Dense, assertive brass; cool, dry reeds; strong doses of Mexican, Latin American and rockfeeling; arrangements that showcase soloists; solos that complement arrangements. These are some of the elements that identify the various bands of Gerald Wilson. “You can always tell a Gerald Wilson arrangement. He has his own style,” said vibraphonist/leader Terry Gibbs. “There’s nothing more pretty than eight brass playing a whole chorus, with all eight notes moving, moving.” So said Wilson, the maestro, in an interview with Zan Stewart for the January, 1997, DownBeat “Moving” has been a hallmark of the Wilson style. From his early days with the Jimmy Lunceford Band to his current musical activities, Gerald Wilson has usually moved well ahead of the pack.
Wilson’s family moved to Detroit from Memphis when he was about 14. Wilson had already grounded himself in a jazz tradition, through early piano lessons with his mother and sessions listening and talking with his brother Shelby. A Tuskegee Institute classmate of jazz legend Teddy Wilson, Shelby brought a jazz perspective to his younger brother. Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, then a Mecca for talented students of many disciplines, provided the basis for Wilson’s formal training. There, he was taught by Clarence Byrne, the father of trombonist/band leader Bobby Byrne.
With this background, and still in his teens, Wilson launched his career, first as a trumpeter at Detroit’s Plantation Club in 1936-37, then touring with Chic Carter. In 1939, he joined the famous Jimmy Lunceford Band, replacing trumpeter/arranger Sy Oliver, whose charts, trumpet solos and vocals had helped propel this band to the forefront of swing groups. Oliver had shifted to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, where his arrangements were responsible for helping Dorsey record some of his greatest hits. Initially, Wilson was limited to playing trumpet, but soon he began to contribute arrangements to the Lunceford band, whose position was being challenged by many other groups of the day. Two of his best-known recorded arrangements for Lunceford were “Hi Spook” and “Yard Dog Mazurka,” “the opening of which Stan Kenton appropriated, lock, stock, and barrel a few years later for’Intermission Riff, ’” GuntherSchuller noted in his The Swing Era. Composer credit for this hit Kenton recording is assigned to Kenton trumpeter Ray Wetzel. Schuller also pointed out that several Wilson arrangements helped sustain the fading Lunceford group.
By the time Wilson left Lunceford in 1942 and moved to California, he had established himself as a distinguished arranger. Once on the West Coast, he played with the bands of Les Hite and Benny Carter, picking up writing and arranging tips along the way. Next came a stint in the U.S. Navy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center,
Full name, Gerald Stanley Wilson; born September 4, 1918, in Shelby, MS; mother was a pianist; married, wife’s name Josephina.
Began first piano lessons with mother; family moved to Memphis, TN, then to Detroit, MI, 1932; studied trumpet and majored in music in high school; played in local clubs, 1936-37; trumpeter/arranger with Jimmy Lunceford band, 1939-42; played in Willie Smith Navy band, 1943-44; settled in Los Angeles, formed own first band, for which he wrote and arranged, 1944-46; with Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie bands, 1948-49; arranged for Duke Ellington, Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles, 1950s and 1960s; wrote for film and television, 1960s; re-formed own band, 1961; recorded intermittently, 1960s; taught at college level, beginning 1970; continues to write, arrange and lead bands.
Awards: DownBeat International Critics’ Poll award for Best Big Band, 1963; Jazz Masters fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1990; Grammy nominations, including “State Street Sweet,” 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Pacific Jazz, 810 Seventh Ave., Fourth floor, New York, NY 10019.
where Wilson performed and probably arranged in a band led by reedman Willie Smith, an old Lunceford compatriot. Trumpet section-mates there included the inimitable Clark Terry and Ernie Royal. Upon his discharge in December, 1944, Wilson formed hisfirst band in the midst of the fermenting California music scene.
Wilson’s band commanded immediate attention, and embarked on a successful performing tour throughout the country. Singer Joe Williams was with the band briefly in 1946, and they played Los Angeles, St. Louis and Chicago with stars such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis, Jr. Despite an enthusiastic welcome at New York’s demanding Apollo Theater that capped-off this tour, Wilson decided to quit the business for a while. He felt he was not yet ready to sustain the responsibilities of leader, arranger, composer, trumpeter. Returning to California, Wilson spent some time playing and writing for the Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie bands through 1947 and 1949. During that time, he also began a long period of writing intermittently for Duke Ellington’s band in 1947.
Throughout this period and well into the 1950s, Wilson managed to maintain bands of his own, mostly to play music which he had written and arranged. In addition, these writing and arranging skills lead to assignments for television and film work for NBC and MGM. He also conducted albums for a variety of artists, including Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, Nat Cole, Billie Holiday and Harry Belafonte, as well as pianist Les McCann and guitarist B. B. King. Of his preparation for these responsibilities, Wilsontold writer John William Hardy, “Nobody can say they have taught me how to write or orchestrate—I haven’t studied with or under anyone—but that is not to say I haven’t studied long and hard on my own. I don’t feel that my lack of formal training means that I am in any way limited in my approach to the job.”
In the 1960s, with the dedicated push of producer Albert Marx for Pacific Jazz records, Wilson recorded a string of albums that showcased his own writing and arranging. Partly because this was studio work, and because of the exciting material, Wilson was able to attract some of the better musicians. Among these were: trumpeters Al Porcino, Conte Candoli and Carmell Jones; trombonists Bob Edmondson and Les Robertson; reedmen Teddy Edwards, Harold Land, Jack Nimitz, and Bud Shank; guitarists Joe Pass and Laurindo Almeida; vibist Bobby Hutcherson; drummer Mel Lewis.
It was also during this period that Wilson developed a fascination for Mexico. His Mexican wife, Josephina, became the subject of one of his compositions, as has Mexican culture in general: bullfighters, pyramids, folklore. These themes are represented principally on 1966’s Torero Impressions in Jazz: The Golden Sword, which includes such titles as “Carlos” (dedicated to bullfighter Carlos Arruza), “MiCorazon,” and three selections from afrom a larger work, for the 2,000-year-old pyramid, the “Teotihuacan Suite.” Wilson affected a Mexican persona; his on-stage and rehearsal demeanor with his orchestra is both commanding and exciting—not unlike that of a great toreador. It is not surprising that he did some acting, including a televised appearance in 1959’s The Lineup.
Wilson studied the writing of modern classicists such as Aram Khatchaturian, Manuel de Falla and Joaquin Rodrigo. In addition, he incorporated many characteristics of rock music into hiswriting and arrangements, leading to the jazz/rock phenomenon that remains. Any residual doubts Wilson had about his ability to write with sustaining interest, such as inhibited him with his 1946 band, were dispelled when Zubin Mehta, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, commissioned him to write an extended work for that orchestra’s 1972 season. Because of the scope and success of this work, he told writer Zan Stewart, “That was the day I realized I could compose anything I wanted.”When Wilson cameto New York in 1988 to conduct the American Jazz Orchestra playing his music, it marked his first appearance there in 25 years. That orchestra’s manager, Loren Schoen-berg, told New York Times writer Peter Watrous: “Gerald’s concept is completely modern. The music he’s writing here doesn’t have much to do with the Lunceford style…. Gerald’s pieces are all extended…. They’re almost hypnotic…. Only a master can keep the interest going that long, and he does.”
Wilson’s approach is often compared to that of Duke Ellington. Each served as leader, composer, arranger and player. (Because of dental problems, Wilson laid aside his trumpet in the mid-1970s.) Like Ellington, Wilson considered his orchestra to be his main instrument, and though Wilson was never afforded the luxury of having the same instrument, with only evolutionary changes over a period of decades, his sporadic bands of the 1940s and the 1960s and beyond did attract a stable of some of the best players of the West Coast galaxy. It was for this changing cast that he wrote, and, like Ellington, he often altered arrangementsto enhance a solo or the length of a solo to enrich the arrangement.
An example of Wilson’s arranging skill for Ellington is pointed out in the five CD 1995 Smithsonian collection, Big Band Renaissance. In his collection notes Bill Kirchner wrote, “Though some listeners may be surprised to find a non Ellington/Strayhorn arrangement in an Ellington sampling, there are several reasons for inducing this recording of “Perdido”: it is an ingenious reworking of a tune introduced by the Ellington band in 1942, it enables us to hear a number of the band’s soloists, and it is an electrifying performance—one of the best recordings ever—of one of the most frequently performed themes in jazz.” Wilson’s own band is also represented in this magnum collection.
Wilson and Stan Kenton are also often compared, and not only because they plowed the same California soil. Many musicians worked in both bands at one time or another; each band was heavy on the brass; each used Latin rhythms extensively; each played its share of jazz/rock numbers; each experimented with extended works. Whereas Wilson rarely traveled, Kenton was on the road for most of his career.
Wilson stays young by mentoring young musicians. He began teaching at California State University—Northridge in 1970 and also taught at Cal State—Los Angeles, then joined the faculty of the University of California in Los Angeles in 1991. These contacts with interested students and his continuing writing provide the challenges Wilson craves. As he told DownBeat’s Stewart: “I have a big class, about 550 students, and I have fun with them…. I cover ragtime through swing in one section, bebop up through today in the other. It’s really a kick.”
Moment of Truth, Pacific Jazz, 1962.
Portraits, Pacific Jazz, 1963.
Gerald Wilson: On Stage, Pacific Jazz, 1965.
The Golden Sword, Pacific Jazz, 1966.
The Best of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Pacific Jazz, c. 1968.
Eternal Equinox, Pacific Jazz, 1969.
State Street Sweet, MAMA, 1994.
Suite Memories, MAMA, 1996.
Erlewine, Michael, et al, Eds., All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman Books, 1996.
Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz, Bonanza Books, 1965.
Gioia, Ted, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960,; Oxford University Press, 1992.
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford University Press, 1989.
DownBeat, January, 1997.
New York Times, October 20, 1988.
Kirchner, Bill, Notes for Big Band Renaissance, Smithsonian Institution, 1995.
Album Liner Notes
Moment of Truth, notes by John William Hardy, Pacific Jazz, 1962.
Portraits, notes by Eliot Tiegel, Pacific Jazz, 1963.
Torero Impressions In Jazz: The Golden Sword, notes by Leonard Feather, Pacific Jazz, 1966.
Jazz bandleader, composer, trumpeter
Jazz is often thought to be a young person's art, with soloists and bandleaders becoming best known for innovations they have developed early in their careers. In the hands of bandleader, composer, and trumpeter Gerald Wilson, however, jazz has inspired a process of lifelong musical growth over a seven-decade career. As a jazz musician, Wilson explained to the New York Times, "Your first ten years are thrown away. If you did pretty good for ten years, you're just starting." Sometimes, in other interviews, he lengthened the interval to 20 years.
Gerald Stanley Wilson was born in Shelby, Mississippi, on September 4, 1918. His mother started giving him piano lessons when he was six. The pair moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Wilson heard the then-new music of the big bands on the radio. By the time he was ten, Wilson had decided that he wanted to become a bandleader. "To tell you the truth, I don't know if I had the talent for it or not," he told the Washington Post. "Maybe I just had the will and that got me in."
That willpower led Wilson to purchase a trumpet from the Sears mail-order catalog, paying $9.95 including postage. In 1934, Wilson and his mother went north to see the World's Fair in Chicago. Wilson wanted to stay on and study music in Chicago, but his mother couldn't afford the city's top-dollar music lessons. They moved on to Detroit, where Wilson studied theory and orchestration at Cass Technical High School.
Band Members Encouraged
Wilson kept up his trumpet studies, and after finishing high school he soon signed on with a group called the Plantation Music Orchestra at one of Detroit's leading nightclubs. That propelled him to a slot with a nationally famous band, the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, which he joined in 1939. One day Wilson gave Lunceford an arrangement he had written of a tune called "Sometimes I'm Happy." The bandleader turned it down, but other band members encouraged Wilson to keep trying. He proved a quick study of what Lunceford wanted as his very next arrangement, "Hi Spook," became part of the band's regular repertoire. Wilson also contributed several original compositions to the Lunceford orchestra, one of which, the influential and modern-sounding "Yarddog Mazurka," became a jazz standard.
The atmosphere in the Lunceford band was intoxicating and did much to shape Wilson's musical imagination. "We threw the trumpets high in the air, we twirled them high up there," he told the Boston Globe. "We had all kinds of moves and put on a big show–but we played great music. Listen to it. We were the avant-garde then, and we would have two or three hits going on the jukebox at the same time."
But Wilson left Lunceford in 1942, hoping to squeeze in some touring with bandleaders Les Hite and Benny Carter before being inducted into the U.S. Navy. He then played in a band with a group of other Navy members that was led by former Lunceford sideman Willie Smith and also included future trumpet star Clark Terry. Wilson was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near his home in Detroit, but after his discharge he headed for Los Angeles and its growing jazz scene. In 1944 he formed his own big band.
This first incarnation of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra found immediate success, launching an eastward tour that stopped off for a 13-week run in Salt Lake City, Utah, and an additional two weeks in St. Louis. On another trip the group appeared at the Harlem neighborhood's famed Apollo Theater in New York. Wilson also waxed some 45 recordings with the band, as well as a number of others with smaller groups and other ensembles. Then, with his career seemingly on the rise, Wilson disbanded his orchestra. "We had over $100,000 worth of contracts," he told the Boston Globe. "But I realized I had just started and that this was not what I was looking for musically. I had to study some more."
Some of those studies occurred as Wilson joined one of the greatest of the big bands, the Count Basie Orchestra, in 1948. "They needed a trumpeter, and I wanted to sit in that band and play and learn," Wilson told the Globe. "This was the All-American rhythm section–Walter Page, Jo Jones, Freddie Green, and Count. What school could have been better than to sit right there and watch them and listen?" Wilson also played in and wrote music for the band of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, where he took the bandstand next to a radical young saxophonist named John Coltrane.
Still gathering his creative ideas as he entered middle age, Wilson took a break from music in the early 1950s. For a time he ran a small grocery store. But he kept in touch with music, soaking up new sounds as he encountered them. He immersed himself in classical music, studying the works of such modern composers as Aram Khachaturian and Manuel de Falla. On the other hand, even as many jazz musicians were rejecting popular music, Wilson contributed arrangements to recordings by Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles, and even middle-of-the-road pop-rocker Bobby Darin. "I wanted to equip myself so that whatever kind of music my client wanted to hear, I was capable of making it," he explained to the Washington Post. Some of the arrangements heard on Charles's pioneering country albums of the early 1960s were done by Wilson. Employed for a time by the Mercury and Capitol labels, he wrote movie and television scores and also became the bandleader for African-American comedian Redd Foxx at one point.
Reviving an on-and-off arranging relationship with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Wilson made his way back to jazz. Building up his sound with several smaller groups, he re-formed the Gerald Wilson Orchestra in 1961. The group recorded a series of albums on the Pacific Jazz label in the 1960s. These recordings benefited from a Latin tinge inspired in Wilson's music partly by his Mexican-born wife, Josephina. The strong vogue for Latin rhythms in the 1960s even brought Wilson a pop hit when his "Viva Tirado," from the Moment of Truth album (1962) was covered by the Latin rock group El Chicano in 1970. The album The Golden Sword (1966) contained a number dedicated to a famous Mexican bullfighter and another, the "Teotihuacan Suite," that evoked that pyramid-shaped landmark near Mexico City.
At a Glance …
Born on September 4, 1918, on Shelby, MS; raised in Memphis, TN, and Detroit, MI; married Josephina. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1942-44.
Career: Trumpeter and arranger, Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, 1939-42; formed Gerald Wilson Orchestra, 1944; trumpeter and arranger, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie bands, 1948-1951(?); arranger for pop singers including Ray Charles, 1950s-1960s; re-formed Gerald Wilson Orchestra, 1961; instructor in music, San Fernando Valley State College (later California State University, Northridge), 1970-91; instructor in music, University of California at Los Angeles, 1991–; recorded for MAMA Jazz label, 1990s.
Selected awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1982; Grammy nomination, Best Large Jazz Ensemble, for New York, New Sound, 2003.
Addresses: Label— MAMA Jazz, 12400 Ventura Boulevard, Suite 662, Studio City, CA 91604.
Work Showed Orchestral Influences
Once again, Wilson sought out new challenges instead of resting on his musical laurels. Commissioned by conductor Zubin Mehta to write a piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1972, Wilson began to stretch his wings as a composer. His original jazz pieces became substantial, complex creations that might incorporate influences ranging from classical music to rock and rhythm and blues, and his band gained a reputation as the top large ensemble on the West Coast. Talented young soloists, such as guitarist Joe Pass, vied for places in Wilson's group. "Gerald's pieces are all extended, with long solos and long backgrounds," American Jazz Orchestra saxophonist Loren Schoenberg told the New York Times in 1988. "They're almost hypnotic. Most are seven to ten minutes long. Only a master can keep the interest going that long, and he does." In 1982, Wilson was awarded a $20,000 fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The profits from his commercially successful enterprises of the 1950s and 1960s helped finance the creative experiments of Wilson's remarkable old age. "I made a good living," he told the Boston Globe. "I made a living so now I don't have to go hustling any jobs. I have written for the symphony. I have written for the movies, and I have written for television. I arrange anything. I wanted to do all these things. I've done that. Now I'm doing exactly what I want, musically, and I do it when I please."
Wilson's dense harmonies taxed musicians' abilities, but a new generation of well-schooled players learned to keep up with him. The aging Wilson had little patience for jazz nostalgia, always looking toward new sounds. "Kids play now things those guys [early jazz players] couldn't even imagine," he told the Globe. Wilson passed on a great deal of his own knowledge as a jazz educator in later years, teaching at San Fernando Valley State College (later California State University at Northridge) beginning in 1970 and later moving on to California State University at Los Angeles and finally joining the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1991. His jazz history classes there drew upwards of 500 students. He looked back on his life and career in a 1996 spoken-word release with music, Suite Memories: Reflections on a Jazz Journey.
Wilson and his orchestra recorded consistently in the 1980s and barely slowed down after that, releasing the successful State Street Sweet in 1994, following up a successful Monterey Jazz Festival appearance in 1997 with Theme for Monterey (1998), and scoring a Grammy nomination in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble category with New York, New Sound in 2003, by which time Wilson was 85 years old. "I'm constantly learning, stretching out where I've never been before," he had told the New York Times some years earlier. "I'm always figuring out new directions where to go."
Moment of Truth, Pacific Jazz, 1962.
Portraits, Pacific Jazz, 1963.
Gerald Wilson: On Stage, Pacific Jazz, 1965.
The Best of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Pacific Jazz, ca. 1968.
Eternal Equinox, Pacific Jazz, 1969.
Love You Madly, Discovery, 1981.
Orchestra of the '80s, Trend, 1983.
Jenna, Discovery, 1989.
State Street Sweet, MAMA Jazz, 1994.
Suite Memories, MAMA Jazz, 1996.
Theme for Monterey, MAMA Jazz, 1998.
New York, New Sound, Mack Avenue, 2003.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 19, Gale, 1997.
Boston Globe, November 10, 1988, p. 89.
Chicago Sun-Times, September 2, 1994, p. 55.
New York Times, October 20, 1988, p. C23; January 2, 1990, p. C17.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), February 4, 2000, p. Friday-16.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 1997, p. Datebook-51.
Seattle Times, July 21, 2000, p. H15.
Washington Post, June 5, 1996, p. C7.
"Gerald Wilson," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (November 24, 2004).
Suite Memories: Reflections on a Jazz Journey (spoken word recording), MAMA Jazz Foundation, 1996.
—James M. Manheim