Watching Gerald Wilson lead his big band is one of the premier live jazz experiences. Slender and mobile with white hair flowing around his head, he’s as graceful as a dancer, and his every movement seems to be a creative flash point for the stellar members of his ensemble. “I choreograph the music when I conduct,” says Wilson. “Accent everything-all the high points.”
What makes it all even more remarkable is the fact that Wilson has been doing it for nearly seven decades. At 92, seemingly unfazed by the aches of age, he continues to write and conduct with the spirit, imagination and enthusiasm that have characterized his long, remarkable career.
His latest recording, Legacy, was released on the Mack Avenue label in June and celebrates several important aspects of Wilson’s life. The first is family, noted with the presence of a pair of works composed and arranged not by Wilson but by his talented offspring. “Virgo” is a 10-minute piece by his son, guitarist and bandleader Anthony Wilson. “September” is by his grandson, Eric Otis, who is also the grandson of Johnny Otis and the son of Shuggie Otis.
Three Wilson pieces, based on themes by Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy and Giacomo Puccini, reflect his lifelong fascination with a broad range of classical music. The disc also includes Yes Chicago Is…, a seven-movement suite commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival and inspired by Wilson’s long association with the city, a bond that started with his World War II service at the Great Lakes Naval Base.
The commission is one of several Wilson has received, dating back to the ’70s. His long-term desire to compose for symphony orchestra was fulfilled for the first time in 1972, when Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned Debut: 5/21/72. “After that,” Wilson recalls, “I wrote four other things for the Philharmonic, one of them with a whole 200-voice choir. And then Mehta took my pieces with him and played them when he went to New York and then to Tel Aviv.”
Wilson’s Theme for Monterey, commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1992, received two Grammy nominations. And his six-movement work Detroit Suite, commissioned by the Detroit International Jazz Festival in 2009, had its premiere on his 91st birthday.
Those are impressive career highlights, especially for someone well past the typical age of retirement. But it reflects Wilson’s desire, over the past few decades, to concentrate on jazz. After spending most of the ’50s and ’60s as a busy arranger/composer writing for pop singers, big bands, television and films, he was determined to make a commitment to the music he loved the most. “I decided,” he says, “to do what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was jazz. Because, first and foremost, I’m a jazz musician.”
No doubt about that, as Wilson’s history attests. Born in Shelby, Miss., Wilson bought his first trumpet at age 11 from a Sears Roebuck catalog for $9.95, and was barely out of his teens when he replaced Sy Oliver in Jimmie Lunceford’s band. A year later he wrote his first arrangement. “It was ‘Sometimes I’m Happy,'” recalls Wilson. “And it was pretty good, but it wasn’t quite like what Jimmie wanted his band to sound like. Then I wrote a number called ‘Hi Spook.’ That was a big hit for the Lunceford band.”
His next tune, “Yard Dog Mazurka,” was a hit as well, in several ways. It actually began as an introduction to an arrangement of “Stompin’ at the Savoy” that Wilson was writing. “I played it for Roger Segure, one of the Lunceford arrangers,” says Wilson. “And he said, ‘You know, what you should do is write a bridge for it and then you’ve got a complete tune. You’ll own it and you’ll get the money on it.’ I thought about it and the next day I told him I was going to do that and give him half of the number, because he told me about how to make some money on it. And I did. It still says Gerald Wilson and Roger Segure.”
But parts of “Yard Dog Mazurka” had another life, in a popular Stan Kenton piece that combined the opening phrases and harmonies with a new countermelody. Wilson recalls the connection with a laugh, noting that “Stan Kenton liked the Lunceford band a lot. And he liked the tune, too. So Pete Rugolo arranged it and they called it ‘Intermission Riff.'”
In addition to serving in the U.S. Navy, Wilson spent most of the ’40s and early ’50s working with, among others, Les Hite, Benny Carter, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. His own career as a bandleader-an ambition dating back to his teenage years-began in a random way in the mid-’40s. “I got my band almost by chance,” he says. “I always wanted to be a bandleader. But the way it happened was Herb Jeffries, the singer, got a job, and he was going to lead a band in a big nightclub downtown. I had plenty of music and I was going to work with him on it. But then Herb got offered a job in Paris about a week before we were about to open, and he left. So the owner of the club said, ‘Well, look, Gerald, you have to take over the band.’ And that was it. That was how I got my first band.”
Despite the relatively inauspicious circumstances, successes quickly followed. “We did very well,” he continues, “played there for six weeks, and then they booked us into Salt Lake City for 13 weeks. Later on, we were booked into the Apollo following Duke Ellington. And following us: Jimmie Lunceford. In Chicago, we followed Fletcher Henderson in the El Grotto for 10 weeks.”
Wilson also decided early on that he wanted to settle in Los Angeles, where he’s now lived since the ’40s. Born in Mississippi but raised in Memphis and Detroit, he was immediately attracted to the climate during his first trip to Southern California in 1940 with the Lunceford band. “I liked Los Angeles right away,” he says. “It was very different from Detroit, where I went to school at Cass Technical High, and where it was very cold. And besides, with the things I wanted to do, L.A. was where things were happening, where the big movies were being made. And I knew television was going to be coming on, and I kind of wanted to be a part of those things. So I said this was the place to be. Since that time, good things always happened for me in L.A.”
Wilson was prominent in Los Angeles from the beginning. In the early ’50s, he, along with saxophonist Buddy Collette, bassist Red Callender and others, was instrumental in the amalgamation of the two segregated Los Angeles musicians’ unions. “We were out there with the petitions,” he recalls, “trying to get musicians to sign. But it was pretty much in limbo. But there was a big lawyer I knew from Detroit and he told me the petitions wouldn’t mean a thing. And he told me what to do-to get our group together and show up for the next general meeting at the union; not to let them know we were coming, just show up on that day. And he told me what to say. So that’s exactly what we did. When they opened it up for ‘new business,’ I held up my hand and said that I was making a motion that there be a special meeting for the specific purpose of discussing the amalgamation of Local 767 to Local 47. From that moment on, it moved fast.”
Wilson has led a band off and on since the mid-’40s, taking frequent hiatuses in the ’50s and ’60s to compose and arrange for other ensembles. He estimates that he “may have done more numbers and orchestrations than any other black artist in the world.” That includes more than 60 charts for Ray Charles as well as arrangements and compositions for the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin, Harry Belafonte and dozens of others.
Other important contributions include Wilson’s film (Anatomy of a Murder) and television (The Redd Foxx Show) credits, and a Top 40 pop hit with El Chicano’s 1970 version of his “Viva Tirado.” (The tune has also been recorded in nearly 20 other different incarnations, including one by rapper Frost.) And Wilson has led a notable career as an educator, at CalState L.A., U.C.L.A. and elsewhere. Over the years his talent and dedication have been publicly recognized, and among Wilson’s many honors are a 1990 NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship and multiple Grammy nominations and Jazz Journalists Association Awards. In 2001 he was the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Jazz Tribute Honoree, and in 2004 he received the President’s Merit Award at the Grammy Foundation’s “Salute to Jazz.”
All in all, it’s been, and continues to be, an extraordinarily productive creative life, with more to come from a man who values the future as much as the past. Ask Gerald Wilson if he has any nuggets of wisdom about living the good life and he just laughs, preferring to talk about the next project.
As son Anthony Wilson explains, the success of his father’s work lies in its directness. “I think,” he says, “that from the beginning there was an immediacy in my dad’s music. Although in his very best work there’s a highly developed intellect at work, it’s not an oblique intellect. Other composers might try to fill space up, where he won’t do that. He lets an idea be just itself. Each piece is distilled down to its most direct idea.” JT
Theme for Monterey (Mama, 1998)
The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra (Mosaic, 2000)
Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra 1946-1954
(Classics France, 2007)
Legacy (Mack Avenue, 2011)