Wallace Roney, 59, the Philadelphia-born trumpet virtuoso who was a protégé of Miles Davis and went on to have a three-decade-plus career as a jazz bandleader, died Tuesday, March 31, from complications of the coronavirus.
The musician died at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson, N.J., according to his publicist, Lydia Liebman.
“Wallace Roney’s journey has ended in this lifetime, but his impact lives on,” the musician Herbie Hancock said in a statement Wednesday. “He carved out his own voice on the trumpet even with the initial strong influence from Miles Davis.”
Mr. Roney first made a name for himself as a club musician in New York City in the late 1970s. Downbeat magazine named him best young jazz musician of the year in 1979 and 1980.
In the 1980s, he played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and with former Davis drummer Tony Williams, emerging in the Young Lions jazz movement along with Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, and others.
Mr. Roney released Versus, his first album as a leader, in 1987. He would follow with 21 more, often collaborating with his saxophonist brother Antoine and his late wife, the pianist Geri Allen. His final release was 2019’s Blue Dawn-Blue Nights.
The novelist James McBride memorably described Mr. Roney as a lion among lions in a 1987 profile in the Washington Post. “He sits alone, silent and slim in a dark gray jacket, his right hand on his horn,” McBride wrote. “His head is bowed slightly, giving him an edgy, pensive, shy look.
"Yet as he rises to walk toward the stage, moving like a shadow, the other horn players — trumpeters and saxmen lined against the wall waiting to blow — part respectfully to let him pass. They know who he is. They know what he can do.”
Jazz Times eulogized him Tuesday as “the man with the golden horn.”
Mr. Roney’s talent was recognized early. He started playing when he was 4, and studied at the Settlement Music School, where he received personal instruction from Sigmund Hering of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
He played in various jazz and classical groups as a boy, becoming the youngest member of the classical ensemble Philadelphia Brass at 12.
When his parents divorced, he moved to Washington with his father, and enrolled at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, also taking private lessons with Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie.
After further study at Berklee School of Music in Boston and Howard University, Mr. Roney started gigging in New York.
“I played with Philly Joe Jones in 1977,” he told Jazz Times in 2004. Pianist Walter Davis Jr., in Jones’ band, “was one of the first guys who took me under, used to give me money when I didn’t have any.”
Mr. Roney first met his hero, Davis, in 1983 at a Carnegie Hall tribute concert. Davis invited him to his home the next day. “That was the beginning of a great chapter in my life,” Mr. Roney told Jazz Times.
Quincy Jones invited Mr. Roney to play alongside Davis at a 1991 concert in Montreux, Switzerland, shorty before the gravely ill Davis died, and in 1993 Mr. Roney toured with the members of Davis’ mid-'60s quintet, winning a Grammy for the 1994 album A Tribute to Miles.
Recalling that tour, Hancock said, “Wallace had such fire in his playing as he attacked the aggressive tunes, but was as gentle as a lamb on ballads. His sound was rock solid.” The two musicians toured again later that decade and “what [Roney] conjured up was always new, unexpected and, therefore, provocative,” Hancock added.
Speaking to allaboutjazz.com last year, Mr. Roney remembered learning from the greats. “When I came to New York, when Dexter Gordon came to town, we were all there. We revered him. We revered Miles Davis. We wanted to play with Art Blakey. We wanted to play with Herbie Hancock.”
“That’s what I tell my guys,” he said, speaking of young musicians in his band. “Build on the masters. Learn everything they’ve done. Don’t cheat on it. But then always come out you. … You’re trying to use it from your point of view. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to add to it.”
Mr. Roney’s friend Wendell Pierce, an actor who played a New Orleans trombone player on the HBO series Treme, reflected in a Twitter message about Mr. Roney’s “gentle nature” which “belied his fierce improvisation.”
He recalled the rise of trumpeters like Mr. Roney, Marsalis, and Jon Faddis in the 1980s as part of “a resurgent wave of jazz musicians destined to revive the art he ultimately mastered … a resurrection of a music many cynics thought to be dead.”
"Wallace was a global life force in the jazz community,“ Davis’ family members wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “We are devastated that our brother trumpeter Wallace Roney passed away today due to complications from COVID-19.”
Mr. Roney is survived by his fiancee, Dawn Felice Jones; children Barbara and Wallace Jr.; stepdaughter Laila Bansaiz; grandmother Rosezell Roney; a brother; a sister; two half-sisters; and a half-brother.
His publicist said the family was considering holding a memorial service “once this pandemic has passed.”