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Legendary Jazz Organist Reuben Wilson, Whose Music Influenced Nas and Hip Hop, Dies at 88

Courtesy Photo Francis Wolff/© Blue Note Records

Reuben Wilson, the renowned jazz organist known for his infectious grooves and pioneering contributions to soul and acid jazz, has died at the age of 88.

His son, Reuben Reuel Wilson, confirmed the news in a heartfelt post on Twitter, stating, "My father, Reuben Wilson, jazz mf LEGEND, passed away very early this morning. Even though I've been preparing for this for a lil while, you're never truly ready when it happens. Gonna miss you dad, love you always."
No official cause of death was given for Wilson, who died in Harlem. However, his May 26 demise followed a long battle with dementia, and he had recently been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

Born on April 9, 1935, in Mounds, Oklahoma, he grew up to become one of the most influential organists in the history of jazz. Standing at 6 ft. 5 inches, Wilson's commanding presence behind the Hammond B-3 organ and his funk-infused recordings for Blue Note Records in the late 1960s and early '70s left an indelible mark on the genre, inspiring acid jazz DJs and hip-hop artists worldwide.

"Reuben Wilson helped usher in what we now call Soul Jazz," Pete Fallico, founder of the Jazz Organ Fellowship Hall of Fame, told NPR. "His music was revitalized in the '90s when DJs like Gilles Petersen started playing all these old funky tunes he had recorded decades earlier."

Wilson's journey to musical greatness began in Pasadena, California, where his family moved during the Dust Bowl era. While pursuing a career as a professional heavyweight boxer and sparring partner for future champion Floyd Patterson, his love for music, sparked by encounters with boogie-woogie sounds and pianist Sonny Clark, eventually led him to embrace the Hammond organ.

In 1966, Wilson relocated to New York City, immersing himself in the vibrant jazz scene. Late-night jam sessions in Harlem clubs and a steady gig with saxophonist Willis "Gator" Jackson propelled his career forward and caught the attention of Blue Note Records' Francis Wolff. The resulting five-album deal showcased Wilson's unique fusion of jazz and funk, creating a sound that resonated with audiences and fellow musicians.

While Wilson faced challenges in the 1980s and '90s due to the rise of synthesizers and changing musical trends, his legacy found new life in hip-hop.

During the 1990s, Wilson's recordings from the late 1960s and early '70s resurfaced and became sought-after samples for hip-hop producers. One notable example is Nas' 1994 critically acclaimed debut album, Illmatic, which prominently featured a sample from Wilson's 1971 composition "We're in Love." This usage solidified his presence in the hip-hop community and introduced his distinctive sound to a new generation of listeners.

Wilson's collaboration with rapper Guru on the Jazzmatazz series further exemplified his impact on hip-hop, bridging the gap between jazz and hip-hop by featuring renowned jazz musicians collaborating with hip-hop artists. Wilson's contributions showcased the seamless blending of genres and the relevance of his music in a contemporary context.

Wilson continued to perform and record well into his seventies, leaving behind a discography of at least 17 albums that showcase his undeniable talent.

He is survived by his second wife, Daphne, their son Reuben, and his son Roderick Wilson from his first marriage to singer Faye Emma Smith Wilson.

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