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Bill Caldwell, noted Wichita jazz musician, dies

Bill Caldwell, a gifted musician who brightened the lives and the musical arrangements of jazz enthusiasts all over the country, died this week at his home in Wichita. He was 49.

Tim Henry, Mr. Caldwell’s Wichita-based business partner and fellow jazz musician, found him dead in his home early Monday after he missed a rehearsal Sunday night.

Henry and Richard Couch, who owns Couch Music at 131 S. Hydraulic, said Mr. Caldwell was a world-class musician who could play all the reed instruments brilliantly, and who could hold his own in performances with the best jazz artists anywhere. “I was always just in awe of his musicianship,” Couch said. “Everybody who ever played with him felt the same way.”

Henry, a keyboardist and singer, said he and Mr. Caldwell had spent the last two years putting together a CD called “Prime Numbers,” a collection of their new interpretations of the best known jazz compositions from the 1940s and 1950s, with arrangements written by Mr. Caldwell, and with Mr. Caldwell playing sax, flute and clarinet. They had just made plans to go to Los Angeles to finish recording tracks with some of the better jazz artists in the country. Henry said jazz musicians who planned to finish the CD with them were “blown away” by what they heard in what was already recorded, and were asking in phone calls, “Who’s that playing sax? Who’s that playing clarinet?” It was Mr. Caldwell.

Henry, grief-stricken, said he hopes to complete the album someday, “but right now is too soon.”

In 2008, Mr. Caldwell produced a CD of his own work called “Common Tones.” The liner notes, by Kansas City jazz trumpeter Mike Metheny, called him “one of the world’s finest jazz saxophonists you may never have heard about.”

Mr. Caldwell directed the jazz arts ensembles and gave saxophone lessons for a year at Wichita State University about three years ago, said Craig Owens, director of the jazz studies program at WSU. Owens was among Mr. Caldwell’s many fans. Mr. Caldwell was one of the better sax players ever affiliated with WSU, a brilliant artist who made himself even better with hard work developing his techniques, Owens said.

“He was so good that one day, when I watched him give a lesson to a friend of mine, it was just so well done, and so beautiful that I was literally tearing up,” Owens said. “It was like being at a great performance, so beautiful, so moving … and I just thought … wow.”

An obituary for Mr. Caldwell in the Kansas City Star, written by a musician who played with him for years, reported that Mr. Caldwell had played as a sideman in many famous jazz groups, including the Woody Herman Big Band, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Buddy Morrow, the Kansas City Boulevard Big Band and the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Mr. Caldwell met his future wife, Kimberly, at Southeast High in Wichita, where they played together in the school orchestra. She told him she loved him when she was 16, but it took him 24 years to propose. In 2003, he tracked her down through former classmates and asked if she still loved him. They were married four days later.

A service for Mr. Caldwell will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at Grace Presbyterian Church, 5002 E. Douglas. Musicians are invited to stay after the service to play.

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