and then, looking around, I quickly got out,” he said, laughing and then soberly nodding his head.
“88 Keys” Wilson has been a Charlottesville jazz mainstay since the 1950s when his band played clubs (like Miller’s Flat and Kenny’s Hall) and entertained at parties and weddings around the area, traveling to Washington, D.C. to play at Midwinters and Easters, sometimes in the same lineup as acts like The Temptations and The Four Freshman, and other times sharing a stage with jazz legends such as Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie.
Charlottesville’s music scene was lively then.
“We used to have a lot of bands coming in, years ago, for different things,” Wilson said. “We had a lot of clubs. We don’t have the clubs no more, and we don’t have the people that used to go to them. They were good times. There were good things to remember, they’re just not happening anymore.”
Wilson worked for his living at the Boar’s Head Inn, Farmington Country Club, and the Monticello Hotel as a waiter, a bartender, and a musician, sometimes all three. He and his band played music in the upstairs lounge at the Boar’s Head while Tommy Miller “dominated” the tavern downstairs, and he played at the manager’s parties on the roof of the Monticello Hotel after he was through serving $1.99 specials to hotel guests in the dining room.
In the ’60s and ’70s, as the club scene died, Wilson, like other local musicians, gravitated to the UVA fraternity and formal circuit. Recalling those times brings a wry smile to his face.
“We’d come out from playing and another fraternity would catch us and ask us to play their party,” he told me, sitting in front of his portrait hanging on the wall at Fellini’s #9.
Wilson also worked for 30 years at the UVA Medical Center as a driver, an assistant in the radiology and special procedures departments, and as the hospital’s in-house piano man, playing for patients, staff, and passersby during his lunch break. He still plays there a couple times a week and is greeted by old friends and coworkers, children of former coworkers, and patients who have listened to his soothing reprieve for years.
Growing up, Wilson’s primary musical influence was church music, gospel, but it was songs like “Stardust,” by Hoagy Carmichael, and trombonists like “Tricky Sam” Nanton who inspired him.
“I love ‘Stardust,’” said Wilson. “I’m always going to play ‘Stardust.’ It used to be that was a key song for big bands over the years. ‘Stardust’ was one of those songs you got on the floor with.”
After nearly two decades playing at Central Place on the Downtown Mall and in lobbies of various hotels, Wilson was offered a regular gig in 2007 by Fellini’s #9 owner Jaclynn Dunkle, which he happily accepted. Dunkle was introduced to Wilson by the late George Melvin, a local jazz organist who played at Fellini’s, and she knew instantly that “88 Keys” fit her vision of the new Fellini’s.
“He’s old school,” Dunkle said when asked what it was that convinced her to hire the octogenarian jazz pianist.
When you go hear him, it’s easy for the tunes to lull you into the sense that you’re listening to background music: saccharine old film scores and songs you’ve heard repurposed in commercials 1,000 times. But listen carefully and you start to feel Wilson’s gift, the way he moves in front of and then behind the rhythm, the way he weaves his own improvisations into the tunes.
“In jazz, you know, you do a lot of stuff,” Wilson said. “I put a lot of mixed-up stuff in there. I recreate the song in my own way. Ad-libbing, they call it.”
It’s in the effortless way he infused limiting conventions, both in life and at the piano, that has made Wilson a local icon. Art Wheeler, who is himself a piano legend and has played for five United States presidents and served as the musical director at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, credits his own career to Wilson’s indirect influence.
“I was immediately inspired with the possibility that one day I would feel comfortable and secure to play outside, to play in public,” Wheeler said. “I eventually did, and I owe a large part of that emotional change to watching his confidence and listening to him play.”
Wheeler sees in Wilson a man who made a living and provided for his family, who broke barriers and crossed lines, and who did it all so gracefully that he was hardly noticed: “He was playing lovingly, casually, friendly in a time when this country and this city were divided because of appearance. That influence is immeasurable and real and not random, and it’s substantial.”
If you want to hear Wilson play and talk he has a CD called My Way, which consists of his set favorites, like “Satin Doll” and “Misty” alongside a biographical interview that serves as an interlude. Or you could just walk down to Fellini’s #9 one Monday evening and see him for yourself. —Justin Goldberg