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Farewell: Gerald Wilson

9.4.18–9.8.14

Gerald Wilson
Gerald Wilson

Gerald Wilson is an iconic and influential figure for me. He helped to guide the direction my music has taken, and there’s no hiding it: If you’ve seen me conduct, you know that a lot of my style and concept comes from Gerald Wilson.

What most people don’t know is that Duke Ellington held Gerald in such high regard he became a ghostwriter for Duke. If maestro Ellington had a project with a tight deadline, he would have Gerald write for him. In some cases, Gerald would only get paid his fee and not receive an arranging credit on the album. Still, Gerald was ready for the next opportunity. One of my desert island albums is Ella at Duke’s Place, from 1965. I know every note on that record and have always been especially drawn to Duke’s arrangement of “Imagine My Frustration.” Wrong! It is a Gerald Wilson arrangement, and I had to embarrass myself to find out the truth.

I transcribed the song for our Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra to feature Regina Carter playing Ella’s role on her violin. Gerald came to the concert. I announced to thousands of people that the arrangement was by Duke Ellington. The next day, I got an earful from maestro Wilson! He let me know that he was the one who did the arrangement, as well as others on that and other recordings for Duke. “Perdido” is another killer Gerald Wilson reworking for Duke: Check out the version Duke recorded in the ’60s.

I recall seeing Gerald’s band when I was a teenager. They were playing in Los Angeles at Shelly’s Manne-Hole. I had never seen anything like that! Bobby Bryant, Blue Mitchell, Jimmy Bond, Jimmy Cleveland, Jerome Richardson and so many other L.A. giants played. He would hover over the saxes with his arms extended over his head, dancing from side to side, moaning and growling their parts, possessed and spewing energy that forced everyone to play with intense focus. Wow! Imagine what an impact that had on a 19-year-old. One of the most remarkable things is that he conducted with those broad sweeps, drawing sound from his band with his hands. He might hobble onto the stage, but he came to life and shed 30 years when the music started.

Another thing people don’t know is that Gerald wrote all the time. Even with severe eyesight problems, our hero would dictate the notes to one of his sons, who would then write the notes onto a score page.

Gerald told me that back in the day he would write arrangements for big band with no score. He’d just write 16 separate parts for the musicians, which required that he remember every note he had written for every instrument. It is fascinating and unheard of today. Gerald Wilson’s memory was absolutely perfect until the end. He could recall events, dates, names and various details about any period-and he would be spot-on. I actually witnessed a few times how he would recall something from, say, the 1940s, and Harry “Sweets” Edison or Snooky Young would be right there to tell him that they remembered it that way as well. More often, he would remember with an uncanny clarity that even his friends and colleagues did not have.

Like all of the writers I know-including his son, Anthony-he was very thoughtful about what he wrote. His music was serious. His songs were often written about or for people and events. He loved bullfights, for instance, and there are several examples that show this influence in his music.

We’re so grateful that Gerald Wilson’s music is here for us. I’m especially grateful that I got to hear, know and be influenced by the man and his music.

Originally Published