Immanuel Wilkins on Incorporating Your Influences, Playing With A Drone, and Much More



If you aren’t already checking out rising young alto star, Immanuel Wilkins’ playing and projects, here is a rundown of what you need to know.


  • Immanuel Wilkins is a Saxophonist, Composer, Arranger, and Bandleader from the greater Philadelphia-area.
  • Immanuel honed his skills in the church as well as studied in jazz programs like the Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts.
  • He moved to NYC in 2015 to pursue his bachelor’s degree in Music at Juilliard where he studied with saxophonists Bruce Williams and the late Joe Temperley.
  • As he was going to school, Immanuel established himself as an in-demand sideman, touring in the U.S., Japan, Europe, South America, and The United Arab Emirates.
  • Immanuel can be seen working or recording with artists such as: Jason Moran, the Count Basie Orchestra, Delfeayo Marsalis, Joel Ross, Aaron Parks, Gerald Clayton, Gretchen Parlato, Lalah Hathaway, Solange Knowles, Bob Dylan, and Wynton Marsalis, to name just a few.
  • During this time, Immanuel formed his quartet featuring Micah Thomas (piano), Daryl Johns (bass) and Kweku Sumbry (drums).
  • As Immanuel has grown as a player, he has also grown as a composer and arranger which has led to: a number of commissions including, The National Jazz Museum in Harlem, The Jazz Gallery Artist Residency Commission Program and The Kimmel Center Artist in Residence for 2020.
  • As an educator, you can find Immanuel teaching at NYU and The New School as well as given master classes and clinics at Oberlin, Yale, and the Kimmel Center.
  • Immanuel’s debut recording, Omega — produced by Jason Moran— was released on Blue Note Recordings on August 7, 2020.


ZS: How did you become interested in playing the alto saxophone and who helped you become the musician you are today?

IW: Honestly, saxophone was the next in line. I started out on violin when I was 3 and my parents kinda put me into whatever I mentioned and had an interest in. After violin, I started playing piano and then I found out you could get into the band early in 3rd grade if you had your own instrument and so I badgered my parents for a saxophone. The saxophone stuck because around that time, I was also getting enrolled in some community programs that taught jazz music, one being the Clef Club in Philly. Being a part of these community programs introduced me to new people that ended up becoming my friends and is one main reason why I stuck with the saxophone. I’ve always had a connection with music and I remember my first CD that I really enjoyed was a James Brown record around 4 or 5 and that was the only CD I had (it was on loop all the time). When I played violin and piano, I took private lessons but when I started playing the saxophone, my parents said you really need to show us that you want to play the horn. I remember coming home from church one Sunday and tried to work through one of the songs which showed them that I was marginally serious about playing; and that is when they got me private lessons and later enrolled me in some programs.

I went to public school and not a music magnet program or school with an arts focus, but we had a really great music program. There were two saxophonists that still play the horn today and are on the scene in Philly. One, who was the oldest of us was Henry Turf (tenor player), and next was Yasseh Ali (alto player). All three of us were within the same realm so we spent some years together in school which was nice to have two people that would motivate me.

When I started taking private lessons, I would hop around from teacher to teacher, which my parents frowned upon, but looking back on it, I think it was quite beneficial for me to learn and try out as many people as possible. My first teacher was a cat named Louis Taylor (alto player) at the Clef Club and he ran the ensemble that I was in. After Louis I moved onto Rayburn Wright who was also at the Clef Club. After studying with Wright & Taylor, I ended up taking some lessons in high school with Larry McKenna, and Dick Oatts right before I moved to college, where I studied with the faculty at Juilliard.

Throughout elementary, middle school, and high school, I played in a big band and in middle school, we competed in quite a few competitions. When I was in high school, I was more of a role player. I played bari sax one year and funny enough, played drums for my last jazz band concert in high school. There was a lot to figure out with that program and I was just trying to help out. Henry, Yasseh, and I would take all the solos in jazz band, but that was because we practiced and were the most serious out of the group.

When it comes to why did I choose the alto saxophone, it was because I liked the sound but also there were not that many alto players. I thought I should really forge my way on alto and it seemed everyone was playing tenor. Such players as Kenny Garrett, Charlie Parker, and Benny Carter were big influences for me when I was young but at the same time I wanted to have a sound as big as the tenor players so I would check out Arnet Cobb or Ben Webster to try and get a big sound like a tenor player, but the vibe of an alto player.

Whether it was long tones, transcriptions, tunes, etc, I learned something new from every teacher I studied with. When I first started taking lessons with Louis Taylor, we worked straight out of the Rubank book and I was notorious for not practicing it and coming in unprepared. Now, it’s actually one of my favorite books and I am still practicing out of it today.

In addition to Rubank, I am working out of Klose & Ferling exercises as well as practicing my long tones and transcribing. When I took lessons with Larry Mckenna, it was a different approach from Taylor. Larry would sit down at his kitchen table and just write out a solo without his horn, based on whatever tune we were working on that day. Larry would then have me play through the solo and that was kind of his way of imparting his knowledge of bebop vocabulary. When it came to pursuing music as a career, there was really never anything that pushed me to decide to pursue music but at the same time I couldn’t figure out what else I would enjoy doing but music.

When it came to decide where to go to college, I got advice from a lot of players and masters of the music. Some of my questions were, where do you think I should go to school? And what is important about jazz school?

What I learned was first, you need to go where the faculty is or who do you want to be around. For me, Juilliard felt like the best combination of artists of different disciplines and genres. What I am thankful for is I had the opportunity to study with guys like Ron Carter, Kenny Washington, and Joe Temperley before Joe passed away.

While at Juilliard, I was working on my own stuff as soon as I got to NYC. I was fortunate where a lot of players took me under their wing and looked out for me in the beginning which led to a lot of opportunities. By the end of my freshmen year I was already leading a group on my own. I was also really focused on working and was pretty unapologetic when it came to negotiating school music vs my own music. You can ask anyone I went to school with, I was a master of the handbook. Whatever loophole I could get through, I would to make sure I would be able to work because I knew that was going to be most beneficial to me upon leaving.

The biggest advice I give to players going or coming into school is it really turns into late nights and early mornings. You have to do it all, 100% in both worlds. Everything you work on should be for you and never be for them.

ZS: Who were some of your influences growing up and who have you been checking out lately?

IW: When I first started, I listened to Kenny Garrett, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Lester Young, Don Byas, Vincent Herring, and Sidney Bichet. Many of these suggestions actually came from my buddy, Justin Faulkner, who played drums for Branford Marsalis, and Justin would tell me to check out who Branford was listening too.

When I moved to New York, Wynton turned me onto Ornette Coleman. Wynton told me to transcribe these two Ornette Coleman tunes which were “Sadness” and “Peace”. Ornette really changed my life as a saxophonist and recently, I have been checking out Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake, and Roscoe Mitchell.

ZS: As you have worked to develop your own sound, technique, and approach, who do you try to emulate the most and what was your process?

IW: I am trying to sound like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ed Blackwell, Roy Haynes, and Charles Mingus. I am firm believer that you are what you eat. I will only consume Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins if I want to sound like Bird, or only listen to Milford Graves, if I want to sound like Ed Blackwell.

I try to listen all the time and then move to critical listening, and then at that point will follow up with transcribing. I usually transcribe solos that I can sing pretty well since I have been listening to it for weeks. I rarely write down my transcriptions, but if I am trying to study or do serious analysis, I will write it all out.

ZS: How have you adjusted to COVID thus far, and is there anything that you have learned that you will continue doing once things get back to “normal”?

IW: I am definitely transcribing more since I have the time. I’ve also been able to understand the importance of personal time whether that is with the music or without the music in my life which I believe has made my relationship to music far greater. I feel that with these changes, I have learned much more about how to play from simply living life.

ZS: When it comes to practicing today, what is your process for honing your skills, and do you have any tips you recommend for all players from beginner to advanced?

IW: One thing that really changed the game for me in terms of sound is practicing with drones. I think you should throw away your tuners because you don’t learn how to play in tune from your eyes, but from your ears. Sometimes I pick a pitch and keep the drone on for my whole practice session. What it does is it gives your notes context. Again, tuning is an ear training thing, not an eye training exercise. Playing at 440 might not be the best frequency for your horn to vibrate at in relation to what or who you are playing with (guitar, piano, drums, bass, vibraphone, etc.).

ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?

IW: I’ve pretty much stayed with the same gear, but it has slowly evolved over the years. For me, equipment needs to get out of the way and allow me to achieve my personal sound. The equipment simply needs to make my job easier. Your body cavity will naturally make adjustments to get whatever sound you want out of the horn. That’s why I think guys like the classics like Links and Meyers.

ZS: What are your current and future projects?

IW: I’m a residence at the Kimmel Center in Philly so that piece is still in the works. I also have a collaboration with Sidra Bell which is a dance Company in NYC and we have a work in progress in December. Finally I have been teaching lessons via Facetime and Zoom, and also have some other projects, but I will share more about that in the near future.


Saxophone: Selmer Mark VII. I truly prefer the VII to the VI. Mine is a really early VII.

Ligature: Charles Bay Ligature

Reed: Boston Sax Shop Reeds (4)

Mouthpiece: Ted Klum New York

NeckStrap: Boston Sax NeckStrap

Case: Wiseman Case. (Alto + Soprano Combo)

For more on Immanuel, click here to visit his official website.