Roanoke alumnus maintains a lifelong love of music

Eddie Wiggins in 2012. Photo courtesy of The Roanoke Times.

Eddie Wiggins in 2012. Photo courtesy of The Roanoke Times.

"It was just a part of me ever since I could remember."

This article was featured in the Roanoke Magazine, Issue 2, 2013. The full issue can be seen here.

Eddie Wiggins '41 has been a prominent face of the Roanoke Valley's jazz music scene.

He was president of a musician's union, played clarinet and saxophone in bands and rounded up musicians for events and other performers who visited Roanoke, including famed entertainers Liberace and Engelbert Humperdinck.
 
The popular Wiggins, a Roanoke native, is perhaps best known for leading the Northwest Jazz Band, a group comprised of both amateur and experienced musicians.

Now, at 92, Wiggins still has a spark in his eye and rhythm in his lips. Though he no longer directs a band, he's still playing music.

"It was just a part of me ever since I could remember," said Wiggins, who lives in Roanoke with his wife, Maurita. They have four children and two grandchildren.

Wiggins, whose parents were Lebanese, picked up a clarinet for the first time as a 14-year-old band student at St. Andrew's High School, now Roanoke Catholic School. He wound up playing the trumpet because the band was short on trumpeters.

He fell in love with music.

Later, he enrolled at Roanoke College, where he joined the dance band. The student director, Harold Woodson, taught Wiggins to sight-read music and named him the lead saxophonist.
 
Wiggins graduated in three years with a chemistry degree and took a job at Hercules Powder Co. in Radford, now the Radford Army Ammunition Plant. After two years, he joined the Navy, toting along his saxophone and clarinet.

The Navy needed electronic technicians, so Wiggins learned the trade and was an instructor during World War II. He also played with an 18-piece USO band.

After the Navy, Wiggins moved back to Roanoke, and with a business partner, opened an electronics service shop. Several years later, he turned the Moorman Avenue business into a parts distributor, People's Electronics Supply. Wiggins ran it for 40 years.

He reserved his evenings for music.

"We knew that Friday and Saturday nights he would not be around," Maurita Wiggins said.
The Wigginses met in the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra. Eddie Wiggins was chair clarinet, while Maurita Wiggins played percussion.

Eddie Wiggins also performed with the popular Stylists Orchestra, which played at The Greenbrier and The Homestead, among other locations. 

He was president of the Local 165 American Federation of Musicians for 17 years, and he was paid to find musicians for traveling entertainment acts that came to Roanoke.

"I had to be careful to get the best musicians I could, because when a show came in, they only had one rehearsal," he said.

In 2001, Wiggins started the Northwest Jazz Band. The group played big band and Broadway tunes and raised money for nonprofits. One of its missions was to allow young musicians to learn from older, experienced ones.

But several years ago, a back injury and surgery forced Wiggins to step away from the band. Some Northwest Jazz Band members formed the Let's Dance band, based at Smith Mountain Lake. Still, Wiggins left a mark on many musicians.

 "He's been a mentor to me," said William Penn, a Roanoke jazz musician and singer who organized a community tribute concert for him in December 2012.

Wiggins hasn't given up music entirely. He practices his clarinet in his home basement studio for 15 to 20 minutes a day. He also performs at local churches.

He's not stopping there. Penn and Wiggins plan to perform free jazz and Broadway music programs in retirement homes and share their music stories. They also plan to raise money for charities.

"It's love," Maurita Wiggins said of her husband and music. "He has no plan to give it up."

- Jenny Kincaid Boone '01