His 10-year history as a bandsman in the Air Force Band of the West at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland means trombonist Ron Wilkins has played the national anthem hundreds of times, always as an honored duty.
Now as an independent jazz musician playing the revered song for Urban-15’s July 6 episode of its Hidden Histories documentary series, Wilkins had an opportunity to lend a personal interpretation to a song with a dark, hidden history.
“When I play it now, it’s a part of me being able to go ahead and render a personal interpretation to it,” Wilkins said. “And yet still give it the respect I believe it deserves, but also knowing that the whole history of this country, in terms of especially dealing with African American or Black people, has been just horrendous.”
Being Black in America
Not long after his military family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in Northeast San Antonio, “on the other side of the tracks,” Wilkins said, a cross was burned on their lawn. The year was 1968, and Wilkins was 11 years old.
“It took the neighbors a minute to go ahead and get used to the fact that Black people were in their neighborhood,” Wilkins said. But his career Army father, James Weldon Wilkins, who had served in Korea and Vietnam, insisted the family had worked hard for what they had and would not be scared away.
In the current moment of Black Lives Matter protests following on the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, the July 6 Hidden Histories episode will focus on Black life in America, with sections on historical slavery in San Antonio, protest, and Black music traditions. Wilkins opens the show with a solo trombone rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
When he recorded the song on his cellphone, he approached it “in a way that spoke of reverence and respect,” he said in a Thursday interview from his Austin home.
Urban-15 Director of Music and Media George Cisneros described Wilkins’ solo bass trombone rendering of the song as “solemn” and “almost ministerial,” saying when he and his colleagues first heard the recording Thursday morning, “we all got goose bumps.”
COVID-19 nearly killed him
That Wilkins can play his instrument at all is something of a miracle, as he described his eventual recovery from COVID-19, the disease brought on by the novel coronavirus.
Though his career had taken him to New York City, he had contracted to play in the orchestra for the musical Aladdin in Austin. Those March performances were canceled due to restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, and Wilkins took a side trip to his childhood hometown.
During the visit, he felt symptoms he at first thought might be typical Hill Country allergies. Those symptoms turned out to be COVID-19, and in early April he was hospitalized at Northeast Baptist Hospital and put into a medically induced coma for 32 days.
Kidney disease had led him to receive a kidney transplant in 2014, which put him into a heightened risk category for COVID-19, despite his general good health. Throughout his coma, the trombonist was intubated and on a ventilator, which put him at risk for permanent lung damage.
After six weeks, he was transferred to PAM Specialty Hospital in New Braunfels for rehabilitation, where he would relearn how to stand and walk, given the negative effects of prolonged intubation on muscle mass and coordination.
Next was a final week at another rehabilitation center for three hours per day of occupational and physical therapy, “to make sure that I was going to be able to handle the rigors of being back out on my own again,” he said. As a musician without regular health insurance beyond some veterans benefits, the more than 70 days of treatment have left him with mid- to upper-six-figure medical bills.
Though he enjoyed his time in New York gigging with notable ensembles including the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Count Basie Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie All Stars, and the Mingus Big Band, being back home helps his recovery, he said. “I’ve always had a very special relationship with San Antonio and Austin. … It’s good to be back home in Texas.”
Though San Antonio’s status as a minority-majority city has made it “a little bit more balanced towards equality,” Wilkins said, he and other touring musicians regularly experienced racism.
“When I’m going through certain cities throughout the east part of Texas, where you knew as a Black person you didn’t want to be in that city after sundown,” he said of earlier experiences on the road.
After an education at the University of North Texas, noted for its a prominent music school, Wilkins was recruited to tour with Clark Terry, a leading jazz composer and musician of the day. The band toured all over America and Europe, and Wilkins saw that treatment of Black Americans in European countries was far different from treatment at home.
Huge crowds would turn out for Terry and his band, “people going absolutely crazy for the music,” but being offstage is where the real difference became apparent. Wilkins said people in general would “truly recognize the importance of what I did as a musician” and that he was “treated with a level of respect that I hadn’t felt before, even in the military. If I were wearing a uniform and I was doing a concert or performance, yeah, I’d receive a certain level of respect. But if I had the uniform off, and I’m still walking around the street, chances are I wouldn’t get that respect.”
Wilkins said he clearly understood why Black artists, musicians, and writers such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright became expatriates after their European experiences. “Because, you know, you weren’t treated like a second-class, third-class citizen.”
Though racism exists in Europe, as it does everywhere, Wilkins said, “over there, it wasn’t as much about race … as it was about being a musician, being looked at as a man who can actually perform and make music,” and as a contributor to society respected for his artistry.
Coming back to America after that four-month tour was hard, he said, but it meant coming home to family with whom he maintains close connections to this day. Having grown up in a stable home in a well-resourced neighborhood lends perspective on how fortunate he is to have survived COVID-19. Speaking of his fortunate experience, Wilkins also acknowledged the unequal care and higher death rates facing communities of color, evidence that inequality persists and is pervasive.
“It’s being able to have equal advantages that go with living in this country, which has not been the case for hundreds of years,” he said, recalling the history of slavery, the failures of Reconstruction in establishing equal status for Blacks, the Jim Crow era of institutionalized segregation, the long fight for civil rights, and persistent police brutality.
Why he can still bring respect to the national anthem, with its lyrics penned by a virulent slaveholder and darkly referencing victory over rebellious slaves in its little-known third verse, Wilkins said it’s “with the intention to pay respect to the concept of what America is supposed to be.”
As a nation, America is getting closer to realizing its ideals as the movement in support of Black lives gathers more support, Wilkins said. “More and more people are speaking out. In particular, white people,” which for Wilkins recalls the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “It’s kind of a rebirth of sorts.”
Such support mirrors the fact that for every one person who disliked the Wilkins family moving into that predominantly white neighborhood in Northeast San Antonio, there were 10 people who supported them, Wilkins said.
The ultimate goal is for all to be regarded equally no matter their skin color, just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. suggested, he said. In stating the difficulties realizing the goal, Wilkins put it in stark terms that recalled Francis Scott Key’s lyrics, meant to stir national feeling.
“That’s the whole point behind America: It’s supposed to be the land of the free, the home of the brave,” he said. “But it’s hard to be part of the land of the free when you’re raised in captivity and raised … to feel like you’re an inferior being. There’s so much wrong in that. That’s been going on for centuries. America is supposed to be the place where everybody gets a chance, everybody gets a shot, but it’s not there, it’s not equal, it never has been.”
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Two weeks after his COVID-19 hospitalization and rehab, Wilkins is now focused on returning to his instrument, his breathing exercises, and the regular physical activity that helped gird his body against the invasive disease that nearly claimed his life. A new record, Ron Wilkins: Trombocalist, featuring guest musicians backing Wilkins on bass trombone and singing in various styles, is slated for release in late August.
How Americans react to the rising curve of coronavirus cases will no doubt determine whether Wilkins will be able to support the album with live performances or a tour. He observed strict safety protocols before he caught the virus and will continue to do so, encouraging his fellow Americans to do the same.
As a COVID-19 survivor, his message is clear. The coronavirus pandemic is “one of the deadliest crises that we’ve faced in this world since the [1918 flu pandemic].” You would think “that we would act more together,” he said of people who refuse to observe safe social distancing and mask-wearing practices, “but apparently we don’t. It’s discouraging and scary because people are dying for this, people are getting very sick from this.”
Millions are now unemployed, and Congress tries but struggles to “do the right thing” amid a highly polarized, politicized environment, “which is the last thing we needed,” Wilkins said.
As to those claiming a constitutional right not to wear a mask, Wilkins was frank. “For lack of a better term, that’s bull—-. It’s not about constitutional rights. It’s about living. It’s about health. It’s about being able to go ahead and be careful and take care of yourself as well as your fellow man.”
After debuting Monday at 7 p.m., the Hidden Histories episode will stream again each Monday in July, then be archived on the Hidden Histories website. Cisneros said the episode will also be available for streaming anytime on the group’s Facebook page.