In a career spanning six decades Billy Wooten recorded and performed with an impressive range of artists, including Grant Green, Smokey Robinson, Donny Hathaway, Gladys Knight, The Soulful Strings, The Four Mints, and Richard Evans among others. But it was Wooten's own music, recorded both as a solo artist and with groups he co-founded, that would bring his name international attention.
A native of New York City, Wooten fell in love with Indianapolis while gigging across the U.S. as a young jazz musician in the 1960s. Wooten became a popular favorite at Indianapolis clubs like The Hub-Bub Lounge and The 19th Hole and eventually decided to make Indy his permanent base. Wooten was a fixture on the Indianapolis jazz circuit for decades, performing dozens upon dozens of gigs annually in Indy throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s.
While Wooten was certainly a tremendous live performer, it was his work as a recording artist that most effectively established his reputation in the jazz world. Wooten's first and possibly greatest national exposure came from his performance on a pair of important Blue Note Records' releases by the iconic jazz guitarist Grant Green. Wooten's vibes are featured prominently on Green's Visions and Shades of Green, both LPs that were recorded and issued in 1971.
After ending his tenure in Green's band Wooten returned to Indy to begin an extended residency at The 19th Hole nightclub. In 1972 a pair of LPs were birthed from Wooten's gig at the club, The Nineteenth Whole's Smilin' recorded by prominent jazz producer Bob Porter for the nationally distributed Eastbound Records, and the locally recorded and released Wooden Glass album Recorded Live.
While Wooden Glass' Recorded Live received little attention at the time of its release, the LP has gone on to become a highly sought after collectible for fans of soul-jazz and funk. Original copies of the Wooden Glass album are in high demand with collectors, and its been bootlegged and reissued several times through the years. Tracks from the LP have also appeared on high profile rare groove comps and have been sampled by hip-hop artists like Madlib and Mos Def.
Wooden Glass isn't the only locally issued LP in Wooten's catalog that has become an internationally coveted collector's item. Wooten's 1979 solo release In This World is highly prized for the heavy Latin groove cut "Chicango" and his 1980 LP with the Naptown Afro-Jazz Quintet also attracts significant interest from high end record connoisseurs. The Naptown Afro-Jazz Quintet remains one of the most unique groups in Indianapolis music, pairing Wooten's vibes with the drumming of the great Indianapolis-based Nigerian percussionist Julius Adeniyi.
Like many Indy jazz greats Wooten's work seemed to be taken for granted locally. But Wooten has achieved the status of a legend in Europe and Japan. In 2003 Wooten was invited to London to recreate his classic Indianapolis recordings with the mod UK new school funk group Speedometer. And Wooten's music is a big commodity in Japan where record store shelves are filled with Japan-only releases bearing titles like Billy Wooten Live at The Madame Walker Theatre, and Billy Wooten an Evening on the Canal.
I'm sad to say that I seriously doubt Wooten's death will garner much notice locally. But I have no doubt that his legacy will continue to be celebrated and cherished by music fans around the world.