Felix Wilkins: Flutist and First Amendment Champion

Originally posted here, at JumpPhilly.com

Text by Cary Carr. Image by G.W. Miller III.

Felix Wilkins plays his flute almost every afternoon while perched on or standing near an orange crate outside Reading Terminal Market.

While wearing a navy suit, he greets both visitors and Philadelphians with his bright blue eyes. The 71-year-old attracts a crowd with his contagious sense of humor (as well as with his music).

“I like to make jokes,” he says, “and I like the street audience.”

Wilkins started playing the flute when he was 7. He went on to teach at Brooklyn College, Panama Canal College, the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico and the University of Panama. He decided to take his love of music to the streets 20 years ago after retiring. Busking is now is only source of income.

A Germantown resident, Wilkins has a strong background in jazz but refuses to stick to one genre of music. In fact, he would rather take requests to personally please pedestrians.

“Are you patriotic? Give me a patriotic song,” he commands. “Tell me any background. German? Beethoven was German.”

His all-time favorite musicians range from classical composer Mozart to big band leader Duke Ellington.

Wilkins hasn’t always had an easy career as a street musician.

In 2007, he brought charges against the city, claiming that he was wrongfully arrested for playing the flute outside, a violation of his civil rights. As part of the settlement, Wilkins received $27,500 and the police commissioner at the time, Sylvester Johnson, was required to issue a memorandum instructing officers that playing, singing and soliciting money in a public place are protected by the First Amendment.

Felix plans on retiring from the street someday. But until then, you can still catch him patiently playing, awaiting his big break.


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