Wilson was self-taught jazz virtuoso

WHEN THE late Frank Rizzo was Philadelphia police commissioner, he wanted Donald Wilson to be his bodyguard. Although Don was fond of Rizzo, he had to turn him down. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I have music to play.”

Don was a devoted cop for 22 years, but his first love was music — jazz, to be specific.

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Wilson

He was a virtuoso on the piano and trumpet, and played in the police band and at the jazz clubs that once flourished in Philly, performing with John Coltrane and other notables of the jazz world.

Donald Wilson, a largely self-taught musician who also was a well-known composer, arranger and teacher, a collector of classic cars and motorcycles, and a sports fan who had high hopes for the Sixers in their playoff series, died Thursday of pneumonia in Chestnut Hill Hospital at age 76.

He was leader of the Big Band at the Clef Club in Philadelphia in the ’90s, and in recent years, played piano with the Tony Williams Trio on Monday nights at LaRose Jazz Club in Germantown. He was a solo pianist on Thursday nights at the Warwick Hotel in Center City.

“He was such a nice person,” said his wife, the former Mary “Jackie” Billman, a onetime jazz singer who also performed at the old jazz clubs, including the Showboat and Red Rooster, that jumped in the ’50s and ’60s with the sounds of many prominent musicians. “He always had a big old smile on his face. Everybody loved him. He just had that personality. He was aninteresting person.”

In fact, Don was a man of wide-ranging curiosity. “Many things interested him,” his wife said. “He had a beautiful motorcycle. He was just interested in things that I called ‘stuff.’”

The police band was often called upon to greet visiting dignitaries. His wife recalls when it entertained Bob Hope.

Don was born in Philadelphia to Richard and Emmerline Wilson. He graduated from Simon Gratz High School in 1954. He joined the Police Department in 1959 and worked various patrol assignments, in addition to playing trumpet in the police band. He had taught himself to play the piano at an early age and played piano with the Police Pastimers Band. He retired in 1981.

Don studied trumpet with prominent Philadelphia music teacher Dennis Sandole and later passed on his knowledge to others, including Lee Morgan, the late hard-bop trumpeter from Philly.

Don was a part-time teacher of jazz, piano and improvisation at Temple University from 2001 to 2009, and taught Saturday-morning classes in piano, music theory and arranging at the Mount Airy Cultural Center.

In addition to Coltrane, Philadelphia’s legendary sax player, Don played with the late hard-bop saxophonist Sonny Stitt and with the late jazz trumpeter and flügelhorn player Art Farmer.

Don formed the Big Band in 1975, and it played locally and at Atlantic City casinos. He led the Clef Club band at summer concerts sponsored by the city Recreation Department.

He served in the Army National Guard and was a member of Optimist International.

Besides his wife, he is survived by two sisters, Ursula Hendricks and Alice Womack.

Services: 10 a.m. Thursday at Kirk & Nice Funeral Home, 80 Stenton Ave., Plymouth Meeting. Friends may call at 8 a.m. Burial will be in Rolling Green Memorial Park, West Goshen. n

Contact John F. Morrison at 215-854-5573 or morrisj@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @johnfmorrison.