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Pianist Jack Wilson Dies at 71

Jack Wilson, a jazz pianist who recorded as a leader for such labels as Atlantic, Blue Note and Discovery, died Oct. 5 of natural causes. During his lengthy career Wilson also worked with such artists as Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis Jr., Herbie Mann, and Jimmy Cobb.

Wilson was born in Chicago on Aug. 3, 1936, moving to Fort Wayne, Indiana, at age 7. He studied piano at the Fort Wayne College of Music and began performing locally as a leader of small combos, becoming, at 15, the youngest member ever to join the Fort Wayne Musicians Union. After spending a year in Columbus, Ohio, Wilson moved to Atlantic City, leading the house band at the Cotton Club. It was there that he was discovered by Dinah Washington, with whom Wilson worked in 1957-58. But he soon returned to Chicago, where he played with Gene

Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Eddie Harris and Al Hibbler.

Working with bassist Richard Evans, Wilson made his recording debut as a sideman on Evans’ album Richard’s Almanac, but Wilson was drafted into the Army at that time-he became the first black music director for the Third Army Area and played tenor saxophone in the army band. In 1961, Wilson received an honorable medical discharge (due to diabetes) and returned to Washington’s band in 1961-62.

Wilson headed next to Los Angeles, where he worked with Gerald Wilson (no relation), Lou Donaldson, Herbie Mann, Jackie McLean and Johnny Griffin. He also began recording for film and television, working with Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Lou Rawls, Eartha Kitt, Julie London and even Sonny and Cher.

In 1963, Wilson made his first recording as a leader, The Jack Wilson Quartet featuring Roy Ayers, for Atlantic Records. He cut one more Atlantic album, then three for Vault, before being signed to Blue Note, which resulted in three records, including Easterly Winds in 1967. After his final Blue Note session in 1968, Wilson curtailed his activities somewhat, working on occasion with vocalist Esther Phillips until 1977, when he recorded Innovations, the first of three record dates for the Los Angeles-based Discovery label. This also brought about a return to sideman work with Lorez Alexandria, Tutti Camarata and Eddie Harris well into the 1980s. Wilson’s final recording session (for the Japanese DIW label), simply titled In New York, took place in 1993 and featured drummer Jimmy Cobb.

Originally Published